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My Turn, Mary James: My gig as a Census worker in 2020

By Mary James

“I’ll do my civic duty,” I thought, when the little Census Bureau post card arrived in the mail asking citizens if they’d like to help count every person in the country. Besides, I told myself it’ll be interesting, educational, and provide a fun diversion from my COVID monotony entrapping me 24/7 with my husband and son. The virus had discouraged a lot of original workers so I knew I was needed. And we were required to mask up and social distance. So how hard could this be, really? Just going door-to-door with a smile and pad and paper?

My first plunge into reality was the 25 hours of training. It used to be in person but COVID had forced it online except the first session when we got our equipment. Where are the printed questionnaires and pens? “It’s all done on a smart phone, Mrs. James,” replied the kindly trainer. Uh-oh, this would be a challenge for someone who has only ever navigated a flip phone. He began instructing us on the device’s proper use when I suddenly heard him say, “Please turn your phone over, Mrs. James, the front screen is on the other side.” Well, I KNEW that, I was just slow on the draw.

The training included modules upon modules of information: the history of the census; how important it is; what a key part people like us were playing; how to log information in correctly; the importance of confidentiality lest we wind up fired, fined, or in the clinker; how to dress; how to approach people; how to react in any situation like dogs that look like they might enjoy you for lunch; or reluctant, fearful, or downright hostile residents. One role-playing example was what to do if some privacy-obsessed, anti-government freak pulls a gun and orders you off his property. Gulp, this suddenly made me wonder if I’d chosen the wrong line of work. But I forged ahead. Every module had a test at the end that you had to pass or be dumped from the training. I survived. I was on to field work – the guts of the program I signed up for!

Every morning we’d get a new batch of addresses. A lot of mine were near enough to my home that I could just walk. I was gratified I didn’t know any of my clients – that meant they were good, responsible citizens who had already done their census. Since I signed up for about five hours’ worth of work a day, that amounted to a LOT of hoofing – those shoes have found a new home in the trash.

I also got to explore neighborhoods I never knew existed. A lot of addresses were head-scratchers: homes that had been demolished since the last census a decade ago and were now empty lots; homes that were single family and were now multiple units, and vice versa. There were structures so dilapidated I labeled them “abandoned” … until I was stunned when I hit the sidewalk and someone emerged from a door to call me back. Wow. How many of us are truly aware of how some of our fellow citizens live and how lucky some of us are? If no one was home, I’d often get the same address again. I had to return to one large apartment complex so many times I thought about renting a room there.

I only had a couple unfortunate experiences: standing to unlock my car after leaving it for the day while I walked a neighborhood and suddenly feeling unbearable stinging on my feet, only to discover I had dislodged an army of red ants; and fleeing a man and his two sons who shouted me away while I couldn’t tell them fast enough that I totally understood their feelings and to please have a nice day.

I have to say a word about my supervisor. At a time when folks love to trash government employees as overreaching, bothersome bureaucrats, they need to meet the likes of Joann and other Census workers who undertook what was unquestionably one of the toughest tasks a nation could ask of them. She was kind, professional, ever so patient, and always available day or night to answer my questions or fix my mistakes.

I shall always value my experience as a census taker and feel I did my part to serve my country. I learned a lot too. Now if I could just summon the courage to buy myself a smart phone and put some of that knowledge to work.

Mary James lives in Salisbury.

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