R Scott Okamoto
My Census Story: Why I Hate Most of the World- Part One
When I think back on the five total weeks I spent as a census worker, I remember an endless string of angry, mean, suspicious and scared people, punctuated by a handful of beautiful human connections. I felt raging anxiety and fear knocking on every single door. It could have been a lovely house with a beautiful yard and an ornate double door that costs more than my car. It could have been a splintered mobile home on cinder blocks surrounded by dusty corn fields. And everything in between. It really didn’t matter because walking up to any house, my Census enumerator clipboard, government-issued iphone, and sling bag at the ready, I felt that combination of anticipation and dread. Some doors were opened by smiling, friendly people who offered me a cold drink and were happy to complete the interview. Some doors were opened by a hostile, violent sociopath who would do me harm. Most often the door opened by someone annoyed at being bothered. I would learn to feel fortunate when the “respondent” was simply annoyed.
It’s wildly ironic that I took a job where I have to knock on strangers’ doors because I hate salespeople, other than neighborhood kids, and I’ve been known to be politely vicious to any religious doorknockers. You don’t want to come to my door with a half-baked theology. I will destroy you. Politely. Seriously. Ask Geri about the Mormon missionary who burst into tears on our porch.
So, part of my troubles with working for the Census begins with my own self-loathing. I became what I loathe. Knock knock. “Hi, good afternoon, my name is Robbin Okamoto, and I’m with the U.S. Census Bureau. I’m here to complete an interview for 123 Happy St.”
Most of the time, it went downhill from there.
But my purpose in writing this series of posts is not to just vent about the horrible experiences of doing this shitty job. There were moments of pure joy in human connection that made me re-examine my worldview. Although for every one of those joyous connections with positive forces in the universe, there were a dozen confirmations that humanity is a fucked up wasteland of narcissistic, selfish, fearful, ignorant people. Granted, the sample is skewed towards that side of the universe when it comes to the doors we have to knock on.
So how does one find oneself in the employ of the U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau? First, he, er one, must be lost and have some time on his hands. And it’s not necessary, but I wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of doing this if we didn’t have two kids in college. Um. I mean one might not have entertained…ok, ok, I’m just talking about me. Whatevs. Not everything in this story is universally relatable.
Back at the beginning of 2020, I saw an ad that said they were hiring all positions for the 2020 Census. Figuring I was going to have a relatively free summer, I applied for an administrative position. I didn’t hear back for a couple of months. One Friday night, I saw that our home phone had a message. I listened to an out of breath woman who gave her name and some reference number and asked me to call her back at the Pasadena Census office. It was around 7 when I saw the message, so I assumed it was too late to call. I called the next morning, and this should have been a red flag. I gave my name, the woman’s name, and the reference number to the man who answered. He had no idea what I was talking about. The reference number? He didn’t know what that was referring to. “Did she say what she was calling about?” he asked. She did not. He said he was sorry that he couldn’t help me. Cool.
Three months later…
I got a call saying I was considered an official applicant to be a Census enumerator. No mention of any other positions, so I thought about it and figured I would apply and see what happened. This was the end of July. So, I filled out the application online and submitted all the stuff for the background check. Things moved quickly after that. I passed the background check and went to Office Depot to get my fingerprints and ID photo taken. I was then instructed to report to an orientation meeting at Occidental college on a Friday afternoon. Under a big tent in a field, in near 100-degree heat, I sat in a socially distanced arrangement of school desks with about 25 other people. They were mostly older than I, and mostly women, though it was quite racially diverse.
Masked, sweaty people gave short talks about the job and walked us through some forms for taxes and instructions for our little red iphone xs with official Census stickers, and within 30 minutes, we were being sworn in as federal employees. Damn. I was a Fed. I was the man. Not the good kind.
After an hour, which was severely shortened from a 3-hour training in pre-pandemic times, we were sent home and told we had 5 days to complete the online training. I spent the next 3 days slogging through the videos and quizzes about how to be an enumerator. It seemed simple enough. Knock on the door, show your badge, follow the script, and enter all the information into our trusty iphones. The nice woman in the video goes to various doors and encounters the various situations we might encounter. Except she doesn’t. Not even close.
Sure, they covered the basic skeptical person answering the door who can be easily convinced to complete the survey. They even showed someone refuse to do the survey. But the reality of what was out there, waiting for us to face…nope. For starters, hidden houses, apartment complexes with security doors, rabid dogs, houses that don’t exist, houses behind other houses on the same lot, conspiracy theorists…the list goes on and on.
I finished the training and passed all the quizzes quickly. Then I had to join a conference call with a bunch of other people like me and a supervisor who reviewed everything and had a few of us role play the scenarios, again, none of which were realistic. The supervisor even pretended to be antagonistic, but everyone kind of laughed at how ridiculous she sounded. We should have listened and dug into those scenarios. But what did we know?
I passed the “capstone” exam, and I was then upgraded to an active enumerator. All of this in one week. On my census iphone, I got a group text from a woman named Genalyn who said we should enter our availability for the week ahead. There were over 30 people on the text thread, and several people immediately wrote back saying they had decided not to work for the census. I later learned that there are many people who do the job for one day and quit. One of our neighbors did this because, in addition to hating the job, his supervisor would not work around his school schedule. More on that later.
My plan was to work the minimum 20 hours each week. But then they sent notice of a bonus of an extra $100 each week if we worked 25 hours and completed .75 cases per hour. And if we reached that number 3 weeks in a row, there would be an extra $500. Nothing like the prospect of extra money to make an already stressful job even more stressful.
Monday morning, my phone had a notice, saying I had no cases, due to a lack of work available. Great start. Later that morning, I looked again and it said I had cases. I jumped in my car with all my official census gear: a briefcase shoulder bag filled with forms, a clipboard, my official ID badge, some hand sanitizer, and a mask. All the addresses were within a mile of my house. I had around 40 cases on my app, and I had planned to work around 5 hours. The goal of completing .75 cases each hour seemed easy enough. In fact, the very first address I went to the woman answered the door and said she had worked as an enumerator in 2010. It was beyond easy. One door knocked on. One case complete. It took 5 minutes.
I didn’t complete another case in the next 2 hours. I went to houses. I went to apartments. I slipped into a gated apartment complex when someone left. This first day was quite informative. If someone answers the door, they are not thrilled to be bothered. They see my badge and listen to the first sentences of my script and are immediately annoyed. They’ll say they already completed their census survey, or that they plan to do so online. Or, they’ll tell me why they don’t trust me and /or the federal government with their information. And these are people with driver’s licenses, social media accounts, and smart phones who are worried about the government knowing their names, ages, and races. Some go to great lengths to explain why they can’t fill out their survey with me. I heard excuses of all lengths, from “My wife is very sick and I need to take care of her because she had this surgery on her back which was very serious and I have to give her meds…” or “I’m on a very important work call right now,” or “Can you come back later?” It’s never a polite explanation, either. Their faces are always angry, like I’m some horrible person who would dare keep a man from caring for his gravely ill wife, or I’m trying to ruin someone’s career because I want them to take 5 minutes to fill out a census questionnaire.
I would later observe that a person’s level of animosity was proportional to how full of shit they were. People who really did fill out their census or really were too busy, were generally pleasant. One man opened the door to his rather dilapidated back house/shack in his underwear with two naked shouting toddlers. He was about to give them a bath. He was apologetic and said he would gladly fill out the survey with me in about an hour. And he did.
So, in the five hours I worked that first day, I had a grand total of 3 completed surveys. Looking ahead to the rest of the week, I felt despair and anxiety. Despair that I wasn’t even close to being on pace to get the bonus, and anxiety because my nerves were completely frayed from knocking on doors for five hours. How would I make it through 20 more hours of this?
Side note: Big iron security doors suck ass. They make NO SOUND no matter how hard you knock on them. My knuckles were bruised after knocking on a few before I wised up and started using my clipboard to bang on them.
That night, I had trouble going to sleep. When I closed my eyes, I kept seeing the faces of annoyed and angry people. And I dreamed of addresses I could not find. Many addresses are hard to find. There could be a complex of apartments with five units. The numbers could be 156, 157, 157a, 168c, and 205b. 205b may or may not be on a second floor. The numbers may or may not be on the doors. I spent 20 minutes walking around a property like this, trying to find one of the numbers. Each neighbor told me something different. And lurking behind each door in my dreams was animosity. These kinds of dreams would dominate my nights of sporadic sleep for the next five weeks.
Hitting My Stride
It became clear to me on that first day that the days and weeks ahead were going to be filled with interesting people, to say the least. Here are the types of people I encountered: 1. The best cases were normal people who had meant to fill out the census, but for whatever reason, work, family, medical scare, the pandemic… they never got around to it. These people were pleasant and usually happy to take a few minutes to complete their census. These people were also extremely rare. 2. People who weren’t aware of the census, but were intimidated by my badge and tote bag enough to let me interview them. They may have been a little skeptical, but they answered the questions while asking lots of questions of their own. 3. People who think they know better. They know the government is trying to pull a fast one on them, and they tell me things like, “Yeah, nice try, buddy” or “I pay my taxes. You don’t need me to fill out a census.” 4. Anti-government/tin-foil hat wearers. These people freaked me out because they looked both pissed and terrified when they answered the door. Some people said things like, “Oh hell no. Go away!” or “Nope, nope, nope…” and slammed the door. 5. People like me who hate people knocking on our door. If I answered the door to a census worker, I would politely tell them I would fill it out online. And many people did just that. We were told in memos from the higher ups that we should push to make them let us interview them, but I never pushed it. Unless case notes indicated that they had already been visited multiple times. In those cases, I tried to reason with them that they could take a few minutes and fill it out with me, or they could keep having census workers come to their door for the next few weeks. And it sometimes worked.
I was exhausted after that first afternoon out. I had started at around 2, and it was around 100 degrees outside. I finished at 7, and I came home, drenched in sweat and pretty darn despondent at having only completed 3 surveys. Part of me wanted to call my Census Field Supervisor (CFS) and tell her I didn’t want to do this. But the combination of good ol’ greed for a potential bonus and a writer’s masochistic curiosity to see just how fucked up this world might be kept me going.
The next couple of days were scorchers, reaching 112 degrees. All my cases were in my neighborhood, and I stupidly decided to just walk. It was just easier than getting in my car and driving half a block every 5 minutes. I wore my wide-brimmed fishing hat, some moisture-wicking shirts, my hiking hydration pack with 1.5 liters of water, and headed out.
Do you really know your neighborhood? I thought I did. I walked up and down my street and noticed houses and buildings I had not noticed before. Well, let me backtrack. I walked my street multiple times. Our iphones had an app that told us our cases. The cases were listed in an order that they told us to follow for maximum efficiency. Whatever fucked up computer decided the order of that list had to have been whacked with a radioactive, satanic magnet several times. Following the list, I walked about ¼ mile south down my street. Then back up to the main street near my house to hit places on both the north and south sides of the 4-lane boulevard, only to then backtrack down my street again even farther down. On the way down I snuck into a gated apartment complex to knock on two doors and got one completed interview. I was then sent back up to my block and then back to the main street to a building I had already been in. And then I was sent back down to the locked apartment complex where this time I could not find a way inside. If I had just seen the two address way down the list, I could have knocked on all four doors when I was there the first time. Indeed, I walked up and down my street four times. I passed an old man on his porch each time. One of the times, he asked if I had lost something. Just my dignity, sir. Just my dignity. I learned to ignore the order and plot out a rational course each day.
At that locked apartment complex the first time, I was standing at the call box, which was not in operation. I was pushing buttons, trying to see if the screen would activate, but nothing. An older woman peeked out of her door just beyond the gate and asked if I had packages to deliver. I told her I was with the U.S. Census Bureau, and she let me in. I realized her apartment was one of the two addresses on my list, so we sat socially distanced in the courtyard under an umbrella.
She was pleasant enough. I learned she was in her mid 60’s. When we got to the questions about race, she tensed up. She asked what the Census was for. I was a little shocked, realizing that a woman who had lived through 5 previous censuses still didn’t know what it was. She was a middle class white woman. But she told me she was definitely not white, despite her very common anglo-saxon surname. In fact, she said she was offended to even be asked what her race was. I surreptitiously just clicked the box for “white” and completed the survey. She then ranted about the government and how wasteful it was. She wanted me to enter into her case that she was very uncomfortable with the whole darn thing. I pretended to enter something in the case notes, but really, I had exited out and was just pantomiming typing with all seriousness.
For the rest of the day and most of the sleepless night I pondered why an older white woman would take offense at being asked her race. I’m not white, so I guess I just don’t understand.
Other notable observations during these few days in my neighborhood were noticing that many houses smelled of marijuana. At all hours of the day. My neighborhood FTW! Also, about a quarter of all households in the Los Angeles area have a smoke alarm that needs a new battery. It’s possible there is a correlation between acclimating to intermittent ear-splitting beeping and non-respondency with the census survey. Someone should look into that.
A weed encounter. I knocked. Before I was done with my second knock, the door opened, and a happy guy came out in a fog of smoke and sat on a bench on the enclosed porch. “Wow, it’s hot out here,” he said when he noticed me. Turns out, he didn’t hear a knock. He was just coming out for some fresh air while I was knocking. I did my thing and he said, “Cool.” We completed the survey, even though he had a hard time remembering his girlfiend’s birthday. It took a second to remember his own birthday. After we finished, we chatted a bit. As I turned to leave, he said, “So, what was this for?” It was 11am.
Worst Day/Best Day
After a few hours of walking in 110+ degree heat, a hydration pack’s contents becomes 110+ degrees itself, leaving the hapless census enumerator to suck down hot water to keep hydrated. Throughout the hot days, my CFS would text the team, “Be safe! Stay hydrated!” They really look out for us. So helpful.
The second day was actually quite successful. I had gotten twelve cases in a retirement home on the first day. All had been attempted multiple times with the case notes saying no one was allowed entry due to the pandemic, and I couldn’t figure out how to get in. I got the cases again on the second day, and the gardener told me the manager’s office was around the corner. I went to the office and spoke to a manager and asked about the addresses, but she refused to tell me anything. Angrily. She told me other census workers had already talked to her, and that all the people on the case list had died of the corona virus. That didn’t sound right. All of them? The woman, like so many others, was bent on making me feel bad for trying to get this information. How dare I ask about dead people! I went home for lunch and thought about it. I had taken down the phone number of the office, which was written on the door, and I called it, hoping to talk to another person. Luckily, another woman answered, and she was quite friendly. I kind of lied and told her that I had spoken to the other woman and had arranged to get the information by phone, so as to observe social distancing during the pandemic and the heat. I gave my Census ID number and tried to sound “official.” She ended up giving me the information of all twelve cases, none of whom had died. I was back in the game for the bonus. I should note that managers of multi-unit housing properties are obligated by law to provide the census with information. But there is no process of penalizing them when they don’t. And they almost never help.
Looking at you Bevin and Brock, one of the biggest property owners in Pasadena. No help from them. Zero cooperation. You cost a lot of census workers a lot of bonus money, assholes… I mean, you cost the state of California a lot of federal money for infrastructure and education.
While sucking down my hot water and wiping sweat from my brow on the third day, I drove about half a mile down Orange Grove to a group of cases. It was a decent morning. I used my Spanish to enumerate a couple of addresses. I learned to desperately hope for a small number when asking how many people lived at the address. One or two? Awesome. Only a few minutes.
One young man who said he was 17, answered the door. He was extremely polite and knew all about the census. When I asked him how many people lived at this address he thought for a moment. My heart sank as he counted his fingers. Over and over. “Thirteen,” he finally said. For the next twenty minutes, this young man named all twelve other people. He knew most of their birthdays. And one shitty feature of the Census app is that you have to enter “Hispanic or Non-hispanic” for each person, and then you have to manually write in their ethnicity. So, I had to write in “Mexican American” for all thirteen people. On a tiny iphone in the blazing sun.
I would learn to suppress my urge to hug people when they answered, “Just me,” to the question of how many people lived at the address. Pandemic, you know.
One case had me walking into a church parking lot to a house in the corner of the lot. Case notes said it had been visited a few times, but no one had answered. I saw a woman in the window, and I waved to get her attention. She came out frowning with her hands outstretched. Not a good sign.
She basically shouted at me that the census had no right to harass them because this was not a residence. It was just a cottage the church used for official business. I pointed out that the house had its own address. This made her even more mad. The census is wasting taxpayer money sending people like me to waste time because, as she said, there was no one living in this house. They use the “cottage” for prayer meetings. Prayer! And why do we even bother doing a census anyway?
I told her it was to get money and representation, blah, blah, blah. This enraged her. The government will just waste it anyway!
I was tired, sweaty, and stressed out. I don’t believe in god, certainly not any god that would employ a woman like this, but the fact that I didn’t get in her face and yell back could almost count as a miracle. I was so close to reminding her that her stupid church didn’t pay a dime in taxes, so she maybe she should leave how tax money is spent to people with actual skin in the game.
But, I was polite. I pointed to the address and said, ok. No one lives here. Thank you for your help. That’s all we needed to know.
And then I crossed the street. Cue ominous music.
The next case had a note that said the address was behind a front house. I had already walked down driveways and gone through gates in search of addresses. So, I walked down the driveway and saw a carport with a garage that had a second story. Figuring that was the address, I walked through an open gate down a wide driveway to the side of the front house. In the garage a man sat at a work bench, talking on the phone. I waved and flashed my badge.
The man got off the phone and asked what I was doing there. He spoke Spanish. I told him in Spanish that I was with the U.S. Census Bureau, and I was looking for the address. I pointed to the room above the garage and asked if that was the address.
He said no, and that I should get off his property. He switched to English and started yelling. I was in his yard. There was no other address. I had no right coming into his yard. He said he had big dogs in his house that he was going to let out to get me.
I tried to apologize, but he wasn’t having it. I left in a hurry.
I texted my CFS. I told her about the church lady and the crazy guy with dogs. I recommended those addresses be taken off the case list. She told me not to indicate any danger or anything like that. I told her the guy threatened me harm. Didn’t that count as a “dangerous” address? Nope. I wrote in the case notes that the man was dangerous and other enumerators should not go to the back house. Fuck it. I didn’t want another person to have to encounter that.
This goes back to the training. They tell us it’s completely lawful for us, as federal employees doing census work, to enter a person’s property. What they don’t tell us is that most people either don’t know that, or they don’t care that it’s lawful. We are simply evil trespassers. We end up being on the front lines in a battle of crucial information gathering, and they give us mixed messages. They tell us that our safety is the most important thing to them, BUT if you can find a way to get the information, we need you to do that, however you can. Use your best instincts if you sense danger, BUT it can’t hurt to be creative and try.
My CFS said she was sorry I had a tough morning. I got the sense she had no idea what I had experienced. Most of us middle class Pasadena residents go through life without being threatened with death. I found the experience to be quite unnerving. My hands shook for the rest of the day.
At the end of that day, I found myself outside of another big apartment building with a security gate. Inside were around 15 cases that had not been attempted. Ripe fruit, if I could only get in. I stood outside the gate, trying to see how the phone system worked when a car pulled up and a guy got out with a bag that said, “Jamba Juice.” He was a Postmates delivery guy. It was still way over 100 degrees out, and he left the bag on the ground and texted the person it was for. A man came out to get the smoothies, and I was in. I talked to him, and he was on my list. I completed 6 or 7 interviews in that complex to finish the day.
The last one was done in Spanish. The woman said she knew about the census, and she was glad to fill out the survey with me. She saw me standing there in partial sunlight, sweating profusely. My mask was soaked through with sweat. My hydration pack was empty. At the end of the interview, she told me to wait a moment and disappeared back into her apartment. My heart sank. Was she bailing at the last minute? She returned with an ice cold can of Perrier. She handed it to me through her screen door, winked, and smiled.
Normally, I would politely refuse a drink in that situation. The pandemic makes it even more certain that I would not accept a drink from a stranger. But, on that day, in that heat, with my soul in tatters, that woman offered me more than a drink. That simple act of kindness gave me back some of my humanity. I thanked her profusely. After we said goodbye, I sat down in the courtyard and sucked down the entire can. My hands stopped shaking.
I drive past that complex often. I think of that woman’s kindness and hope I can someday repay it.
To be continued...