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.

Hear my album Sorry We're Open

Thursday, May 6, 2010

There's a Mouse in the House

Every morning when he comes down to make his oatmeal and discovers my feces, which resemble enlarged caraway seeds, on the kitchen counter, he growls, “You little motherfucker.” And you should have heard him on Monday morning, when I got up onto the dining room table, which the missus had thought unimpregnable, and feasted on one of the 39-cent avocadoes he’d brought home from Aldi! I’m not supposed to enjoy guacamole as much as the next fellow? And it’s hardly as though I ate the whole thing; I only ate a sort of crater into it; probably five-sixths of it was left. But he had to make a big display of binning the whole thing. I wish some of his friends to whom he’s always talking about his own great frugality had been there to see it!

He doesn’t have a garbage disposal, and ever since he moved in he’d been tossing his garbage into an open white plastic bag under the sink. Well, that was really bright! Why didn’t he just order a big sign for the front window: Welcome, Vermin. 24-Hour Buffet. He finally started putting his garbage in a closed cylindrical oatmeal container when he noticed how prolifically I’ve been defecating down there.

After the missus moved out last month, it took him a while to get through his head that any crumb on the counter, any morsel left in a pan or pot, was an irresistible invitation to me. He began tidying up after himself a lot more vigilantly, but you’d be surprised how little it takes to keep me going. A fleck of oatmeal? A grain of rice? Bon appetit!

I remember with delight the little prank I pulled on him and the missus late last summer. I hoarded in her wellingtons bits of dog food I stole from her greyhound’s bowl. When she discovered my stash, she was sure Hubby, who prides himself on his…unusual sense of humor, was up to another of his wacky shenanigans. She told him over dinner about having started to put on her wellies, only to discover them full of dry dog food, and interpreted his delighted giggling as self-betrayal. He had to do some fancy talking to convince her of his innocence. I almost shat myself laughing. Well, I actually did.

It’s what we do.

He’s been looking into getting a housemate. I’ve heard him say he wants one just slightly more than testicular cancer, but that he needs the money, now that the rent from the house in the UK comes no longer. He clearly didn’t share the missus’s adoration of the greyhound, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed he won’t rent to a cat-lover. I’m hoping he’ll remember how the basement reeked of kitty urine when he first moved in.

The other day I heard him talking abut mousetraps, and his saying he didn’t want a traditional one. “The poor little bastard’s just trying to survive like everyone else,” he said. I gather whoever he was talking to urged him to get a humane mouse trip, but having seen what I’ve seen of the guy, I can’t picture it. It pains him to spend money. This is a guy who drives 35 miles to the nearest Trader Joe’s, in Danbury, Connecticut, and spends $23, a guy who secretly prides himself on having spent less on clothing since he and the missus got back from Thailand in 2006 than his pal James spent on a pair of shoes this week. One of New York’s Great Cheapskates.

Last night, after having gotten the idea on line, he tried to capture me by balancing a cardboard tube with peanut butter at one end over his orange bucket from Home Depot. Let’s just say the peanut butter — from Trader Joe’s! — was delicious, and that I am still at large.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Great Silence and How It Began

Avid readers of this journal — and there isn’t any other kind — know that my daughter, the person I’ve loved most and best in this world, hasn’t spoken to me since March 2002. In the early days of our estrangement, people would reflexively say, “Well, she’s only 17 [and then 18, and then 19, and then 20], and will come around when she grows up a little.” Now that she’s in her mid-twenties, and has grown up a little, she's writing in her church newsletter about how she’s a great believer in forgiveness, except when it comes to her dad, and people are more inclined to wonder aloud what I could have done to make her so very angry.

Well, now it can be told. A couple of months after her 16th birthday, before which her mother and I had allowed her only to attend well-chaperoned parties, she began dating Matt, a senior at the high school at which she herself was a sophomore. I saw a lot of my younger self in him, and not a little James Dean. He tried to conceal his shyness under a veneer of toughness, and did a lot of what psychologists have come to call acting out. He was regularly suspended from school for fighting. He had no driver’s license because he’d shown up drunk for his driving test, and been arrested.

At the same time, I could well understand my daughter’s attraction to him. He was good-looking and athletic (I found out later that he’d been a very promising gymnast before becoming addicted to marihuana), and carried himself in a way that made other boys want to follow him into battle. He had unmistakable native intelligence, though it embarrassed him when I noticed.

Lacking a driver’s license, he had asked a buddy to drive him over to meet me the first evening and then take my daughter to see one of those explosion-filled Nicolas Cage movies teenage boys seem to like. I wasn’t comfortable, though, with the idea of my daughter alone in a souped-up ’61 Impala with two Auto Shop toughs, and so insisted, in spite of her seething, on driving them myself. She only got angrier when Matt sat in front with me because be thought he’d feel like an idiot riding with her in the back “like a couple of rich assholes with a chauffeur”. He asked if it were all right to smoke in the car, and I was afraid that my saying no might jeopardize our growing bond, but he just shrugged and said, “That’s cool. I can wait.”

He and my daughter began seeing a lot of each other. Apparently at her request, they took the bus several afternoons a week to walk around Spring Lake chatting. Like any father, I’d hoped she’d marry an anesthesiologist or an attorney specializing in intellectual property issues, or, better yet, be one herself, but if an auto mechanic made her happy, it made me happy too.

But then one afternoon maybe seven weeks after the Nicolas Cage movie, Matt phoned my office to say he needed to see me. I had Jeannie cancel my 3:00 o’clock to accommodate him. He was a mess. It appeared as though he hadn’t slept well in days, or shaved. He reeked of cigarettes, apparently having showered no more often than shaved. He gnawed on one of his fingernails, though, as with anyone who works on cars, there was a lot of black gunk beneath it. He said my daughter was “really nice and cute and all,” but that it was me with whom he was really in love.

I was of course terribly flattered, but made very clear to him that I’m straight, and could never be more than a confidant or mentor to him. He glared at me accusingly for a long moment, and then ran from my office in tears. My daughter apparently stopped hearing from him, but refused to discuss it with me. A couple of weeks later, The Great Silence began.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My NRFU Diary - Day 6

My third afternoon out in The Field collecting census data, it took a long time for Roy [surmane withheld] of [town withheld] to respond to his doorbell, and I could immediately see why. He weighed around 350 pounds, and probably had had to inch down his narrow hallway sideways to get to the door. Seeing his Sarah 2012 T-shirt, stretched nearly into illegibility though it may have been, and the Doritos crumbs on his lips, hearing Rush Limbaugh on the radio, noticing the Get Youre [sic] Filthy Goverment [sic] Hands Off My Medicare placard leaning against the wall, I thought Roy and I probably wouldn’t make it onto each other’s Facebook pages. The way in which he greeted me — “You got a problem?” – reinforced this impression.

When I advised him of the purpose of my visit, he sneered the sneer of someone who’d been pleased by George Bush’s re-election in 2004 and said, “And I suppose it’s just a coincidence that you show up right in the middle of Rush.” I ignored this provocation and asked, though in 999 cases out of 1000 in these subsidized low-income housing sectors it’s really a foolish question, if his were a full time home, or a seasonal/vacation one. He answered with a question of his own: “What's it like working for a communist dictator?”

I gathered he meant President Obama. I ignored this provocation and asked to how many full-time residents the apartment was home, pointing out that the specific attributes of full-time residence were listed on the attractive pale blue Government Printing Office handout I offered him. He said, as though 6, “That’s mine to know and yours to wonder,” though I suspect he’d have spelled it youre’s. He pretended to use the handout as toilet paper.

A little girl of around nine waddled up behind him slurping greedily at an ice cream bar and glaring at me in that pre-emptively hostile way obese children develop to preclude being ridiculed. She probably outweighed me, and I’m 6-1 if I’m an inch. Her hair was greasy, her eyes full of porcine malice. I decided to indulge in a little provocation of my own. “So I gather,” I said, frowning at my form, pretending to try to find the appropriate box in which to draw an X, “that this is Mrs. [name withheld]?”

“No, stupid,” he said, delighting in what apparently struck him as a rare opportunity to flaunt his intellectual superiority, “this here’s my daughter Britonae, and make sure you spell it right. After a couple of false starts, he told me how to spell it.

“You know what I bet?" he said. "I bet you’re a big fan of Nazi Pelosi too, aincha?”

“Nancy Pelosi the devoted wife, mother, and grandmother whose alleged lack of family values is viciously ridiculed by right-wingers who've themselves run off with shapely young aides while their own wives were having masectomies?" I asked. "That Nancy Pelosi?”

He had me just where he wanted me. “Yeah,” he affirmed, sneering, “the one from San Fagcisco.” The mention of which caused Britonae to make a face as though she’d realized that her ice cream were really dog poop. “Ewww!” she said, to Roy’s great delight. She ran back into the apartment, presumably to be sick.

I think my crew leader would have been pretty disappointed, but I viewed it as my patriotic duty to stab Roy in the jugular with one of the No. 2 pencils with which we enumerators are supposed to fill out our questionnaires. As he fell face forward, bleeding to death, I ran into the apartment and grabbed poor Britonae, who wasn’t throwing up at all, of course, but getting herself another highly caloric snack. I managed somehow to lift her, and to run with her back to my car. When I explained to Child Protective Services that her father had been an unironic Rush Limbaugh listener, they assured me she would be put on a nearly flavorless, but highly nutritious diet immediately, and be enrolled in Progressive Reprogramming, in which the children of persons who shouldn’t have been allowed to reproduce in the first place are taught to mindlessly embrace Obamian Marxism.

Just another day for Johnny the Census Boy!

My NRFU Diary - Day 5

My favorite part of my second day in The Field as an official, badged Census Worker was meeting and “interviewing” Ms. Valeree P—, [number withheld] [street withheld], over in [town withheld]. Hers was the only door I knocked on yesterday opened by an apparently Filipino houseboy who introduced himself as Ferdinand. When I told him what I wanted and showed him my badge, I detected the beginning of a sneer on his little brown face, but then I heard a throaty female voice call, “I’ll attend to this myself, boy,” in an accent that I couldn’t quite place, but had no trouble at all finding bewitching.

She didn’t walk toward the door, but glided, as though on a dolly. My nostrils filled with the smell of her perfume. There are those who believe that our olfactory memories are keener than all others; I was transported instantaneously to an elegant department store in Paris in 1987, where I was transfixed by the spectacle of an inconceivably gorgeous young woman offering to spray the wrists of jewel-strewn matrons as they headed from one designeer collection to another. I stood watching her, probably open-mouthed, until she noticed me and made the face of someone who’s just tasted something acrid.

“My name,” Alfred’s mistress purred, “is Valeree, with three e’s, as mentioned earlier in your reminiscence, and I recognize it as my duty to cooperate fully with the Census Bureau, however inappropriate or…intrusive their demands may be.” She switched her rhinestone-bedecked cigarette holder to her left hand and extended her right. I have always had a…thing for women who wear black satin opera gloves to lounge around in their own homes on a Sunday afternoon, and for those able to pack so much innuendo into three syllables, as she had into intrusive.

She pouted at me cinematically and flared her nostrils in the manner of Chrissie Amphlett as she let me slide her negligee down her gorgeous narrow shoulders. It fell like petals around her feet. Noting with delight that she was wearing stay-up black stockings, I kissed her neck. She shuddered. I unhooked her black lace brassiere. I poked her in the tummy, but not with my hands. She moaned as my lips found their way to her left breast. She grasped me; oh, did she! Her tongue flicked at my own. Our hands explored each other.

She asked if I had protection. I admitted I did not, having anticipated nothing like what was going on between us. She let go of me and whispered, “Then I shall send Ferd to the convenience store to get some, though he’s been beaten comatose by local roughnecks each of the past four times I’ve sent him there.”

I told her it was more than I could bear to have on my conscience. She asked how much the Census Bureau paid. When I told her, she guffawed, but then immediately put her fingertips to her mouth and said she was sorry. She said she would pay me twice as much per hour to be her love slave, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about strangers’ dogs, as her poodles weren’t biters. I heard Ferdinand clearing his throat pointedly, and wondered if she were painting a realistic picture. I told her I was deeply flattered, but that I’d sworn an oath to the Bureau, and was a man of my word.

Her expression turned to one of tart petulance. She cared no longer if the smoke of her cigarette got in my eyes and nostrils. I sighed and asked if someone usually lived in the apartment, or if it was a vacation or seasonal home. I could see in her remarkable teal eyes that I’d hurt her terribly. Another one lost, and this so soon after the worst one.

The sacrifices we make so that no state sends to Congress either more or fewer representative than its population warrants, there to be given money and oral sex by corporate lobbyists, the scourge of our democracy!