Matthew Lickona 9:46 a.m., May 20
Work at the Census Bureau all but came to a dead halt on the last Friday of July, and most of us clerks were, in official parlance, “terminated for lack of work.” The counting was completed and there was little left to do. We had known for weeks it was coming, so there wasn’t much ceremony to the lay off. A flood of unemployed workers were released into the scarce job market and, in a way, a family was dispersed.
We had a potluck lunch that Friday—Hawaiian pork, lumpias, pho, gioza, fried chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, bean salad, taco salad—and tables of desserts. The chief officer, who had addressed us enthusiastically at every potluck, made a farewell speech. He said the 2010 Census had benefited from San Diego’s high unemployment rate because so many intelligent, likable people had been available. He had enjoyed working with all of us, we were hard workers, and…. his voiced wavered, overcome by the portents of this, his final speech. After a pause he cleared his throat and looked toward the dessert tables. “I’m going to have one last piece of that,” he said, pointing to a frosted cake. The room followed him to the tables, and I had no opportunity to give my farewell speech.
At 5 o’clock, personal possessions were gathered from desks, phone numbers and email addresses hurriedly scribbled, hugs and handshakes exchanged, and a horde of newly-unemployed, including me, headed for the door. It was a slow exodus, like good friends leaving a funeral. Talking loudly but apprehensively about what we would do with our new freedom, we crowded into the elevator like puppies in a litter, and at the ground floor burst onto the street, waving and shouting goodbyes. I slowly ambled up India Street to my car—in no particular hurry—and drove home to my music and books and Padres on the radio, followed by the quiet solitude of my apartment. That’s when I remembered my speech.
Unemployed for months, I had responded to a "Census Bureau Now Hiring" notice on a light post, and was hired in early April. Each morning from then on I showered and shaved and brushed my teeth, made my sack lunch, donned the prescribed uniform—no T-shirts, jeans, shorts or sandals—and left home full of ambition and anticipation, a man with a purpose. I drove to Little Italy, found a parking spot near the water, strode past the white gallant sails of the Star of India and over the lawn of the County Administration Building to India Street, past restaurant workers washing sidewalks, lines in front of the Mexican consulate, and white people on benches drinking coffee. At the corner of Ash and India, I entered a three-story building, took the elevator to the second floor, slipped on my Census Office Employee badge, and keyed the door code into the expansive, carpeted, low-ceiling room to begin my day as an administrative clerk. My workmates arrived about the same time. There was usually five minutes of greetings before the banter picked up where it had left off the day before. Like a family we had our differences and complaints about each other, our shared humor and laughter, but we delighted in the camaraderie.
In my farewell speech I was going to address the whole office and orate eloquently of our shared experience. I had planned to stand in the middle of the room, arms wide, voice resonant, and sum up the important work we had done together. I would mention the ethnic hodge-podge of us all, the amicable mix of slackers and worker bees, the successful partnership of nerds and extroverts, and the invigorating balance of youth and age. I would speak of the mission thrust upon us, and how we had come together as an army of citizens to accomplish the task of counting everyone in San Diego.
Then I would motion to the flotilla of desks where I worked, the “Admin Boat” we called it, and generally thanked everyone with whom I had spend the last four months. And I would single out four people for special mention.
I would begin with a co-worker, who during a hiring frenzy in early April had been assigned a list of candidates to interview over the phone for clerical jobs. When my phone rang in the quiet solitude of my apartment I’m sure I came across somewhat arrogant about the lowly $12.50 an hour and the mundane tasks of a clerk’s position. I wanted the job of a field enumerator, I said, earning $16.50 an hour. I was a college graduate, after all, with managerial skills. I would make a good leader.
Obviously, I had forgotten that I was desperately unemployed, and $12.50 an hour was more than I made in an entire month. My interviewer, and future workmate, answered patiently that although clerks are paid less, their jobs last weeks longer than the field positions. But I remained unconvinced, and said I’d have to “check my busy schedule”; would she please call back in ten minutes. Fortunately she did, and by then I had come to my senses. I accepted the position of clerk. When I got off the phone, now an employed man, I was grateful that my arrogance had been out-reasoned by her common sense. And in my speech I would thank her for that.
Then I would thank a man 30 years my junior, who “taught me the business” during our long night shifts together, so that I soon caught on to the admin clerk’s arcane duties: entering new hire data in the computer, merging applicant folders with WPPF folders, QA-ing D-308s, combining E-Verifies with I-9s. He also kept me informed of basketball scores (it was Boston vs. LA at the time), his rowdy weekends, his “whatever” attitude towards work, and his the-world-is-my-oyster career plans. In my speech I would thank him for letting me see, once again, the world through the eyes of a young person.
Next I would thank someone who had become my mentor. She been at the Census Bureau weeks before me and knew the ropes. Each morning I went to her first to be briefed, and she always had a project she was willing to share—especially when work was slow—so I kept busy. Months later, after I had trained a new worker and found projects for her when she arrived for work, that new worker had come to me and hugged me for making her feel welcomed at the Bureau. I had been her mentor, she told me. Now, in my farewell speech, I wanted to publicly thank my mentor.
Lastly, I would point to my immediate supervisor, who had refreshing patience and disarmingly levity, as well as a sly wit for words, which he loved to show off. The louder we groaned about his puns the more he smiled. He knew he was working with intelligent, skilled people, and adopted a laissez-faire attitude. We were much more productive when he was in charge. He was never too busy to interrupt his work to help with ours, which usually meant explaining convoluted forms and confounding procedures. He became the preferred go-to guy for the entire office. In my speech I would thank him on behalf of everyone at the Census Bureau. To all of us, he was a pleasure to work with.
At home that evening on that last Friday, I stood in the middle of the quiet solitude of my apartment and orated my farewell speech. My voice wavered too when, at the end, I asked for applause for all of us who had worked at the Census Bureau and for our achievements. Then, just as the applause gave way to silence, I asked for another round of applause for the job, which gave us a purpose, and the people, who were the frosting on the cake.