My first assignment was “non-response follow-up.” That meant going door-to-door to all the houses that had not returned a census form. Well, at least according to the Census Bureau's record. More than one of my “clients” claimed they had already sent in the form, and they weren’t all that pleased about now being interviewed in person, particularly when they had originally been sent the 6-question short form and were now being asked to fill out the 12-page long form. Can’t say that I blame them…
Talk about intrusive… How is the number of bathrooms in your house any of the government’s business? Or how much you paid for your house? Or what time you leave your house to go to work in the morning? Or whether you go to work in the afternoon? Yep. Definitely intrusive.
That distasteful aspect of the job aside, there was a sort of fun and fascinating side to it : going all over Houston to all sorts of neighborhoods and places I would never ordinarily go, and meeting all sorts of people that I would never meet on my regular daily rounds.
I’m pretty sure I would not tackle that job today; as I say, I was probably out of my mind. If not, I was at least Naïve, with a capital N. The country girl come to town.
Some of the people I met:
- A 35-year-old grandmother of five babies, all under the age of 3, all children of her 18-year-old daughter who was then pregnant with her 6th child (This, I learned, is possible, if you have four pregnancies, each 11 months apart, one of which results in twins, and, of course, you have to start early.). As Grandma lamented bitterly that the judge kept taking the babies away from the daughter and giving the custody to her, the bedroom door opened, and who should emerge but the pregnant daughter and her boyfriend. “MOM!” I wanted to say. “Get a clue!!!!”
- And then there was the guy on the bayou. A house on a bayou is no novelty in Houston. In fact, my own backyard ended at a bayou. But this guy was a wee bit different. His back yard was full of five alligators and 13 raccoons, and I left with an invitation to bring my children over to see them. Anytime.
- One address that had failed to respond turned out to be not a house, but a bar, where several of the midday patrons offered to buy me a drink. They didn’t really accept “no” for an answer, until the kindly bartender pointed out that I was “on duty.” He did, however, invite me to come back when I was no longer on the clock.
- Some people were just plain nice. They invited me to come in and have a glass of lemonade, and you know what? Sometimes I did. We were trained/cautioned/instructed NOT to go inside any houses, but, well, sometimes the heat and the humidity joined together to persuade me, and I must say, I was never sorry.
- Maybe the strangest place I went was the mannequin factory. As far as I could tell, it was just another old house in another old neighborhood. I knocked on the screen door, and in response to “Come in,” I did. And got the shock of my life. There was not a soul in the room. What there was in the room was a whole slew of body parts. Some hanging from the ceiling, others on the floor, yet others on a table. The sound of the voice calling to come through to the next room kindof jolted me back to, uh, reality, and I started to notice that these were parts of mannequins. Well, as I say, I must have been out of my mind, because I went on through. To another shock: Sitting in the next room on a stool, painting a mannequin head was…Santa Claus. I swear. He was sitting there, just like in the movies. Red pants. White t-shirt. Wire-rimmed glasses. Long white hair. Flowing white beard. As I looked around I could see into some of the other rooms, and they, too, were full of body parts. Santa explained that this old once-upon-a-time house had been changed into a mannequin factory, one of only a handful in the country, and he was it. He sanded and painted and whatever else it is one does to dummies and shipped them off to various clients all over the country. So he said. In hindsight, I think it might have been a toy factory in disguise.
- Another strange thing I encountered from time to time was a respondent who did not know who lived in the house. They were usually ok with their own name and maybe another one or two, but before it was over they would be yelling across the room: “Honey! Who else lives here?“ “Does Becky’s boyfriend stay here?“ “What about that guy that always wears a polo shirt?“ “Do any of them work?“
- More than once I encountered a less-than-friendly dog, but only once was I threatened with one, unlike another member of my team who complained that it must be mandatory to have a junkyard dog in Houston.
- Another time, while climbing the stairs to a garage apartment, I was met with a shower of dust and debris from above. I looked up through the cloud and discovered Magilla Gorilla sweeping off the landing.
I think the very best benefit of the job was that here I met SE. She happened to be driving out of the park one day as I was driving in to meet my team leader. I really didn’t notice her until she whipped around, got out of the car, and came towards me. She had seen my bumper sticker and wanted to ask me about it. It was love at first sight, and she remains one of my dearest friends still, 20 years later.
So now it is Census Day again. April 1st, 2010. Hmmm...Isn't that April Fool's Day? I can't help wondering about the significance of that. In another bizarre moment of madness, I applied for a job, which entailed taking a bonehead test and filling out some papers. I heard I did very well on the test, and if the number of follow up phone calls is any indication, I believe it. Someone or other calls from the census bureau just about daily to offer me a job, but somewhere between the test and the phone call, sanity kicked in, and so far I have declined every offer.
It’s a decent-paying job by any standard, especially so in the current economy. But…I am older and wiser now, and I fear I may get the task of going to any of several Edgar-Allen-Poe houses that I have seen around town. What if I run into Magilla or Santa again? What if they invite me in again? Twenty years down the road I have lost a lot of my innocence, and things just don’t seem as benevolent as they once did.
2010...it’s a different world. No, thank you.