My grandpa was a statistician, a Tabulation Expert, who worked for the census department. He was a clever man. I remember sliding around in the smooth leather back seat of his boat sized Cadillac inhaling the smoke from his Kools while puzzling out math problems or trying to name all the states that start with the letter M.
Professor Google cites several publications featuring his name, mostly having to do with Univac. Family lore says he was instrumental in purchasing F.O.S.D.I.C., one of the first computers used by the US government, affectionately known as Fearless Fosdick. It was twice the size of my bedroom and probably only had a fraction of the power of the Texas Instruments calculator I used in high school trigonometry, but still an important stone in the foundation of the coming technological revolution. I found a picture of it on the census website; I’m pretty sure the person operating it isn’t grandpa.
So when an ad for census enumerators popped up on my computer last fall, I applied. I thought it would be fun, or at least interesting. I’m a big fan of new experiences, particularly unexpected ones. And one of the things I love about Hawaii is the broad variety of its people. I looked forward to meeting some of them and maybe seeing how they live.
Because of Covid, all training was done online. It provided useful information on how to enumerate large apartment buildings (there are none anywhere near here) and advised me to watch out for moose when I’m driving. (I kid you not.) Then there was a 3.5 hour conference call where a group of us listened to a guy reading instructions from a script and not knowing the answers to any of our questions. I never said a word; instead I used the time for Messenger chat and did my nails. But when that was done, I was an official enumerator armed with a laminated picture ID and government issue iphone.
I headed out on my first day with a positive attitude and a sense of anticipation. My very first case had already been visited several times. The case file said the people were belligerent, anti-government screamers. I don’t know if this was meant to be trial by fire or just the indifference of Big Brother. Either way, I sat in the car staring at the house for a long time, searching for the confidence to knock on the door. When I finally did, nobody was home but there was a dog whining piteously behind the door. The profound misery in its voice stayed with me for the rest of the day.
Most people fill in their census forms without any prodding. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the people who hadn’t done that didn’t want to be counted. I had been trained to explain how the census is good for all of us and that their personal information would be treated with absolute confidentiality, both by me and by the department. But I didn’t feel good about telling people to trust a government that is not to be trusted, at least not in the current climate, maybe not ever.
Only one person was flat out hostile. Several were rude. A couple of times I saw shadowy faces behind twitching curtains but nobody came to the door; those people deserved to have their solitude respected. Many of the places I visited appeared empty, overgrown and forlorn, but that didn’t necessarily mean nobody lived there; I was obliged to knock anyway, sometimes stepping gingerly over weeds and broken glass. Dogs barked. Bugs bit. Neighbors eyed me suspiciously. I drove down rutted, unpaved roads past rusting cars and found myself praying that certain addresses wouldn’t pop up in my list. More and more, I realized I was drawing too much on my shallow well of courage, trying not to admit how scared I was and how much the job was costing me.
I could have lied, said that I had visited places I hadn’t, but like so many others, I didn’t want to go down that road.
My final case on my fourth day was a friendly fellow who told me a bit about the neighborhood, its drug problems and psychoses and other woes, then he looked me in the eye and said with gentle concern, “You shouldn’t be doing this job. It’s too dangerous.” And I realized he was right. I would say 99% of the people I talked to were good folks, mostly not really understanding what the census is or why it matters, but the other 1% was the variable I couldn’t justify. With genuine sadness in my heart and a little disappointment in myself, I contacted my supervisor and resigned, saying I didn’t have the stamina to fulfill the 20 hour weekly minimum. Kudos to her that she didn’t argue.
My grand career as a government employee lasted a whopping four days but at least I tried. I think grandpa would have given me credit for that.