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Censusing ain’t easy

What’s it like to knock on strangers’ doors and start asking personal questions?

Census worker
Census worker

We meet on Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan, eight o’clock at night. “Derek” has that blue, white, and black “United States Census Bureau” bag slung over his shoulder. This is why he can’t give his real name. I want to know what it’s like to actually knock on strangers’ doors and start asking personal questions, day in, night out.

“Well, for instance, yesterday I was in a converted Victorian house. Three apartments. I had to interview the back unit upstairs. It was dark. It was a young girl living with her boyfriend. She was reluctant at first, but I explained what the census was about, in Spanish. She understood, she agreed, she shared the information about the people in her apartment, and we were about three-quarters of the way through the interview when this Caucasian couple start coming up the stairs towards us. I don’t like to stereotype, but no masks, lots of tattoos, angry people. And they demanded with a lot of cuss words who the f... let me in? ‘This is private property and you need to leave immediately.’

“I said ‘Well, I’m with the Census Bureau. Legally I have a right, because it’s a law, that we can collect data on who lives in the country. It’s built into the U.S. Constitution. Been there for 200 years. When I’m done, I will leave.’

‘You’ve got to leave right now!’

“I said ‘I will leave when I’m done.’” Derek held his ground, despite the threats, because he’s used to this situation, among rich, poor, those living rough.

“That evening, we also had to go to a remote encampment underneath a freeway pass by a river, in southeastern San Diego. The supervisors were worried about our safety, so they decided we just needed to count, not interview. There was a hole in a chain link fence leading towards the river. And these guys from a wrecking yard saw us coming, with our flashlights and reflective vests, onto their property. They wanted to know what was going on. And we told them. And this one guy said ‘I don’t know if I would go back there.’”

“And I said, ‘Well, are there people there?’

“‘Oh yeah.’”

“And so I said, ‘Then we have to go back there.’ Some people in my group were not happy. We had nothing but weak, government-issue flashlights. So we followed this narrow track through the bushes, through trash, shopping carts, debris in the riverbed. I mean, I’ve hiked in Alaska with grizzlies. I’m an outside sort of guy. But this was creepy. We got to the edge of the encampment. We could hear voices. They became angry. ‘Who the f...?’ ‘Get the f... outa here!’ I wasn’t going to walk in and shine my light in their faces, so we agreed on roughly the number in that camp — we guessed less than a dozen but more than three — and decided to beat a wise and hasty retreat. That’s the life of a census counter. Did I get a perfectly accurate census count on that particular encampment? We got an approximation. You do the best you can.”

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Census worker
Census worker

We meet on Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan, eight o’clock at night. “Derek” has that blue, white, and black “United States Census Bureau” bag slung over his shoulder. This is why he can’t give his real name. I want to know what it’s like to actually knock on strangers’ doors and start asking personal questions, day in, night out.

“Well, for instance, yesterday I was in a converted Victorian house. Three apartments. I had to interview the back unit upstairs. It was dark. It was a young girl living with her boyfriend. She was reluctant at first, but I explained what the census was about, in Spanish. She understood, she agreed, she shared the information about the people in her apartment, and we were about three-quarters of the way through the interview when this Caucasian couple start coming up the stairs towards us. I don’t like to stereotype, but no masks, lots of tattoos, angry people. And they demanded with a lot of cuss words who the f... let me in? ‘This is private property and you need to leave immediately.’

“I said ‘Well, I’m with the Census Bureau. Legally I have a right, because it’s a law, that we can collect data on who lives in the country. It’s built into the U.S. Constitution. Been there for 200 years. When I’m done, I will leave.’

‘You’ve got to leave right now!’

“I said ‘I will leave when I’m done.’” Derek held his ground, despite the threats, because he’s used to this situation, among rich, poor, those living rough.

“That evening, we also had to go to a remote encampment underneath a freeway pass by a river, in southeastern San Diego. The supervisors were worried about our safety, so they decided we just needed to count, not interview. There was a hole in a chain link fence leading towards the river. And these guys from a wrecking yard saw us coming, with our flashlights and reflective vests, onto their property. They wanted to know what was going on. And we told them. And this one guy said ‘I don’t know if I would go back there.’”

“And I said, ‘Well, are there people there?’

“‘Oh yeah.’”

“And so I said, ‘Then we have to go back there.’ Some people in my group were not happy. We had nothing but weak, government-issue flashlights. So we followed this narrow track through the bushes, through trash, shopping carts, debris in the riverbed. I mean, I’ve hiked in Alaska with grizzlies. I’m an outside sort of guy. But this was creepy. We got to the edge of the encampment. We could hear voices. They became angry. ‘Who the f...?’ ‘Get the f... outa here!’ I wasn’t going to walk in and shine my light in their faces, so we agreed on roughly the number in that camp — we guessed less than a dozen but more than three — and decided to beat a wise and hasty retreat. That’s the life of a census counter. Did I get a perfectly accurate census count on that particular encampment? We got an approximation. You do the best you can.”

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