The wrong kind of random: My time with the U.S. Census

Did I ever tell you about the time I worked for the U.S. Census? 

This was back in 2010, and it didn’t last very long. We were pretty desperate for money, so, despite the fact that I once mistook the border between NH and VT on a map for a shortcut — and I once went to visit my sister and only realized how far off course I was when the road in front of me stopped because I had reached the ocean — and I experience the frequent, inexplicable, and irresistible urge to turn left even when I know I’m supposed to turn right — despite all of this, I say, I thought I could work for the census.

I thought maybe if it was literally my job not to get lost, I could keep it together. And I’ve met people who work for the government before, and I felt that I could easily slip into that crowd without being dominated too heavily by anyone’s intellect.  How hard could it be?

It really wasn’t that it was hard.  But it was the government, so it was dumb.

For instance, we were 26 hours into training before they would tell us what our job was going to be.  There were twelve of us being trained, and nobody knew what for. Our supervisor used a kind of radical version of the Socratic method:  rather than asking questions that guided us toward the truth, he would allow us to ask the questions.  He would then stare at us blankly with his mouth open, gaze down at his manual, gaze at us again, and then continue reading aloud as if nothing had happened. He did this so often, people eventually stopped asking him anything, so I guess it worked. 

I clearly remember the moment when we finally got to set aside the training materials and get our actual materials, and it turned out the things they’d been referring to as “binders” were . . . three-ring binders. I was amazed. Everything about the census so far had been so back-assward, I assumed they were calling them binders just because they weren’t. 

Then, actual binders in hand, we found we were going to be “Dependent Quality Control Enumerators,” which meant that we were to look at the maps drawn up by the first round of enumerators, compare them with the lists of addresses and their descriptions, and then compare that to what we actually see on the ground. If we discovered a too-high percentage of certain types of mistakes within a randomly-chosen sample of one area, then the whole area would have to be re-canvassed.

So this was how it worked out. I’m driving down the road, and I see a house.  It’s not on the map.  I add it to the map.  I assign it a map spot number, and add it to the “address add” page.  I transfer numbers from one book to another, I draw a line through certain things and erase others, according to protocol, and I give a questionnaire to the newly discovered residents. 

Except sometimes I couldn’t get to the house because of all the enraged dogs. Sometimes I got shouted at and threatened, and sometimes I got people who refused to even to look at me, as if even briefly lending one’s eye beams to a *ptui* government employee would dilute their purity of essence. 

And some of the people were friendly enough, but . . . .

Numbahs? No, there ain’t no numbahs out heah.
Hey, don’t let the cat owt, friggin coyotes comin’ around.
Census? No, we don’t want none.
We’re both learning disabled, hon.
I got a nail infection. 
Come on in, you kin sit on the love seat, watch the ashtray, don’t knock over my oxygen tank. 
Census, eh? You gonna check up on ME, heh heh heh heh heh? 
Numbahs? No . . . 

Nevertheless, I was a proper government employee. I was finishing my shift with a binder bristling with some kind of information that was surely useful to someone in some way, or if it was actually useless, at least it wasn’t my fault. I was doing it. I was really doing it!

But then we hit a snag.

Every so often, I was supposed go down a particular highway, go down a particular road, turn right, and choose a house at random, and then verify the information that is already on the books about this randomly-chosen house. This was supposed to add an extra layer of certitude that the information wasn’t being manipulated by rogue mapmakers who might send Dependent Quality Control Enumerators to the trailer parks they wanted to be counted, rather than the trailer parks they didn’t want to be counted, or something.

So I did what I was told. I went down the highway, I went down the road, I turned left, and I chose a nice house that looked especially random to me, and I marked everything down just like I was supposed to. Random house all accounted for. 

Then I went back to turn in my day’s work, and the supervisor reviewed it. He traced back through everything I had done, and then he said, “But why did you turn left?” 

As previously explained, I don’t know why I turned left. Sometimes I just turn left, okay? You’re just lucky we didn’t all end up in the ocean this time!

But I didn’t say that. I did say, “Well, it’s supposed to be a random house, and this was definitely random, so I guess it doesn’t really matter, ha ha.”

I swear, a quiver went through his body. He looked down at the binder as if he were gathering his strength, and he said quietly, “You were supposed to turn right.”

I said, “I know, but it’s random, so . . . ”

SO NOTHING. It was the U.S. Government, and it had to be the specific kind of random in the protocol, not the other kind of random! You can’t just randomly be random! You have to be the authorized kind of random, or else it ISN’T AUTHORIZED, AND YOU HAVE TO GO BACK.

So I had to go back, and this time I turned right. I randomly chose another house. I wrote everything down in all the books. And then I quit.

And that’s what happened what I worked for the census. 


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One thought on “The wrong kind of random: My time with the U.S. Census”

  1. Good essay and funny memoir on one’s time working for goverment. In other words: lighthearted and delightful, a rollicking reflection.

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