Census Taker V

Sunset View from my Studio
Seattle, USA
May 3, 2010

Why do I feel so energized now? It must be several things coming together:

This is the first day in years I've ridden my bicycle all around Seattle. I happened to catch all the sun-breaks and miss all the showers while wheeling around town. I'm also enjoying having a project (census-taking) to focus on. I'm earning a wage for the first time in a year. But above all, I think I feel good because all the doors I've knocked on have been flung wide open, welcoming me in for census-taking.

Every house I've visited has been so welcoming and supportive of the census. I guess the recent barrage of promotional campaigns flooding the country must have worked. Rather than standing out on the doorstep, clipboard in-hand, I've received an invitation inside to complete the questionnaire from 100% of the homes I've called on. Sometimes people offer me something to drink; sometimes I accept, then linger and chat.

Everybody has something specific they want to share about themselves. The first interview I did was with a gay couple who had completed their questionnaire--but never mailed it in. My present job is to ask 10 questions in-person, the same questions asked by the survey this couple had completed yet never mailed back. They were hemming and hawing over which box to check: which box best defined their relationship. "In the end we just checked the 'unmarried partner' box," the young man I was interviewing told me. "But, isn't there some greater way to express our commitment on your form... ?"

The next day I pedalled up to another house. Inside, I found a man and woman who were returning from work. Both in their forties, they could have been poster-people for an informational campaign run by the census. They actually told me, "We want to be counted! We know that this will mean more funding for our neighborhood. We support the census!"

This couple's particular point of pride was that they too were unmarried. "We think it's really good that this information about our status is out there," they told me. "We've been together for 16 years now--is there any way we can mention that on the questionnaire?"

They invited me to stay for tea.

The next address I called on housed three generations: from the 91-year old matriarch to the middle-aged mother to the teenaged grandson. They too backed the census, allowing me in for an interview--even though I arrived as the mother was stepping out the front door to keep an appointment. The aspect this family most wanted to share: their race.

"What ethnicity do you consider yourself?", I asked the woman representing the middle generation. "I. Am. Black.", she answered with conviction. "And my son: you can mark that he's black, and Momma: you be sure to check that she's black, too."

I rode several blocks south to interview a woman originally from East Africa in her early twenties. When she filled January 1 in as her birthdate, I was about to remark that she was born on New Year's Day--but at the last second decided not to say anything. She'd probably heard other people make that comment so many times before; it really wasn't so remarkable. But, when she listed her boyfriend's birthday as January 1 of the previous year--I was glad I chose not to say anything.

Two birthdays on New Year's Day seemed like too much of a coincidence. I reasoned that they perhaps came here as refugees, escaping some land where the dates when children are born go unrecorded.

The funniest interviewee must have been a man in his mid-twenties. I caught him as he was getting out of his car, returning from work. His suit was nicer than anything I've ever worn. He welcomed me into his home, which had a nice rack full of wine bottles just off the main sitting room.

At the end of the interview, I asked the standard question that ensures nobody who might stay at a residence had been left out:

"We do not want to miss any people who might have been staying here on April 1. Were there any additional people that you didn't mention, for example:"

Foster children?
Any other relatives?
Any other nonrelatives?
How about anyone else staying here on April 1 who had no permanent place to live?

It was when I asked the final part of the question that he hesitated for the first time. The answer to every previous category had been a quick "no". He drew back with a smug smile. Pondering, he looked at me.

"You know, I think I had a girl over that night. Do we... ?", he said half-smirking.

"Well. I do hope she sent her census form in."

We chuckled and shook hands. I hopped on my bike and rode along to the next address.