The Divine Impermanence of Being a Census Worker

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Day two of our Census Bureau training, fingerprinted and cleared, it was time to briefly introduce ourselves and tell the group why we were here. I was first. I reached for the only shred of experience I'd had with the Census Bureau. Ten years ago I was living in a shack on my grandparents' Ozark property -- a place so overgrown I usually missed the turnoff -- when a man from the Census showed up. I held up my hands, shaking them, to show how he'd trembled in terror when he stepped from his car. The day before, down another remote road, an anti-government militia with AK-47s had ambushed him. "So," I finished, "since then I've had a burning passion for the Census adventure."

Our instructor turned to the guy next to me, who stood, said "paycheck," and sat back down. "I think it's safe to say that's why we're all here," the instructor muttered. Everyone agreed, aside from a couple of defiant middle-aged women who declared that they were here to get to know the community.

We were re-interviewers, our mission to spot-check data the first waves of Census enumerators had scared up. Training wasn't much more interactive than listening to verbatim readings from two manuals that our instructor shook at us, a demoralized Moses with perfect bound books full of commandments, though there was only one that really mattered: no overtime, never, DO NOT CLAIM OVERTIME. Our black and white shoulder bags we packed as a group. A team leader asked us to note our reclose-able plastic baggies of pencils, and, leaving nothing to chance, instructed us not to empty the contents into our shoulder bags, as loose pencils would roll around the bottom of a bag.

I've been in the field since, long enough to absorb a few more useful bits of knowledge. Newly arrived in Washington, I've learned that those women in training were on to something. It might seem obvious, but a great way to get the lay of the land city is to drive its back streets, stopping at homes of strangers to ask if they consider themselves to be male or female, what races they'd like to claim, if they've lived somewhere else during the year including jail, prison, or a nursing home, and--when you're wrapping things up--whether there are any babies in the house they've forgotten to mention.

My small crew meets each morning at 8:15 at a McDonald's where we turn in completed cases -- those for which we've finally buttonholed a householder -- to the crew leader, a trained actor who fields our queries with Old Hollywood gravitas; only when he's found another ding in his Civic does he break character, falling into unactorly grousing. We swap stories over a syrup-gummed four-top: no militias yet, but we have had our share of doozies. The man who left me a perfectly printed note atop the Notice of Visit I had slipped under his door -- hours before being arrested and jailed, I learned from neighbors -- was more gracious than another woman who screamed that her boyfriend was going to take care of me, a threat issued straight from the nose as her eyes stared in opposite directions like a hammerhead shark's. One of my colleague's occupants told her to go away and then waited her out behind his door. But she's a 61-year-old bewigged karate brown belt who moonlights as a security guard, and has a few tricks of her own. She had worn jeans on her first visit to his house, but surveying the upscale neighborhood, decided to adjust her look for the next. Gussied up in a church dress and fresh wig, she returned. The man opened the door and greeted her like a friend, tut-tutting about the grubby girl who'd come the night before. He wouldn't let that one in.

We might seem like an odd bunch, with our dented fleet of emissions-test-failing cars, but for now, we're the demographers who are mapping the country's human geography. Not for long, though. Another great lesson of the summer is on the Divine Impermanence of being a Census worker. In May there were nearly 600,000 of us earning paychecks across the United States -- a number large enough to ratchet down the unemployment rate by 0.2 percent. But even now our numbers are eroding: in weeks only a few thousand enumerators will be left to follow up on fewer than 20 million residences of the original 130,000,000. Come September, the last door will have been knocked upon. The Census website provides a page for former employees back in the job market that lists our various job titles along with bulleted duties and the stern directive to "copy and paste only the information describing tasks you actually performed into your resume."

The past weeks have also revealed the Impermanence of most Washingtonians, who seem never to be home and indeed to have a Buddha-like detachment from sleep, food preparation, and other people. For upwardly mobile whites living on Capitol Hill, the mark of achievement appears to be living alone, regardless of how isolated and ill-lit the apartment. The farther I go from downtown, however, the more intricate become the household counts. At the city's edge one morning, a very young woman answered her door in cartoon-printed pajamas and a headscarf. Too shy and sleepy to refuse, she sat on the porch and answered my questions. Her boyfriend's grandmother owned the house and lived there with several relatives, including the boyfriend. Realizing that the girl was not only the youngest in the household but the only one not related by blood, I asked if this was where she lived and slept most of the time, Census-speak for permanent address. She glanced at the front door. "I ain't going nowhere." The way she said it, I swear she was staking a claim.
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Darcy Courteau is a fiction writer and essayist living in Washington, D.C. Her most recent work has appeared in Oxford American, New Orleans Review, and The Wilson Quarterly.

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