The benefits of working

Just like our greatest strengths can be weaknesses, some benefits of working were the same as the downfalls. Working for the census was adventurous and exciting yet at the same time anxiety producing. I had fears yet at the same time I had the joy of confronting my fears. I had to go to dangerous neighborhoods, yet at the same time it was sobering to see how other people lived.

There were some things I really liked about working. Working allowed me to get out of the problems of my own life and throw myself into something productive. I got paid well. I was able to contribute a paycheck to help support my family. I was able to set my own hours. I believed in the importance of the work I was doing.

I got some exercise because I did a lot of walking. I explored parts of my state that I’ve never seen before. I became familiar with the neighborhood around me.

As crazy as it sounds, this job also pulled me out of my shell especially in the time of COVID when I had every excuse not to interact with people. I met some really awesome people that I probably would hang out with as friends if we met under different circumstances.

I felt respected by the community in general. People thanked me for my service in counting the people. Other people respected me simply because it was something they could never do.

There were fun times that I just had to laugh at myself like the time I almost got into someone else’s car because I wasn’t paying attention. Then there was the time I came home from work and realized I must’ve stepped in dog crap somewhere along the way.

I met up with a lot of different families. I listened and learned about other people’s lives. I watched and observed how other people lived without judgment. People are very interesting. It was a job I could combine facts with people.

Thankfully the whole time I worked I was able to stay healthy and safe. I think the experience was worthwhile.

Before the Door closed…

By far my longest, yet favorite, day as a census employee was spent on Washington Island in beautiful Door County. Door County is located on the thumb of Wisconsin. It is a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan on the east and the bay of Green Bay on the west. Washington Island is located at the top tip of Door County where the bay and the lake collide commonly known as Death’s Door for the rough waters and the shipwrecks below.

In the summer, Door County is the boater’s delight. We’ve spent many hours sailing this area and even renewed our vows on the uninhabited carless Rock Island which is on the tip of Washington Island. Door County is a top tourist destination in the summer. Along with the majestic waters and lighthouses, Door County also has excellent soil for cherry trees unlike the rest of our state. The waters, wineries, fish fries, and specialty gifts makes this spot a vacation paradise in summer. However, the winters are especially harsh making this the perfect location for a seasonal summer home.

I left home very early on the Friday of Labor Day weekend to drive up the door and catch the car ferry to Washington Island. I was hoping to beat the crowds and I did. A lot of houses in Door County are seasonal and we were hard pressed to close out as many cases as we could before the door closed. I saw two other census employees on the island that day.

I decided my favorite mode of census transportation was the car ferry. It was the only way to get my car there. It was a windy day and the water was rough. Waves splashed over the ferry to give us a free car wash. Sprays of water sprinkled onto the upper ferry’s outer deck feeling remarkably fresh. It was wonderful being on the water with the wind blowing through my hair. I felt adventurous.

The island had the regular island vibe as I drove off the ferry until I got to the inner paths which were rather desolate for a holiday weekend. At times I drove on a one lane dirt path which I was questioning if it would even be passable. Once I drove on the regular road again I had to pull over because I had sticks wedged into the undercarriage of my car that rattled annoyingly as I drove. A passerby stopped to ask if I was alright.

At times I totally lost my map and all cell service. That was problematic because we did all of the census interviews via cell phone. On the way to the island another census worker offered me paper interview forms. I brushed it off saying I was fine and later was upset with myself for not having any extra paper just in case. I had to rely heavily on the map they gave me on the car ferry. It was hard not to get turned around.

I saw a lot of wildlife on the island. As I was approaching someone’s house, I thought I saw several cats. But as I got closer, I noticed they were foxes. I never got as close to a fox in the wild as I did on that day. All the islanders were nice, but I heard rumors of recluses that didn’t like outsiders. But they never answered the door when I knocked.

I talked to one man who had a seasonal property. He said his wife was having problems with the census at home. She filled it out multiple times but they kept coming back. Then we found them while they were on vacation. I thought it was rather funny.

Labor Day weekend is the last unofficial weekend of summer for the seasonals. I did make my way back to Door County after the holiday weekend and didn’t have much luck. My guess is that a lot of seasonal people will be finding census notices in their doors come spring.

It became harder to close out cases when everything was closed down and no one was around. I had to be creative. I noticed that several places had pesticide application lawn care signs. I decided to call the company and was able to close out a lot of my remaining files because they had a database of seasonal properties. I knew most of the properties were seasonal already, but I needed more than just a thought to close them out.

Seasonal properties were problematic. The census did not allow you to put more than one property address. If you filled it out on one property, it wouldn’t be completed on the other property. Then you would get a visit from us. This was an issue for snowbirds too. Then throw in COVID and it was a big mess. But I liked those interviews a lot more than the dangerous addresses.

Dangerous addresses, part 4

I found myself asking how much my life was worth.

Sometimes when feeling down I found myself teetering on the fence between life and death. Will I choose hope or despair? There is a reckless courage when you find yourself in that place.

But when pressed, when my life was in danger, it showed me how much I wanted to live. I had to continue on the path to hope, healing, and growth even during the moments I wanted to say screw it all.

As my time with the census came to an end, they were looking for people willing to travel. I said I would be willing to go to the furthest north woods of Wisconsin. Yes, it could be very dangerous. It was very remote with limited cell phone coverage. Heroin is a big problem in some dead end towns. Wandering into a property illegally growing marijuana. Dangerous. Wild animals. Finding bathrooms. It was an adventure I was up for.

I awaited my instructions to travel, but they never came. Instead, I got a call about travelling to Milwaukee. Now that is a different kind of dangerous. This year alone Milwaukee surpassed the highest annual homicide rate ever recorded. Unfortunately, this year isn’t even over yet.

I turned it down.

My supervisor said that another employee went, an African American woman. She was sent to such a horrible neighborhood that she was utterly terrified and asked if she could come back home. I think I made the right call.

They were looking for census employees to go to Detroit, Kenosha, and Atlanta as well. It takes a special (or should I say crazy) person to do the census especially in dangerous unfamiliar places.

If I had the chance, would I choose to do it all over again? Absolutely! Will I work the 2030 census? Probably not.

Dangerous addresses, part 3

I was walking through a bad neighborhood once again. My car was parked a block away. The road was closed and virtually impassable with huge potholes. It wasn’t like I could easily sneak around the signs although no one was currently working on the street. I knew the limitations of my car.

I passed between a port-a-pot and some teenage girls. My mumbled ‘hi’ was met with disdainful snide sneers. I went to the house on my case list. A woman answered stating that she already completed the census and would not be completing it again.

It happened, sometimes we were sent to the same houses over and over where the respondents said they already completed the questionnaire. There was even one whole new subdivision that got multiple census questionnaires due to a duplicate address error. It was sent twice, once to circ and the other time to cir for a road called Something Circle. After awhile people got angry. They filled out one and still got another. I understood. I listened, figured out the problem, and tried to resolve it for them. But these residents had a valid reason for being upset.

But some people were angry and aggressive for no apparent reason at all. I found I had the most problems with men right around 35 years of age. I couldn’t figure it out. Were they afraid I would ask information about their income?

I had several doors slammed in my face by all men. It was upsetting, but I tried not to take it personally. I even had a guy say ‘don’t know’ with a smirk to every single question to try to get a rise out of me. Later I thought I should’ve asked him if his parents were home. (He was obviously a grown man).

That day after I made my house call on the torn up street I walked past a man standing on his deck. He yelled an aggressive ‘GO!’ as I walked past him. I was instantly in fight mode. I pivoted my body around and glared at him. I gave him a dirty look that said grow up and shut up. He yelled ‘DAMN!’ as I turned and walked away.

After I walked a couple houses, I turned and glanced back to see if I had to make a run for it. But the man was gone. Later I saw that the approximate location where the man yelled at me was listed as a dangerous address. I had to keep that in mind when walking through neighborhoods not just when I visited specific houses.

Later that evening my husband applauded me for standing my ground. He said it was good to show him I wasn’t afraid. My son asked if I wanted to get shot. He thought I was being foolish. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against the man or his gun, but it felt good to do something.

Dangerous addresses, part 2

I worked two 10 hour days the weekend after the Kenosha shooting. I’d assume most of you heard of the Kenosha shooting even if you don’t live in the United States. But just in case, it involved a police shooting where a white officer shot a black man. After the shooting terrible violence ensued with protests, looting, rioting, and more shootings. It was bad enough to put my state of Wisconsin on the map.

Now I don’t live near Kenosha but we could feel the after shock throughout the state and most of the country. Racial tension was high. Were you with the police or black lives? Incidentally, not too long after they were looking for census employees in Kenosha. Yeah……NO!

The weekend after the shooting I was assigned to work in a rough neighborhood also known for its shootings. Since I was working 10 hours, I started my shift pretty early on a Sunday morning. But we never started working before 9 AM. I don’t think I have been able to sleep until 9 anytime in this century but I do realize other people do. After all I do have teenagers. One of the first places I stopped at the guy said he partied too hard the night before and was too hungover to answer any questions.

The streets were virtually empty on that beautiful Sunday morning. Just me with my census bag and badge waking up the whole neighborhood pestering people with my personal questions. What is your race? As you can see, I am white. But I am not racist, although how do you know that by looking at me.

I felt looked down upon that weekend. I was a parasite asking too many personal questions too early in the morning. I was a white person working with the government, a maggot, one rung above the police but not as welcome as a postal worker. Maybe not true, but this is how I felt.

I knocked at another door. The house went from absolute silence to full on violent rage yelling once I knocked. What the hell is going on?? I distinctly heard the word ‘police’. I heard things inside being thrown around. I knew I had to get the hell out of there and quick. I didn’t even leave a missed census visit notice.

I walked to the end of the block around the corner. I had more houses on that street to visit. My plan was to swing back after a few minutes and pretend that nothing happened. I was going to pick up where I left off at the next house. When I came back I saw this huge black man raging around the house of the door I knocked on like a bull looking for whomever was waving the red flag. Me.

I was terrified. I was going to die. Time slowed down. I saw a car nearby with a woman in it. A census worker. A beacon of safety. I ran to her. She asked if I was okay, if I needed a ride somewhere, if I needed help. Perhaps a drink of water. She said she wasn’t with the census so I wandered away.

I think the man hopped in a car with his buddies. They were looking for me. I was the only person on the streets. Everyone that drove by was looking at me. He was going to find me and kill me. I was completely in a daze and out of it as I tried to find my way back to my car a couple blocks away. Time slowed down as my heart raced.

I left my cell phone in my car. I couldn’t call for help. My husband wasn’t home anyway. I called my supervisor and told him what happened. He told me to take a little break. I needed gas anyway so I went to the gas station. I couldn’t figure out how to get gas. I was convinced I was getting the wrong gas, like putting diesel into a gas tank. I panicked that my car wouldn’t work and I would get stuck there. I stopped filling my car with one type of gas and switched to another.

I couldn’t make my mind work. It was still stuck in panic mode. There was a disconnect like hearing buzzing instead of talking when the volume is on mute. Things weren’t right in my mind. It took another half an hour to reboot. Then I went back to work as if nothing had happened.

My supervisor added the address to the list of dangerous addresses. When census employees were on the job, they had a list of addresses that were dangerous. Yellow addresses were to proceed with caution. Red addresses were to cease the interview immediately. Red addresses were addresses where a person threatened a census worker. By the time I neared the end of my employment, there were 100 dangerous addresses in that neighborhood.

I never would’ve guessed everything that was going to happen in the world when I applied with the census a year ago.

An extreme outlier

There are some things I am rather hesitant to write about. Then I find this struggle within myself to describe things as they really are to give you an accurate recording of what the experience was like for me.

There was a downpour that evening as I was about to end my shift as a census enumerator. I found myself at a house in the middle of nowhere at the end of a long gravel driveway. There was a man hanging out in his garage drinking. He had a full bar out there complete with bar stools and a couch. Several guns were on display on the wall behind him.

As I approached he told me I should take off my mask because they didn’t believe in wearing masks. I hesitated. The census told us if we did not wear a mask on the job we would be fired. It wasn’t as if the guy would be calling me in to report me though. I honestly didn’t even know how I felt about having to wear a mask. I just did it because I had to. I admit that I am a big time rule follower, something I both love and hate about myself.

All these thoughts were whirling around my mind as I hesitated. I was not afraid. But I didn’t know this man. I was at his house. He had been drinking and was very blunt as I stepped out of my car into the pouring rain. Things could go very bad and I was alone with him out in the middle of nowhere.

I felt like I was being tested. If I failed the test, I would need to take it again or they would send someone else back. The guy asked me if I was some sort of liberal or something. I told him I was not and took off my mask. I tried to find the common ground between us to reach him.

I noticed the man had a puppy that was very well behaved. I asked him a few questions and complimented him about his dog. I finally passed the test. He invited me inside to sit down, but not on the couch because that was the dog’s bed. He said I could if I wanted to but I would get full of fur. He completed the questionnaire and bid me a good evening.

Thankfully with this job I worked with my people from my culture. I knew how to handle the situation whereas an outsider might have freaked out by the outliers. I don’t feel like I compromised my beliefs in any way. But I did break the rules to complete a case.

It was never as easy as walking up to a stranger’s door and having them give me their personal information. You really had to think quick on your feet and be prepared for anything. But most importantly, they needed to feel like they could connect with and trust me.

Calling all neighborhood gossips

So, tell me about your neighbors…

I always felt like the neighborhood gossip when I had to ask neighbors to fill out the census questionnaire as proxies for neighbors. It was especially uncomfortable when their neighbors were home.

It wasn’t out of the norm to have people not answer their doors when they saw me pull up bedecked in my census apparel. I decided to not take it personally when people didn’t answer. Suppose (which isn’t hard to do) that they might have COVID. I didn’t want them to answer their door if they did.

I once went up to a door that had caution tape and signs that said beware. I think it would be a great idea to mark your house if you are under quarantine. Since it wasn’t close to Halloween, I thought the people inside either had COVID or were murdered. I didn’t want anything to do with that.

However, sometimes I would be prompted to find a proxy to fill out the census on behalf of the person sitting inside of their house not answering their door. On one occasion, this happened to me while I was visiting a duplex. When I was nearing the end of the interview with the proxy, the person who I was supposed to be interviewing came outside and asked me to move my car.

I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it was to ask questions about the guy and have him show up. His door was right next to his neighbor’s door. I felt like I was talking crap about somebody and didn’t realize the person I was talking about was behind me.

I guess I really didn’t care too much because the guy was rude. I felt sorry for the person who lived next door to him though. When he found out I was asking about him and his family, he said he didn’t believe in all of that census sh!t. Now could I get my car out of his driveway. I had to stop the interview rather abruptly.

I thanked the proxy and gladly was on my way. You should’ve seen my case notes for that visit. I’ll have to say that working for the census was never boring.

It was strange because some people were very reluctant to say anything about their neighbors. Then there were other people that filled me in on a lot more than I asked.

The people I didn’t meet

I think God was watching out for me while I was working the census more than once or twice. If I had gone to the house a week earlier, I would’ve met the tenants. A man answered the door when I arrived. He stated the tenants were evicted the week before. He was hired to clean up the mess they left behind. From what little I could see behind the door, I knew I was lucky to not have met them. They tore up the floors and down the walls.

I asked the neighbors about the people that lived there. A lady said that people were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. There were little kids that lived there. She didn’t know them though.

I always feared I would have to knock on the door of a drug trafficking house or other disreputable location. What if I saw someone commit a crime? What if there were children involved? Nah, I’m sure they were responsible enough to fill out their census.

One day I drove out to a house a ways back from the road. The house looked haunted. Several windows were smashed. I thought maybe someone lived there because there was a trash bin on the side of the road for garbage day. There was something eerie about the place which made me feel fearful. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. As I was knocking on the door, a truck pulled into the driveway behind my car rather quickly. I felt rather terrified.

Thankfully, the person who got out of the truck was the owner of the house. He said he had to evict the renter because she was on drugs and almost overdosed several times. It was a really bad situation. When she got evicted she smashed the windows and trashed the place.

I just lucked out that it was garbage day. The owner was slowly starting to fix the place up again. I was able to close out the file on my first visit to that house.

Sometimes I felt thankful for the people I didn’t meet.

The in movers

This year the census date was on April fool’s day, no joke. In a perfect world, we would’ve started counting the population at this time. But global pandemic later…we were knocking on doors up to six months later.

If the location had residents that moved in after the census date, they were called in movers. However, as census workers, we were responsible to try to find census information on the people that moved out. As you can imagine, this was quite challenging at times. Most in movers did not even know if or who was living there before them. Sometimes the neighbors didn’t even know who lived there especially in big apartment complexes where people were always coming and going.

As you can imagine, I visited many apartment complexes. There were the ritzy high end apartments in the suburbs where residents had a doorbell for each apartment. Most were somewhere in between with a set of buzzers by the entrance that half the time no one responded to.

Then there were the lower end apartments. Those apartments didn’t have buzzers on the outer doors and weren’t locked. Some were dimly lit, most smelled like stale cigarette or pot smoke, and some proudly posted their pest spraying efforts.

I’ve been to places that had just been sprayed for roaches. I couldn’t help but feel crawly after leaving. I’ve seen broken beer bottles and garbage littering the hallway floors. Children live in those environments. I’ve heard people fighting behind closed doors that I was too nervous to knock on. I’ve heard people coughing inside. Where they smoking something or did they have something I didn’t want to catch?

I’ve seen small children playing on the streets outside of these apartments unattended. A 2 year old running free in the rain watched by someone who looked to be 6. A few days after I was in that neighborhood there was a shooting. I’ve seen trauma in the making and didn’t feel like there was anything I could do about it. I’ve had little children come up to my car to ask me for money.

It was heartbreaking at times. I felt afraid to be in neighborhoods that these children had to live in without anyone watching their backs.

I’ve been to sketchy run down apartments where the apartment space was occupied by a new BMW or Lexus.

I always had to be vigilant. I had to have thick skin but still be kind and caring towards other people even if they weren’t nice back.

Sometimes when people didn’t answer I would get sent to the same places again and again. So would other census takers. It was important to read the case notes carefully. People don’t respond well when you ring their bell over and over asking about the person they didn’t know who lived there before them. Sometimes people would come and go so quickly that it was almost as if they were never even there because no one knew them. I thought it was kind of sad unless they were in witness protection.

Some apartment managers were great, but most got irritated with us after awhile and were rude. At times it was nearly impossible to close out the cases. Then there were several times I had people track me down while I was at apartment complexes because they never got notified about the census. It was a mess.

Yet through it all, there were a lot of good people that lived in less than ideal circumstances. It was very eye opening. At times I almost felt guilty getting paid so well by the government. Then again you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to some places. Sometimes I never knew what kind of day it would be.

Willing to listen

It was hard to work for the census because at times I knew I was causing others pain with the questions I was asking.

I had to deal with loss rather frequently. I can’t tell you how many times I spoke to people who lost someone close to them. I felt callous and impersonal about it sometimes. I know you told me that your dad died, but did he die before or after the census date.

I spoke to a man who lost his wife this year. He was out in the yard with his children when I pulled up. When did your wife die? Was it before or after the census date? I always felt a bit awful about it.

As I was getting ready to leave, he told me that I could turn my car around in the driveway and drive out instead of backing out. His driveway was on a hill. He said his wife left the house to go to work one icy morning and slid into a tree. He told me not to worry, she did not die in the driveway. She died after a long battle with leukemia.

I felt sad for his loss. I felt bad for his children. So I took a few extra minutes to listen. I told him I was sorry for his loss. I could tell it meant a lot to him. Sometimes people just need someone who is willing to listen.