Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Collecting data for The Man

with one comment

Myanmar is set to conduct a nationwide census from March 29 to April 10, the first such survey in 30 years. Below are a few thoughts on my experiences working as a temporary enumerator during the 1990 US census.

In 1990 I spent six months living in the small city of Gainesville in north-central Florida. As a 22-year-old college dropout who harbored a robust dedication to slackerdom, I wasn’t keen on squandering my days on full-time work, especially for the paltry minimum wage at the time of US$3.80 an hour.

For a couple of months I earned money working for a libertarian farmer who lived just outside the city – he needed help skinning goats and moving rocks from one part of his property to another. Then I heard that the US Census Bureau was hiring temporary enumerators to go door to door collecting population data. The hours were flexible, and the pay was $6 an hour.

After the short training program, I was assigned an under-served African-American neighborhood near downtown. For the next six weeks I woke up each morning, slung my official Census Bureau bag over my shoulder and made the rounds on my bicycle.

One of the first houses on my list was owned by a 40-something bachelor. When I visited, he was enjoying a front-yard cookout with some friends.

The homeowner laughed when I tried to explain, as per my official government training, that the census would help community leaders decide on the allocation of services and infrastructure projects, and would also determine the number of seats in the US House of Representatives “so your voice is heard where it counts the most”.

Pointing his barbecue-glazed spatula at the road in front of his house, he said, “I’ve spent my life paying taxes and answering census questions, and that road hasn’t been paved since I was 10 years old.” The road in question, one of the main thoroughfares through the neighborhood, did look a bit like bomb-cratered highway to hell.

Despite his resistance, the man was not belligerent: His point made, he agreed to answer my questions on the condition that I pile a Styrofoam plate with pork ribs and help myself to a beer from the cooler. (This probably went against some federal policy or another, but I was willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. Never let it be said that haven’t made sacrifices for the good of my country.)

This encounter was just one example of the way in which my census work became an extended case study in attitudes toward the government among the disenfranchised. In a related manner, as a federal employee I also became a sounding board for various societal and personal concerns among the populace.

There was the grandmother who complained about crime as she sat on her sofa with a long-barreled shotgun with easy reach of her bony hands. There were many lonely people who didn’t seem to be getting much support from anyone, like the elderly man whose breath smelled of alcohol at 10am and who wouldn’t let me leave until I picked the image of his younger self from his fading army photos.

And nearly every day I was flagged down by young African-American men who wanted to know if there were still jobs available with the Census Bureau because there just wasn’t any steady work to found in their neighborhood. 

What I didn’t run into were any conspiracy theorists who thought the data would be used for nefarious purposes. The greatest resistance I faced came from a small crew of dropouts who lived in a compound behind a high wooden wall.

It took a fair bit of snooping before I finally found a gate leading into the property. On the other side was a dirt parking lot bordered by trees, and the only vehicle in evidence was a beat-up Volkswagen microbus.

The only person I saw was a little girl, maybe 10 years old, who was standing among the trees, watching me. She had blonde, stringy hair and was wearing a cotton peasant dress. I asked if her parents were around. The girl stared silently for a second or two, then turned and trotted barefoot down a dirt path leading into the forest.

I followed. She led me to a woodworking shop where a white guy with dreadlocks was handcrafting a percussion instrument destined someday to find its way into a Deadhead drum circle. I explained why I was there. Without a word, he led me back to the microbus in the parking lot and pointed to a sticker affixed to the bumper: “Don’t Stand Up and Be Counted: Boycott the 1990 Census.”

It was a bold statement, but he and his anarcho-hippie cohorts were too easygoing to resist the charms of the Census Man. They eventually abandoned their carefree hostility and answered my questions, even inviting me to leave my bike at their commune the next time I came to the neighborhood to collect information. (I imagine they’re all high-powered brokers on Wall Street by now.)  

In retrospect, working for the US Census Bureau wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. As an American who grew up in a town with a population of fewer than 6000 people, more than 90 percent of whom were white, I found that knocking on the doors of strangers in a marginalized neighborhood brought me into contact with people I otherwise never would have met.

It opened my eyes to the brilliant, sometimes heartbreaking diversity of the world, and I’ve never stopped exploring it since.

Written by latefornowhere

January 27, 2014 at 4:38 am

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Beautifully written. I enjoyed this piece very much. Thanks for sharing.
    As years go by I find I have less and less respect for politicians.
    In Australia there has just been a survey completed on the backgrounds of serving politicians. Overwelminglý they come from a very narrow range of occupations – lawyers, former political staffers, union bureacrats as distinct from shop floor workers, accountants. There was not one person from a nursing background, few ex’teachers, only one had ever been a tradesman.
    They are divorced from the concerns of every day people.



    March 9, 2018 at 9:43 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: