Friday, May 7, 2010

Further Adventures of Johnny Census

Yesterday was by far the most interesting I’ve had as a temporary employee of the US Census Bureau, though it didn’t start promisingly. I was given my second batch of addresses to work through yesterday afternoon, and they included two on what may be the most desolate street in town, one not even marked by a road sign. There are three structures on this road, the first being a decrepit apartment building that looks as though it’s desperate for someone to come kick it over. Plastic bagfuls of crap are piled up in front of each of the half-dozen or so apartments. One resident has fashioned a festive display out of cardboard beer boxes. There was no one around to try to find the addresses at which I needed to conduct interviews; the only person in sight was a woman with a lot of split ends who sat on her rotting front porch jabbering excitedly into a cell phone in Spanish. A bit farther toward the river, I came across a huge boarded-up, graffiti-covered apartment building, and a boarded-up house that at one time was probably majorly swanky. Not a soul in sight, though, now that Sra. Split-Ends had gone inside.

I marveled at the beauty of the cloud-dotted sky (it was a day to take your breath away in the Hudson Valley), and returned to [Withheld] Terrace, where I’ve been spending 95 percent of my census-related time. I was reminded of how avid a fan of kindness I am when one guy eagerly invited me into his glowering teen-filled apartment when I explained why I was darkening his doorstep, and then, after I’d gathered all the facts ‘n’ figures the government is paying me so handsomely to solicit, said it had been nice meeting me! I interviewed a spotty 22-year-old white girl, and a surly 25-year-old who got annoyed with me for telling her that the Census Bureau doesn’t recognize Puerto Rican as a race. I have not yet encountered anyone who insisted on my listing his or her race as human, but I understand it’s commonplace.

I continue to be awed by the amount of clutter poor people are willing to tolerate. In one apartment, I wound up doing the interview standing because it would have taken longer to clear a chair of the flotsam and jetsam that covered everything to a depth of about 18 inches.

My last interview of the day was with a middle-aged white guy with hair that I’d have described as Einstein-ish, but which a younger person might have thought evocative of Christopher Lloyd’s in Back to the Future. He seemed preoccupied. When I showed him my badge and told him why I was there, he mumbled, “Sure, sure,” and hurried back into his apartment.

And I’d thought I’d seen disarray and clutter before! His apartment made the second most slovenly I’d visited look in comparison like the cover of Architectural Digest. After a couple minutes’ grabbing things off a chair that I presumed he was going to offer me, he grew impatient with the task, and simply swept everything onto the floor, not that you could see it beneath what he’d previously swept onto it.

I sat down. I expected him to offer me tea or something. Instead, he handed me an iPad. It wasn’t the first one I’d touched. Claire and I made a pilgrimage to the shrine-like Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York City before our marriage ended, and played with one briefly while hordes slavered behind us, frantic for their own chances. But this one looked fresh out of the box.

“Apple!” he bleated censoriously. “They design the most gorgeous devices, with the most gorgeous displays. But there’s no way to use an iPad as recommended without clouding it gorgeous display with unsightly fingerprints! It’s like handing out blurry glasses to people attending a screening of a movie shot by a brilliant cinematographer!

“The one in your hands, though…I’ve been using it all afternoon, and not a trace of a smudge or fingerprint on it! Ask why!”

He didn’t wait for me to comply. “Because of this,” he said, waving what looked like the latex glove a doctor will put on to handle your naughty bits. “Behold: the iPad Glove, developed and patented by me! It corrects the device’s inherent design flaw, and for only $19.95 retail! The patent’s pending!”

His exclamation points were exhausting me. I asked if his were a full time or seasonal residence. He answered with a question of his own — did I want to be his date for lunch with Steve Jobs — who was flying all the way from Cupertino, California, to see him — next Tuesday? I told him in ordinary circumstances I’d have loved to, but that the census wasn’t going to take itself. He said, “Maybe another time,” but I know some opportunities come only once in a lifetime.

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