Friday, April 30, 2010

My NRFU Diary - Day 4

I’ve been going on and on about Ellen, the needy old crone at my Census 2010 training who keeps disrupting the proceedings with questions designed only to get her engaged in a dialogue with the instructor. I think I can very accurately paraphrase one such exchange.

Instructor: I’ll be meeting in [named locale] with whoever wants to meet with me to go over your 660.1s on Monday between 4 and 6:30.
Ellen: To clarify — and I just want to be very clear about this — between 4 and 6:30 you’ll be meeting with whoever…shouldn’t be whomever? Strike that. That’s probably neither here nor there. To clarify, you’ll be meeting with whomever or whoever, whichever is correct, between 4 and 6:30. And what day again?
Instructor: Monday.
Ellen: Not Tuesday then, if I understand correctly, and by that token, certainly not Wednesday either.
Instructor: No, Monday.
Ellen: Thanks. Just wanted to avoid any misunderstanding. And that’s if we have a question about our….what again?
Instructor: Your 660.1s. The form you fill out if a hostile nonrespondent curses at you in a language you don’t understand.
Ellen: Like Farsi, for instance. I don’t speak a word of Farsi. Does anybody else?

The rest of the class either ignores her or stares daggers at her windpipe.

Ellen: So I’m assuming Farsi would qualify?
Instructor: Yes. Any language you don’t understand.
Ellen: And that includes languages we’ve heard, and can probably identify, but don’t actually speak, like French or German, assuming they’re not being spoken in a strange accent, or some strange dialect that might make them unidentifiable.
Instructor: Any language you don’t understand.
Ellen: Just for my reference, how are we defining “understand”?
Instructor: Use your best judgment.
Ellen: What if we can’t tell if it’s Spanish or Portuguese? A neighbor from down the street went to Brazil back in the 90s, and said the two sound very similar.
Instructor: Any language you don’t understand.
Ellen: Or was it Argentina? No, it couldn’t have been Argentina because they definitely do speak Spanish there, unless I’m badly mistaken. I haven’t been there myself, but I saw a TV movie in the 70s, I guess it was, about Eva Peron.
Instructor: Any language you don’t understand.
Ellen: So as a rule of thumb, if we’re cursed in a language we don’t understand — any language at all — even if we can’t positively identify it, then we fill out a 660.1
Instructor: Exactly. A 660.1.
Ellen: And then we give that to you in [named locale] on Monday, between 4 and 6:30?
Instructor: That’s right. Yes.
Ellen: OK. I just wanted to be sure. And we use the No. 2 pencil to fill in the form, or a ballpoint pen?
Instructor: Pen.
Duly noted. Is black ink OK — I mean, imagine we’re at our desk at home, and without thinking use a pen we might use for everyday correspondence, instead of one of those provided — or does it have to be blue?
Instructor: Use your best judgment. Just press hard enough for the second copy to be legible.
Ellen: Just to double-check: by legible you mean readable, right?
Instructor: Right. Readable.
Ellen: In how brightly lighted a room? One that’s lighted by just a couple of candles, for instance, or by bright sunlight?

At that point, the student I’ve described earlier as Daddy’s Perfect Girl interjects in her ultra-demure, nearly inaudible murmur.

Actually, on page 6-22, paragraph 3, of the salmon-colored field manual, it specifies only that it be in pen. It makes no specific mention of color.

After three and a half days of that, we finally got to go out into The Field this afternoon, and to conduct interviews with real Americans, and what a very dispiriting experience! My first interview was with a 24-year-old mother of two kids with different surnames and a look of utter helplessness. Then there was a grandmother and her very polite, morbidly obese granddaughter, the latter with one of those unique black girls’ names full of k’s and q’s. It was breathtaking outside, and here was this 15-year-old girl glued with a glazed expression to the TV at one o’clock in the afternoon.

Finally, there was a gracious woman from one of the less glamorous South American countries, one of the –guays, who seemed genuinely mortified that “we” hadn’t received her completed questionnaire, and whose strangely spotty 31-year-old son sat over the course of our interview unashamedly picking his nose up to the first knuckle.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

NRFU Diary - Day 3

I wouldn’t have imagined it possible, but it got even worse yesterday. But that particular cloud had a thin silver lining.

It turned out that Ellen wasn’t the only attention junkie in our group of 15; several other women had only been hiding their neediness lights beneath bushel baskets. As the day progressed — glacially, except not quite that fast — at least four of them seemed to be trying to come up with more intricate hypothetical situations we could ponder and ponder and ponder. Eddie, the boorish fat latino, continued to blurt things about his Extensive Experience in the Field at random moments in between doing the most hideous doodling I’ve ever seen. And we’re not talking about demure blurting, but sharp, canine blurting that on at least three occasions rudely shattered the trance I’d managed to go into.

Then it got worse. They decided it wasn’t enough to dream up ridiculously intricate hypothetical situations in which we census...enumerators might be at a momentary loss as to which little box to put a X (not a check!) with our No. 2 pencils. They began cracking jokes too, not a one of them far below my own lofty standard of excellence.
One of the few pleasures of being ancient is coming to understand how we age, and how very little we really change. One member of our group, a dour, rotund little woman of late middle age, is forever finding in our many workbooks and manuals exactly the arcane bits of knowledge our instructor needs to make a definitive ruling on some tricky issue. She is absolutely joyless and nearly inaudible as she advises the instructor of her discovery, and every time she does it I picture her at seven being praised as Daddy’s Perfect Girl because she never raises her voice above a murmur and can spell words you’re not supposed to be able to spell until middle school, or name all 50 state capitals.

So here’s the thin silver lining. Being around these people raises my self-esteem. I’m (silently, except here, in the privacy of my own rantings) arrogant, but not boorish or needy. Where others are forever desperately cracking stupid jokes, or blurting, or posing complicated questions just for the joy of having the instructor’s attention, the worst I do is mutter, “Oh, for crying out loud!” or even, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” occasionally when, for instance, Ellen yet again derails the train, if you will, to complain about the clumsiness of the prose in one of our manuals. I dare to imagine that I look pretty good in comparison.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My NFRU Diary - Day 2

Under the depressing fluorescent lights in the basement of the town’s biggest Catholic church, the fun is unending at the Census Bureau’s enumerator (that is, information-harvesting) training down in Cold Spring, heretofore best known, maybe apocryphally, as the home of the Hudson Valley’s only chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Yesterday, I was vividly reminded that there is indeed one in every crowd, said one being an insatiable attention junkie who keeps stopping the proverbial train with gratuitous questions intended only to monopolize the instructor’s attention.

In the early 90s, when I was trained as a court-appointed special advocate (for foster children, you see), it was a little nebbish who kept raising his hand and whining questions until a certain classmate couldn’t bear it any longer, and sharply declared, “Enough already with the questions you don’t really want answers to!” Yes, I was that classmate.

This time, it’s a Ms. Ellen N—, from beautiful Beacon, as I am. She’s maybe 60, with bags under her eyes and the sort of lugubrious bray people from other places associate with the most unbearable sort of New Yorker, and she’s making a great many of us wonder if our manuals-‘n’forms-laden Census Bureau shoulder bags are heavy enough for inflicting fatal head trauma.

At one point this afternoon, as most of us were aching to be dismissed for the day, she read aloud a sentence in one of our manuals and asked our instructor if she didn’t agree it was badly written. Maybe Martin Amis wasn’t available when they hired a freelancer.

Stephanie, the extremely overweight 21-year-old with the gorgeous face who sat beside me yesterday, apparently dropped out last night, and today her place was taken by Eddie, a corpulent Latino very intent on our all knowing that he is no novice, like the rest of us, but a seasoned veteran of the 2000 census. Early on, when I began cursing under my breath at Ellen’s show-stopping questions, he would chuckle sympathetically, and at one point even whispered that there’s one like her in every training session. But then, after lunch, she snickered at one of his boorish quips, and from that moment on he aimed every new one at her. How long the two of them made the afternoon seem!

Meanwhile, I and Carlos, the installer of ceramic floors I’d chatted with during the first break, amused one another from opposite sites of the room by miming various methods by which we longed to hasten Sue into the loving embrace of her Maker. I’d draw my finger across my jugular, and then Carlos would yank an imaginary noose behind his neck. Hours of fun!

You can understand why people would want to throw us enumerators out of their houses. We’re supposed to insist that they identify themselves racially, and we’re not allowed to surmise their sexes; they have to confirm them. Our instructor said that instead of asking, “So are you a male or female,” we might want to go with something more along the lines of, “I’m going to put you down as a female.” A world of difference!

Boy, am I hoping not to have to interview any touchy butch lesbians with chips on their tattooed, sunburned shoulders.

The Can o' Biscuits and Why They Flopped

The Can o’ Biscuits were late getting out of Rotterdam because after the show at the De Doelen concert hall, Des disappeared, and the band coach wasn’t very well going to leave with one of the band missing. After nearly an hour’s frantic searching, the band’s road manager finally determined that he was on the crew bus, sulking about Jerome, the lead singer, having “forgotten” to introduce him during “Hammerlocks and Bagel”. After introducing Shlomo from Tel Aviv, the guitar player, and then Pedro, the drummer, Jerome had given the signal that the band should blast into the final chorus of their famous klezmer-flavored hit. Now, though, Jerome was claiming that it had been just an oversight, one engendered by his exhaustion — the band had played seven shows in six days, which won’t sound like much to the lay reader who doesn’t factor in the endless driving between cities, the inevitable breakdowns on desolate stretches of the motorway, and learning to sleep every night in a different bed, galaxies from hearth ‘n’ home.

Des wasn’t having a word of it, though, his belief being that Jerome had been trying to get back at him for taking back to his own Hôtel du Congrès room a chick they’d both had their eyes on at the Brussels show.

When the band formed years before in the basement of Pedro’s parents’ home in Angola, Wisconsin, one of the first things they’d all agreed on was that they wouldn’t refer to women as chicks. It was such a corny old word, chicks, one a lounge singer in white patent loafers and a matching belt might use in between trying to sound like Frank Sinatra. Shlomo from Tel Aviv had wondered if girls were OK, but they agreed it was demeaning to refer to a female over 45 as a girl, and they weren’t likely, at their age, to attract many fans much younger than that.

Pedro’s parents had died 18 and 21 years before, respectively, Papa of congestive heart disease, Mama of vertigo, but Pedro still thought of the house as theirs, and for that reason spent most of his upstairs time in his small bedroom, which was lined with Bob Marley and Lindsay Lohan posters even though Pedro shared Jerome’s belief that Marley had been inferior to Jimmy Cliff in all things except popularity.

There’d been a lot of resistance to the Biscuits from the record companies their first couple of decades, during which they did little but rehearse and play the occasional birthday party. The general consensus was that young audiences, who were America’s most avid music consumers, wouldn’t warm to a debut album by a group already in their mid-forties. The band’s manager countered that their ages were irrelevant. What was the big deal about their being wrinkled or balding when lots of very popular younger groups were downright ugly? Had the recalcitrant record company executives ever gotten a load of the Dave Mathews Band, for instance? Not exactly Calvin Klein underwear models, they!

If young consumers were going to be put off by the sight of their male pattern baldness, beer bellies, and, in Pedro’s case, premature liver spotting, they simply wouldn’t allow photographs, and for live shows would hire someone to light them dimly and really flatteringly. By the time they finally decided to release their own stuff on the Internet, they were all of them over 60, though only poor Shlomo from Tel Aviv looked it.

The Belgian chick Des and Jerome both had their eyes on had turned out to be 54, and a grandmother, and there’s nothing especially euphonious about the way a native Flemish speaker makes English sound, though it isn’t quite as hard on the ears as a native speaker of Swiss German. The thought of having a 54-year-old lover becomes very much less dispiriting as one grows older; while it might inspire an 18-year-old to pretend to stick his finger down his own throat, it might make a 70-year-old stand up straighter than he has in years, and to take greater pains with his personal hygiene.

Arriving in Munich, Des announced he was leaving the band to spend more time with his family. His wife had actually left him seven years before, and they hadn’t had any kids, but no one had to know that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My NRFU Diary - Part 1

I got a laff yesterday at the first day of training for my new career with the Census Bureau. Everyone had to stand up and introduce himself, specifying whether she had ever before worked for the government, revealing what had attracted him to censusing. I have often found it effective in such settings to stand up and say, "My name is John, and I'm an alcoholic," and this was no exception. The neediest member of our...crew of 17 — the one who's forever asking questions just for the joy of getting the instructor's attention — said, "Hi, John," which was a nice piece of work. Those not acquainted with the protocal of 12-step meetings are probably scratching their heads at this point; trust me, though: it was hilarious!

I confessed that I had indeed worked previously for the government, but said that if the other 16 were to know more, I'd have to kill them. When the gales of appreciative tittering died down, I finished by claiming that, while other boys had dreamed of becoming cowboys or firemen or astronauts or Dallas Cowboy tailbacks, I'd always dreamed of being a census...enumerator.

Elsewhere, the laffs were few and far between. Our crew leader is an attractive young woman with the intonation and manner of a kindergarten teacher you'd want your child to have. She revealed sheepishly early on that federal guidelines, or whatever you call them, compelled her to read everything she said to us out of a book, and spewed acronyms. We learned, for instance, that our mission is to conduct NRFUs — Non-Respondent Followups. That is, we're to track down those wanton scofflaws who didn't fill in their census forms earlier in the year and get in person the information they failed to provide the easy impersonal by-mail way.

We learned that PII stands for personally identifiable information, which we are forbidden by law to divulge. We were issued attractive shoulder bags bearing the Bureau of the Census logo and containing pencils, a ballpoint pen with which we were to fill out the never-ending paperwork to which we devoted our morning, pencil sharpeners, erasers, paper clips, and a bunch of informative books. We swore to preserve and protect the Constitution, and were fingerprinted.

It wasn't as glamorous as I've made it sound. It take forever to get that black stuff off your fingertips.

I was reminded of the early summer of 1982, when, just back from three months in the UK and Italy with my future first bride, I — the former king of Los Angeles, the rock critic all America most loved to loathe, a former Warner Bros. recording artist and confidant to the stars, a universal object of female desire — took a job typing forms at UCLA just to get a little (a very little!) money coming in. 'Twas awful and demoralizing then, and it's no more pleasant now, though probably even less so for the out-of-work financier I chatted with during one of our breaks. Life has a knack for teaching a person humility.