I looked up the weather forecast for the next week in Bakersfield. 110 degrees every single day.
Fuck it. I was in. Work was pretty much completed in Pasadena, and doing mop up work in other parts of LA was stressful. Might as well get paid for a full week of work.
I didn’t even know how much money I was going to make. I just knew I had to work 40 hours, and I was going to get pay for mileage.
I was told I would get all the information about the week the next day, Sunday. I immediately started asking on social media if I knew anyone in Bakersfield. I did not. But, Naomi Hirahara hooked me up with a friend, and he became a big support for my time there. Because of the pandemic, we never actually met in person, but he followed my posts during the week and gave good advice.
I waited all day and I was starting to think it wasn’t going to happen, but at around 5pm I got a series of emails with instructions. I was to report to the Bakersfield Marriott where I would meet my new CFS and get my cases on my phone. There was a conference call I had to be on before I left for more information.
The conference call was everything wrong with how the Census is run. A very cranky woman who sounded like she really didn’t want to be doing this on a Sunday night zipped through some information, even as people were logging into the call. Her phone cut out a few times when she was giving phone numbers of the various city bureaus we were supposed to report to. There were four different groups from parts of Los Angeles, including mine, Pasadena. One entire group from the south bay informed our already cranky leader that they had no idea they were being sent to Bakersfield, and also hell no they weren’t going to Bakersfield. When some asked the supervisor to repeat the phone numbers for the bureaus, she got angry and wouldn’t give the numbers, saying she would do it at the end of the call, which she did not. Luckily, after she hung up, a number of us stayed on the call and some kind souls gave the numbers out.
What we did learn was that we were to work 40 hours. We were to complete at least one case per hour, which she made a point to tell us was actually very easy to do. She obviously had never been an enumerator. She gave us some guidelines on behavior and told us not to wear our census badges when we were not working and “chillin’ on the strip.”
Apparently she thought she was talking to the Las Vegas travel group. Or she was under the impression that Bakersfield has a “strip.” I was there all week. It does not.
I made the 110-mile drive, got checked in, and got to my room. My new CFS texted me in a new group text. We were to meet in the lobby at 9am the next morning. It was surreal to be in a crowded lobby with dozens of census workers during a pandemic. Everyone wore masks, but social distancing was tricky. My CFS was a younger guy in his 30’s, and he seemed cool. After running through the details, he asked if anyone had not received cases for the day. About half of us had not, including me. I guess it was my turn to get screwed by the census computers.
“No cases due to lack of work available” read my phone. After all the work to get around 100 people from LA to Bakersfield, the tech people forgot to transfer us.
I went back to my room to watch tv while I waited for cases. On the text thread, people would chime in saying they got cases. At around 10, I checked my phone for the 20th time and found a full slate of cases.
I entered the first address into the map part of my phone and got in my car. I was surprised to see that the estimated time to reach that address was 35 minutes. I looked at a wide view of the map and discovered I was being sent to the boonies. The styx. The “nowhere” as in “middle of.” Me. Japanese American dude from LA was being sent to rural Central California. As I drove, I pictured farmhouses, guns, dogs, angry hicks, paramilitary whackos. Fortunately, I would not see any guns.
The map directions took me to the end of a two-lane road and onto a dirt road through a grove of trees. My car bounced and lurched its way down this road for about a mile before emerging, covered in fine dust, onto a paved road. I found myself in a neighborhood of 9 dirt roads between two main roads. Was my first address on the first “street” in front of me? No. Of course not. It was on the third. I parked on the corner of the main road and the dirt street and saw that I had three or four cases within walking distance. The first house was a few hundred feet down the street, where no one answered. As I walked warily down the street, I noticed that all the houses were mobile homes. Some were dilapidated mobile homes on cinder blocks and some had nice foundations built around them with nice trim and a porch. Some yards were just desert dust and shrubs and some were neatly landscaped. And everything in between.
Naturally, the next house was the one right next to my car. In the corner yard, I found an old Mexican man sitting peacefully on a chair beneath a small tree. He watched me fumble with his gate, enter his yard, and he smiled and returned my friendly wave. I felt a wave of relief.
I started with the census greetings, and he waved his hands at me and told me he didn’t speak English. No problem, I said, and switched to Spanish. This seemed to amuse him. He asked me where I was from, and we chatted a bit. It felt good to be in the filtered shade of the small tree, but he didn’t have a mask on, so I stayed at the edge of the shade, about ten feet away. Through my mask, we chatted and completed the interview.
This was an example of the best interviews as a census worker. A friendly greeting. If not for the pandemic, I’m sure there would have been a firm handshake. The man told me about when he moved here from Mexico in the 70’s. He talked about the kids he and his wife had raised who lived in town now. The energy and positive vibe of a genuine human connection in a short time, to me, represents the best of humanity. After ten minutes, I had to get going, and it made me a little sad. I told him maybe I would be back in 2030. “I hope I am still here,” the man said with a laugh. There’s no way in hell I’m doing census work when I’m 60, but I do hope that man is still there anyway.
Many of the cases for the week were “virgin” cases who had not been contacted by any census workers yet. The rest were 2nd and 3rd visits with notes that said, “Spanish speaking,” or “No answer,” or “Locked gate. Unable to enter property.” I cleaned up on the Spanish speaking cases. I have no idea why the census would send someone who didn’t speak Spanish to these neighborhoods. It’s almost as if they don’t know what they’re doing.
Most of the houses I couldn’t interview were because of locked gates. These properties were fenced off with security gates or driveway gates. And most had “No Tresspassing” or “Beware of Dogs” signs to go with the gates. The scariest ones referenced the “2nd Amendment” or even said trespassers would be shot. I avoided those houses, even if the gate was unlocked. Some fences even had barbed wire. Some properties legitimately freaked me out, regardless of the signage. Usually they were set back from the street, so I had to walk a ways across dusty yards. I learned to spot evidence of dogs, most of which were not secured. And the houses were dilapidated. It looked like I could push them over with my hands. I could often hear people inside who did not answer when I knocked. I could feel eyes on me from darkened windows. Many of the houses had “front doors” oriented to the side, forcing me to walk around the house to knock on the door. The houses had such a variety of levels of security. Some had nothing. No fence, no driveway, just a mobile home set somewhere on the lot. Some had fences with a gate that could be opened. There may or may not be vicious dogs behind that passable gate. I tiptoed through barking chihuahuas and little dogs, but I avoided the dogs who looked like they could do serious damage. And then there were the properties locked up tight. No way to enter.
Those that answered their doors were almost always pleasant, if surprised, to find someone knocking. Given where they live, I’m sure they didn’t get many visitors.
At one house, an old white guy was riding a lawn mower back and forth across scrub land. His gate was locked, and I waved for a minute before he finally saw me. He looked intently at me, turned off the mower, hopped off, and walked briskly towards me. It looked like he was mad, so I waved again. He marched right up to the gate and unlocked it to let me in, as if he was expecting me. I started my routine, and he was listening for a second, nodding, and then he just started talking. Told me about his property and how he had added on to the structure. He talked about his mower. His wife came out, and he introduced me as if I was a good friend. “This is Robbin Okamoto (I used my given name for census work) and he’s from, where’d you say you was from?” I lied and said I lived in Orange County. Somehow, inside of a 20 minute conversation, I completed the interview. The old guy was just glad to be able to talk to someone. His kids didn’t come around much anymore. He, too, was interested in my car. He wanted to know about the engine, the mileage, the suspension, everything. I’m a car guy, and if I weren’t working, I would have gladly hung out for a while, but I had to get going.
Lunch during the week was tricky. I wasn’t close to any towns most of the time. Yelp pointed out a diner and some taco places. The Buttonwillow oasis on the 5 freeway was about 15 miles away, so I headed there that first day. On the subsequent days, I braved the local taco shops and diners.
Most of the time, if someone answered the door, they were happy to have a visitor and complete the census. Whole families might gather on the porch with me, almost always maskless, as I backed away. I only remember a few scary ones where I felt my life was in danger. One on that first day was a scary house. The mobile home was overgrown with weeds and shubs. Parked in front was a lifted pickup truck with the “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker. The door opened, and a camouflage-wearing bearded white guy glared out at me. Before I could even finish my greeting, the man said, “Ain’t no one home.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I asked if he lived there or someone else lived there and was not home. Mistake. He came out at me and said louder and slower, “I said... Ain’t no one home!” I noticed two small, mangy looking girls huddled in the doorway, peering from behind the man. There was fear in their eyes. The man was now staring me down, and I just thanked him and left. I think he was just telling me, in his primitive way, that he didn’t want the government to know he or his family lived there. Except they do know. Dumbass.
On that first day, I logged almost 100 miles of driving. Outside of the highway and main roads to get to and from my cases, the roads were mostly dirt. One thing I learned during the week was to actually make use of the my CFS. I asked him about map issues. Told him about problems I was having. He usually answered his phone, saying, “Talk to me.” He was sympathetic to our plight as enumerators. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable driving my Ford sedan down a particularly rough road and he told me to forget about it. When I found some NOV’s (Notice of Visit) left by Bakersfield enumerators that were incorrectly filled out, he gave me instructions as to how the handle it. And he often checked in to make sure those of us out in the boonies were doing ok. One hot afternoon, he texted me to tell me to take a 15 minute break. Because we had iphones, I’m sure we were tracked all the time, and he likely saw how active I was out there.
I worked that dusty neighborhood for the first couple of days. My car bottomed out on each of those roads, and it could take a good ten minutes to drive the quarter of mile length of each one at 2-5 mph because of the uneven road. Most people had pickups and many were lifted, and even they had to drive slowly. One of the residents told me that the neighborhood was in an unincorporated part of Bakersfield, so the city didn’t pave the roads. The residents had to care for and manage the streets, themselves. Some streets had short stretches of paving, but some of those were worse than the dirt parts after decades of wear caused giant pot holes.
But the job went on. I got chased by dogs a few times each day. Sometimes they came at me after I opened and closed the gates, like they were waiting for me. Some just lived wild and free on lots that had no gates. The dogs would just appear as I walked up to a house. Some were friendly, some not so friendly. A group of free range dogs followed me a few hundred feet to a couple of other houses one day. A giant black pig ran past me with two kids in hot pursuit one day.
Before I get to that street, I got sent into another neighborhood on the second day, before I got sent back to that dirt street neighborhood. The names of the streets were obviously different with British names. Paved streets and big, nice houses. I spent a few hours knocking on huge, ornate doors in beautifully landscaped yards. Then some lower middle class neighborhoods where everyone spoke Spanish. And then back to the dirt roads.
As I jumped back into my car when the pig ran by, I scanned the addresses. I had two houses on my list right where I had parked. The first door I knocked on was opened by a young, beautiful woman who seemed straight out of a telenovela. Perfect hair and makeup, and a nice summer dress. I looked past her into her kitchen and noticed beautiful cabinets, an expensive espresso machine, and a professional grade stove. The floors were marble tile.
Next door I encountered a white woman who appeared to be an exotic dancer. She had red highlights, wore makeup, jeans with lots of holes…and a t-shirt with the name of a strip club. She was very nice and we completed the interview as the pig ran up the street in the other direction still being chased by the kids. She laughed and said that happened a lot. As we finished, she asked how I was dealing with the heat. I was sweating profusely, I’m sure. I told her I had water in the car and that it was pretty much the same weather back home in LA. “You came all the way from LA?” she asked. She looked at my car and then back at me, cast another glance at the pig as it entered the yard across the street, and I swear to god she then said with a wink, “Do you want to come in for a real drink?”
I’ll never know what she meant by that kind gesture because I politely declined. She nodded dramatically, as if to say, “your loss,” and we said our goodbyes. It had not escaped my notice during the interview that she lived with her “asshole boyfriend.” I had no desire to meet the man. And I am in no way implying that exotic dancers are “easy” or “loose.” I’m just that charming. Even in a mask. And covered in sweat. Plus, I really wanted to see what became of the pig across the street.
The two kids corralled it against a fence in the yard. That pig had to be 300 pounds, and it was tired after running up and down the street several times. In my mind’s eye, I recall it panting heavily, but it probably wasn’t. The kids guided it back to their house a few hundred feet up the street.
I took some pictures of the houses and the pig. I knew this street would be something to remember.
By Wednesday, I had developed a weird familiarity with the dirt road neighborhood. My case list either started there or ended there each day. I finally made it to that first street on the east side of the neighborhood, and it was paved. It had a few of the mobile homes, but there were actual big luxury homes. All the houses were on the west side of the street looking out at endless fields.
Most of the houses were dead ends. Either the people didn’t answer or they weren’t home. The one big house I completed a case was striking. A white woman in a Brad Paisely concert t-shirt answered the door. She had frosted blond hair and seemed really mellow. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said she was high. But I don’t think she was. She seemed to be in some kind of existential crisis. When I complimented the idyllic view of the endless fields across from the house, she looked out for a few seconds and sighed. “Yeah…a lot of dust.” She asked where I was from. I’m sure it was obvious that I was not from around there with my red hybrid sedan and Dodger cap…and my Japanese eyes above my mask. When I told her I was from Pasadena, she sighed again. “That must be nice.”
Everything she said seemed to be slower than normal. Even her answers. When we got to the birthdays of her and her family, she sighed again. She was about to turn 40. And she said she was not happy about that. I told her I partied harder in my 40’s than I ever did in my 20’s and 30’s. She smiled and thanked me for pointing that out. After we finished the interview, she marveled at the fact that I came all the way out there from my family and friends in Pasadena to do this census work. She wished me well and offered a bottle of water, which I politely declined, and we said goodbye.
A few days later, I drove down that street again, on my way to another street. I saw that woman walking along the road, staring out at the fields. I thought about slowing down and waving, since she had seen my car the other day, but I didn't want to seem like a stalker. The woman walked slowly, just gazing out at the fields. To me, she seemed to be dreaming of somewhere else, but that could have just been me missing home.
To be continued...
Bonus! Here is some video I took while driving in the area.