Census Taker

Placeholder Image: Pike
Place Market Produce
Seattle, USA
April 9, 2009

I've just finished my first day of work--in six years. For the next eight weeks I will work as a census taker, a.k.a., enumerator, canvassing addresses around south Seattle.

Today was a training session held on the grounds of a police academy far south of Seattle. It felt a lot like going back to elementary school.

Much of the training was verbatim recitation of passages out of a thick government manual, the "D-675". I can't remember the last time I was in a meeting where people had to raise their hands to ask questions--then be called upon one-by-one. At one point, we all held one hand up to simultaneously pledge some oath--though to something other than the flag. I filled out form W-4 for the dozenth time in my life.

Beyond anything else today, it was the repeated raising of hands and asking of questions that made me feel I had returned to an elementary school classroom:

"What should we do if we're canvassing somewhere and see illegal activity?", one of my new co-workers asked.

The crew leader expounded on the standard policy:

"You can not tell anyone! We may all be federal employees now, but we are not the ones who enforce any law. It doesn't matter if you see people in some house smoking weed--or whatever.

"An employee actually got into trouble for violating her sworn oath to confidentiality a couple months ago when local police asked her for information about a house whose door she had just knocked on. She insisted that she couldn't divulge any information. The police insisted she had to. Then ultimately, after she did talk with the police she got into big trouble: for divulging confidential information."

That seemed black-and-white to me. However, another enumerator raised his hand to discern the shades of grey:

"Yeah, but what if when someone answers the door you see a child you recognize from an Amber Alert?"

I hoped nobody noticed me rolling my eyes as I contemplated what kidnapper would be dumb enough to keep an abducted child in plain view and then open the door to anybody who happened to come calling.

The crew leader kept cool, affording the question far more respect than I could have. She stated that it was a "good question" but would "have to follow up to and ask her supervisor". Rather than that answer closing the discussion, even more absurd questions followed on:

"What should we do if we see evidence of trafficked women in the homes we visit... ?"

Later in the day we were shepherded to a room in another building where our fingerprints were taken. The tall woman taking my prints had a novel approach to steadying my hand. She instructed me to stand behind her. As soon as I did, she clamped her arm around my forearm. I suppose that motion was meant to steady the impression process, but it also had the side-effect of repeatedly knocking my knuckles up against her left breast with each time she changed fingers. Was this a part of standard procedure?

If the armpit-clamp technique of taking of fingerprints is indeed standard procedure outlined in some federally-issued manual, the second set of my prints was taken incorrectly. For whatever reason the attractive, well-dressed woman who took my second set of prints was happy to do so while standing side-to-side at a more comfortable difference, without the armlock.

There will be no training session tomorrow. (Is Good Friday a federal holiday?) I'm looking forward to seeing what next week brings. If any of the next three days of training have events similar to those today I can only imagine what will be in store...