Yesterday I ended my six-week stint as an enumerator with the U.S. Census Bureau, going door-to-door as part of the constitutionally mandated decennial effort to track our population.
Despite some frustrations with the technology and with ongoing uncertainty over the timetable of our work (as it’s yet another democratic institution weaponized by this administration), I found it very rewarding.
How can constant rejection from strangers be enjoyable, you ask? Here’s how . . .
I had dozens of pleasant conversations with strangers, a rare treat during the pandemic, even though I had to wear a face mask the entire time. And the very last conversation I had yesterday had a mystical, almost spiritual element. More on that in a minute.
Here are just a few of the people I met:
a 30-something mom who sat down with me, brought out hand sanitizer and went over every detail of her family because she understood the importance of the Census;
a graduate student from another country who (and this crushed me more than a little) retrieved his green card from inside his apartment because, I suspect, he expected questions about his immigration status (no, that is not allowed);
a young man who cracked jokes the entire time he answered questions on the sidewalk in front of his home and told me about other families on the street;
a 50-ish woman who bounded down the front steps of her home (she saw my official U.S. Census bag), insisting that she and her family be counted right then and there;
and perhaps my favorite, a woman from Puerto Rico who was happy that we could conduct the entire interview in Spanish. (Those of you who know me know how important this is to me). She invited me into her apartment, put on a mask and two of her children joined us in the living room. I was on a high the rest of the day.
Here’s the thing — all of these people I just mentioned?
All but the graduate student live on the south side of Syracuse, where many white suburbanites fear to tread. And all but one of the respondents above are people of color. Why do I point that out? In part because I found it especially rewarding when I succeeded in counting those who stand to benefit most from the federal funds distributed based on Census data.
Sure, it felt good to successfully close a case no matter the location, but it felt better to do so in the neighborhoods that need more help.
(This is where I think of a couple of respondents in suburban McMansions who, while helpful, would only speak to me through their high-tech doorbell systems and couldn’t be bothered coming to the door. Maybe it’s fear of COVID, but I am skeptical. And this is where I think of my wise friend Ed’s observation that these suburban areas with huge lots and very large houses are called “developments” — not “neighborhoods.”)
OK, the somewhat mystical finish to my Census stint . . .
During my last hour of going door-to-door, I went to a residence on the city’s south side, a house that happened to be right next door to the home my father grew up in during the Depression.
The minute I pulled up to the curb, a woman emerged from “my dad’s house.” As I walked toward the assigned house next door, she saw my Census bag and signaled that she wanted to talk to me.
She wanted it known that she had filled out the Census questionnaire, as had the family in the house I was assigned to. After we talked for a few minutes about the Census, I told her that she lives in the very home my dad grew up in. She almost didn’t believe me, and then I told her something else — that 20 years ago, on this very day, my father died.
She was awestruck, then proceeded to tell me about members of her own family that had died. It was a remarkable exchange and it ended with her telling me, “Have a blessed day.”
The fact that I was assigned to that house next door, and that this wonderful woman emerged at the very moment I pulled up, gives me pause. I am not “religious” in the least, but this encounter is yet another reminder that there are forces at work that we cannot understand or control. I’m good with that.
It was a blessed day indeed.