The cen­sus-taker’s tale

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Iknocked on the door of a base­ment apart­ment in a dingy hall­way that smelled like old sweat socks. A gruff voice growled through the closed door. “Who is it?”

“PeterCarl­son fromtheUnited StatesCen­sus Bureau.” “I al­ready mailed in my form.” Of course he had. The kind of peo­ple­who yell at cen­sus­work­ers through locked doors al­ways say they al­ready mailed in their form.

“Ap­par­ently, we didn’t re­ceive it, sir,” I said to the door. “Can I do a quick in­ter­view with you now?” “I’m sleep­ing.” It was 10:30 in the morn­ing. “I’ll come back an­other time. When would be con­ve­nient?” “Never!” he yelled. “Don’t come back.” But I did come back. A cen­sus enu­mer­a­tor is re­quired to try three times.

“I’m busy,” he bel­lowed through that closed door on the sec­ond visit.

“Stop ha­rass­ing me,” he hollered on the third. “Go away.”

I left, think­ing, “I should come back ev­ery day un­til he opens that damn door.” But of course, I didn’t. I had other doors to knock on.

I’ma re­tired newspaperman, and I en­listed as a tem­po­rary $18.50-an-hour cen­sus­worker be­cause I fig­ured it­would be in­ter­est­ing. As ev­ery re­porter knows, it’s al­ways en­ter­tain­ing tomeet theAmer­i­can­peo­ple in all their wacky glory.

You learn a lot about your fel­lowhu­man be­ings when you take a cen­sus — and not just the an­swers to the of­fi­cial ques­tions. I spent six weeks work­ing in Mont­gomery County, Md., and here’s what I learned: The Amer­i­can peo­ple are quirky, cranky and a lit­tle para­noid. They’re also a bit con­fused about race, es­pe­cially the cen­sus’s racial cat­e­gories, but they’re sur­pris­ingly good hu­mored about it.

Of course, I saw a skewed sam­ple of Amer­i­cans. Here’s why: Ev­ery 10 years, the Cen­sus Bureau mails ques­tion­naires to ev­ery home in the nation. Roughly 70 per­cent of peo­ple promptly fill out the form and mail it back. Those folks are... well, the kind of peo­ple who promptly mail back cen­sus ques­tion­naires.

The other 30 per­cent don’t mail in the form be­cause they for­got, or they lost it, or their dog ate it, or they didn’t un­der­stand it, or they hate ques­tion­naires, or they hate the govern­ment, or they just don’t give a damn, or ... what­ever.

When the govern­ment asks Amer­i­cans to stand up and be counted, these are the folks who re­main seated. They’re also the folks who got a per­sonal visit from me — or one of the other 600,000 tem­po­rary cen­sus work­ers. The Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires that we count them whether they want to be counted or not.

Knock­ing on their doors is an ad­ven­ture. You never knowwho’ll an­swer. One­man opened the door­while brush­ing his teeth and re­sponded to allmy ques­tion­swith a big blob of bub­bly tooth­paste bob­bing up and down on his cheek. One young guy spent the en­tire in­ter­view tap­ping on his iPhone, up­dat­ing his Face­book friends about his ex­cit­ing cen­sus ex­pe­ri­ence.

A deaf and blind woman held out her hand and toldme to askmy ques­tions by slowly trac­ing each let­ter on her palm.

Onewoman in­vit­edme into her house and led me through her liv­ing room, which was piled high with pa­pers, to her kitchen, which was also piled­with pa­pers. Af­ter the in­ter­view, she asked if I’d help her with a writ­ing project.

And then therewas the old guy­who protested when I called him “sir.” He said he couldn’t stand the of­fi­cers he was forced to call “sir” back in­WorldWar II.

See? The Amer­i­can peo­ple re­ally are en­ter­tain­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, the cen­sus form pro­vides no place to cap­ture their de­light­ful quirk­i­ness.

In one neigh­bor­hood, Imet im­mi­grants from Suri­name, In­dia, Pak­istan, Brazil, Bo­livia, El Sal­vador, Peru, Le­sotho, Rus­sia, Ukraine, Malawi, Tan­za­nia, IvoryCoast and Sri Lanka— all liv­ing within a mile of one an­other. I felt pa­tri­otic know­ing they’d all cho­sen to live in this coun­try— the same coun­try my Swedish and Ir­ish grand­par­ents chose 11 cen­suses ago.

A woman from Panama told me she felt “hon­ored” to be in­cluded in the U.S. cen­sus. But other peo­ple re­fused that honor. There were lots of them — the crusty, the nasty, the para­noids muttering about the govern­ment or grum­bling, “I don’t want any­body to know where I live.” Onewom­an­waswill­ing to tellme that four peo­ple lived in her apart­ment, but she re­fused to re­veal their names. “The names are on li­censes, they’re in the schools,” she said. “Ev­ery­body knows who we are.” “I don’t know who you are,” I pointed out. “The in­for­ma­tion is avail­able,” she said as she shut the door, “but I’m not giv­ing it out.”

One guy­who re­fused to re­veal his name sug­gested an alias. “Just callme Jimmy Jones,” he said. “I don’t like the govern­ment, and I don’t like the ques­tions on the form.”

I don’t like the govern­ment ei­ther ( who does?), but come on, peo­ple, the govern­ment al­ready knows where you live. That guy who delivers your­mail— who do you­thinkhe­works for? I find it bizarre that peo­ple think noth­ing of shar­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion­with the sales­clerk who sold them a toaster, but they get all antsy when a cen­sus-taker asks their name.

I my­self got a tad para­noid dur­ing each in­ter­viewwhen I reachedQues­tion 6 on the form: “What is your race?” Race is a touchy sub­ject in Amer­ica, and it’s not some­thing I usu­ally ask strangers about while stand­ing in their door­ways. But it wasn’t a prob­lem. In fact, peo­ple seemed to have fun with the ques­tion.

A lot of white folks smiled and an­swered, “Just plain old white bread” or “Pure vanilla.” And sev­eral young black peo­ple burst out laugh­ing when they read the last word in the form’s de­scrip­tion of their race — “Black, African Amer­i­can or Ne­gro.”

When I asked a 90-year old woman the race ques­tion, she said, “Oh, I’m a Michi­gan girl.”

One old white guy iden­ti­fied his race as “homo sapien.” He said he learned on Wikipedia that it’s the only true race and we’re all in it to­gether.

I tend to agree, but the cen­sus doesn’t. The ques­tion­naire lists 12 races, plus a box la­beled “Some other race.” Sev­eral choices seem­more like na­tion­al­i­ties than races — Chi­nese, Filipino, Ja­panese, Korean— and that caused some con­fu­sion. Some peo­ple toldme their race­was Sal­vado­ran or Ira­nian.

A Korean im­mi­grant, who kept apol­o­giz­ing for her ac­cent, iden­ti­fied her­self and her hus­band asKorean. When I asked about the race of her chil­dren, she said, “Oh, they Amer­i­can.”

“Amer­i­can isn’t re­ally a race,” I said. “Amer­i­cans come in many races. Should I put down Korean for them, too?”

“No, no,” she in­sisted. “IKorean, theyAmer­i­can.”

So I checked the box marked “Some other race” and filled in “Amer­i­can.” Sounds like that old melt­ing pot is still bub­bling.

One guy told­me­he­waswhite but said­hiswife in­sisted on be­ing iden­ti­fied as Ar­me­nian.

“What about your kids?” I asked. “What should I put for them?”

He thought for a moment and then grinned. “Put down Ar­me­nian Ir­ish,” he said.

Iwrote it down, think­ing, “IsAr­me­nian Ir­ish re­ally a race?”

That seemed weird enough, but a few days later and about a mile away, it got weirder. I in­ter­viewed a guy who iden­ti­fied his race as white. His wife’s race, he said, was Peru­vian. “And the kids?” I asked. “They’re half and half,” he said. “You want me to put down half and half ?” No, he didn’t. He thought out loud for a cou­ple of min­utes. White Peru­vian? No, that­wasn’t it. Amer­i­can Peru­vian? Not re­ally. “Put down Ir­ish Peru­vian,” he said. So I did. In just six weeks of cen­sus work, I felt like I’d wit­nessed the birth of two new races. Is this a great coun­try or what?

When peo­ple get this ca­sual, this play­ful, this zany about their racial iden­tity, I think we’ve turned some kind of psy­chic corner on race in Amer­ica.

And that’s the kind of rev­e­la­tion that could serve to lessen our col­lec­tive para­noia level. (But, alas, it prob­a­bly won’t.)

I can’t wait for the 2020 Cen­sus.

Liz O. Baylen

Cen­sus Bureau work­ers took their oath at Dodger Sta­dium in Los An­ge­les on March 30.

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