Tuesday, July 29, 2003


My wife just fished my old census worker bag out of the closet this past weekend. I'm kind of a pack rat, so it's not unusual for such relics to show up out of the flotsam and jetsam of our closets. But I was surprised at the number of memories it brought back. My sister Elizabeth and I both worked for the census in 1990. We were both going to the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and needed money over the summer months when we weren't in class and didn't have financial aid.

Going door-to-door asking people personal questions about their lives and finances has got to be one of the best jobs for a writer. Depending on the neighborhoods we covered, we got to see the full diversity of people in Gainesville. Usually, we split up, Elizabeth covering one area and me another. At that time, I didn't drive, so she'd drop me off before going on to her own assignment. It was like parachuting into some foreign land. I'd get out of the car armed with my census satchel, my notepad of questionnaires, my pencils, a map, and a print out showing which addresses I was supposed to take care of that day. At the end of the day, Elizabeth would come get me at a pre-arranged location and we'd report in to the section leader with our information. Usually, the section leader was operating out of an apartment dumpier than ours and you'd have a real sense that the information you'd gathered might or might not make it back to HQ.

That job that summer was one of the most pleasant experiences I've ever had. It was the middle of summer, and hot. But it wasn't the kind of heat that shimmers and distorts--it was a still kind of heat, a utilitarian heat, through which objects and places became more, not less, clear. This clarity leant itself to the collection of details, and I remember a kind of rising excitement and, dare I say it, glee, because by the end of summer, I would have a whole catalog of new moments to plug into my short stories. I couldn't have been happier if I'd been lying back on soft pillows being fed cliched grapes by beautiful naked women.

What did the job consist of? Basically, I got to walk around all day in strange places knocking on people's doors. I'd go from upscale condo sections of town to half-deserted trailer parks to lower middle-class families in small concrete houses. I met everyone from a harried stay-at-home mom dealing with three small children to a man who was convinced that the CIA was after him. I met landlords who openly told me they'd never rent to an African-American. I entered what was basically a crackhouse only to find the inhabitants too wasted to answer any questions. I met a Chinese woman as fragile as a thrush who was literally shaking with fear because she thought I was an INS agent, even as she answered my questions in a small voice. I interviewed nine mechanics living in one tiny mobile home. Outside, they had two Mercedes and three BMWs, which they owned. They could have sold the cars and probably gotten much better housing, but they didn't give a crap about their housing--they wanted nice cars. (How could I judge? All I wanted were nice books.)

Two incidents stand out vividly against this backdrop, one serious, one funny. First, I entered this broken down mobile home park to interview just one resident--this was a call-back. Another census worker had already covered the mobile home park, but this particular person hadn't answered her door. So she comes out and she's ancient--she's got to be in her 80s, very fragile bone structure, and these large glasses with very thick lenses and thick dark frames. Through them, her eyes seemed to be miles away. She had on a housecoat, I can't remember the color, and she had homemade bandages covering both of her hands. She did not seem in distress, but she was very happy to see someone. She had trouble communicating--sometimes I could understand her and sometimes I couldn't. She would stop and start in her speech, as if she wasn't used to regular conversation anymore. And there I was, with all of these questions. I don't know if she was excited about that, or disappointed at the type of questions. For yes and no questions she would just nod or shake her head, as if she knew that she was having difficulty talking. I didn't get the sense that she was mentally impaired, although I did suspect she might slip in and out of dementia. Eventually, I found out during the course of questioning that she had burnt her hands on the stove, both hands. She held her hands in her lap, palms up. Her hands in those thick windings of bandages were so huge lying in her tiny lap. She was two hands and these huge glasses. I asked if she needed help and she shook her head. I caught the same whiff of fear I caught off of many of the elderly people I interviewed. If the Chinese woman had thought the INS was going to deport her, then the elderly feared that someone would report they were not competent to live on their own. Eventually, I had asked my questions. It was time to leave. I said goodbye and walked off. When I looked back after taking thirty or forty steps, she was still standing at the door to her mobile home, with her large, bandaged hands hanging off of her slack arms. I really felt this unbelievable sense of sorrow at that moment, as if I were looking back at an image of pure loneliness. It was an absurd emotion to have in some ways, because I didn't know that much about her. For all I knew, she had friends who came to look in on her from time to time. But my gut told me she didn't have anyone, and hadn't had anyone for some time. When I got back to HQ, I told them about the woman, and they contacted someone in social services to check up on her. All night, I kept thinking the usual thoughts, that she'd once had a family, that this could be anyone's fate, given a bad break of luck, the wrong things happening at the wrong moment. Somehow, the image of her standing at the door to her mobile home staring after me became a spectre at my shoulder thereafter, and I didn't like my solitude trudging down strange streets quite as much. For me, it was a luxury--I was just doing it for lark and to make some money. What if I had no choice but to do that?

The other thing I remember happened before I met the old woman, when I was digging the job a bit more. I was in such a groove, so deep into my thoughts that sometimes it seemed like I just magically appeared before the next door--there was no walking, because while I was walking I was thinking or so not thinking that it didn't seem like time had passed. The danger of this did not occur to me until I walked up to one house and knocked on the door only to get no response--after several minutes and more knocking. Then I saw that this chain had been attached to one of the poles supporting the porch. Oh, thought I, well maybe if I follow the chain, I'll find someone. So, like some kind of sun-drugged zombie, I followed the chain into the backyard...where it ended, predictably enough, attached to the collar of a Rottweiler. I looked at the Rottweiler. The Rottweiler looked at me. It began barking and running toward me at the same time I began running back into the front yard. I managed to elude the extremity of its reach at the end of the chain just in time. I'd dropped some of my pencils, but I wasn't going back for them. As I walked down the street on very shaky legs, I started laughing. I couldn't stop for quite some time, because I was reliving the insane series of "logical" assumptions that had led to me following a very obvious dog chain into that backyard. It might have more sense if I'd been smoking marijuana or something--oh, cool, look, a chain. Let's follow that and see what happens.

In general, though, the job was uneventful. I still remember the genuine feeling of anonymity it gave me, and the resulting thrill. I was a phantom passing through, just an anonymous voice prepared to ask questions. I'd never meet any of these people again. I'd probably never walk any of these streets again. The heat was utilitarian, and so were my questions, but my body was ethereal, a mirage. I got some great writing done that summer, just topnotch. I think it had to have been because of the walking, just getting into a kind of receptive, almost trance-like state.

Most writers have had more than their share of interesting jobs. From time to time, I may write about more of mine--from writing letters to Michael Jackson for one employer who wanted to increase the use of small aircraft, to an ectoplasmic-walled hotel built for midgets encountered on one business trip, to the madman who once wanted to beat the shit out of me in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Ft. Myers, to my stint at Book Warehouse, otherwise known as the Devil's Armpit of remaindered bookstores...But more on all of that later.



At 1:45 PM, Blogger Cody said...

Wow, pretty interesting experience you had there. Thanks for sharing. :)

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At 10:45 AM, Blogger Stephen said...

Great article! Thanks for sharing!


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