In the hot and humid days of mid-August, I started driving from house to house, counting people.
I was an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau, and this was the big census that happens every ten years. The decennial census.
The things I carried on my rounds: my government-issued iPhone, my census I.D., my census briefcase, various bits of paperwork, and my white cotton mask. Water, too (not government-issued). A daily case list told me the addresses to attempt. At the beginning of one shift, a man came out of his house as I got out of my car. I identified myself as a census worker.
“I don’t want anything to do with you,” he said. “Get off my property right now.”
An hour later, I drove up to a house at the end of a long gravel-and-dirt road. The owner, a retired state employee, told me his name. He put on a mask and invited me inside where it was air-conditioned. We sat at his kitchen table, close but not too close, and filled out his household’s census survey.
The first U.S. census was in 1790, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The population of the United States was 3,929,625. There’s something comforting about a number so precise. A more recent estimated total population is 330,359,887, according to the U.S. Census Bureau as of September 27. Fun fact: The U.S. population has a net gain of one person about every 16 seconds.
Census data are used to allocate federal dollars and determine the number of seats for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives. Census enumerators work in the field trying to find out where you were living on “Census Day,” April 1.
Because of the late start due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a race against time. By early September, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 80 percent of North Carolinians had completed their census questionnaire via the phone, internet, postal mail, or in-person visit by an enumerator.
As of September 21, the N.C. response rate overall was almost 93 percent. That’s good, and it’s higher now. But to achieve a fuller count, it could be better in parts of N.C. and in other states. And in fact, a federal court, on September 25, ordered the Trump administration to extend the count until the end of October. However, the Census Bureau, seemingly in opposition to the court order, has announced that the counting will end on October 5. Stay tuned.
Every day, as I made my visits to private homes, apartment complexes, and mobile home parks, I weighed the risk. Mostly I remembered to put on my mask. Most people answering the door didn’t wear a mask, and it felt awkward asking them to do so. Social distancing wasn’t easy. But this strange job was also a way for me to make a bit of money in difficult times at an uncertain career moment.
There were moments of frustration but also sweet moments. People often gave me more information than I needed. A college student told me that she and her housemate were boyfriend and girlfriend on April 1 but now are just friends. I’m still wondering what happened.
Down a long dirt road, David and his wife live together in a cozy rustic house. They are hidden in plain sight not far from downtown Chapel Hill. After the survey was complete, David and I talked about this and that. I told him I returned to North Carolina a few months ago from a radio job in Nevada and had noticed that the two states share a “don’t tell me what to do” spirit. We both laughed. David told me a little bit about his life journey: jobs in hardware stores and a failed business he started and abandoned. Now he has a new business that’s doing well and is more of a passion for him.
Every so often I discovered an abandoned home in a wooded area. At one place the porch was filled with garbage. I smelled smells I’d never smelled before. My mask didn’t help.
A short time later, I parked next to a large house you might find on the Maine coast on a rise looking over the ocean. Except there was no ocean. I forgot that it was 95 degrees and I needed to pee as I was surrounded by several chickens and a rabbit. I was greeted by a woman who smiled and told me the rabbit is named Luna.
“She thinks you’re going to feed her,” the woman said. If someone told me E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was a true story that took place here, I wouldn’t question it.
I went with the flow. It took tenacity to complete most cases, to nail down a census interview. Many people were not home or didn’t have the time to do the survey. Or they were angry. Sometimes I couldn’t find an address, or the address didn’t exist. Uncertainty was part of the deal. I surrendered to it. Or tried to.
It didn’t help that I’m a worrier. Sometimes as I drove on a rutted dirt road I wondered if my 2003 Toyota Corolla would survive.
On my rounds, I pondered our lives right now in light of a contentious presidential election, the pandemic, the economy, and the apparent breakdown of civility. I feel the anxiety that a lot of people are feeling.
But then, an old, comfortable feeling: It’s suddenly sweater weather. And I find I’m hopeful about the world and myself once again.
But is it OK to feel lucky or hopeful about my place in the world given the misfortunes of others? One woman, after answering her census questions, told me that she and her little girl entered the United States illegally a year ago. A U.S. immigration attorney wants $12,000 to take her complex case. She has no money, no job, no working papers, no computer, no internet. This woman said she trusts in the Lord that there will be answers. I hope so.
Names and identifying details in this essay have been altered to protect the confidentiality of census data.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.