Naomi Marcus, the author. Photo by Colin Campbell

I figured my enumerator job with the US Census was over in early October when my census-issued iPhone bleakly texted me: you have no census work today, you have no census work today, no cases for you

Ah, but I was wrong: a few minutes later Central Administration — called THE HUB — sent a follow-up text.  Curt. Anonymous. Brusque.  Think Mission Impossible.

We still urgently need enumerators in Mississippi, Idaho, Kentucky, and Missouri. You will receive a $500 bonus and a per diem plus your salary if you travel. Contact your direct supervisor immediately if available to travel tomorrow.

Right. 

I had signed on for the census in the innocent end of 2019, when walking around my neighborhood for a bit of extra money and an important cause seemed like a good thing. What’s not to like? My streets, my hills, my community, my feet, fresh air, counting.

Originally scheduled for April, the pandemic pushed the start date back to August, and I had to think when I was contacted in early August by a rushed, harried voice on the phone from San Mateo Census District Office #3282,

“If you are still interested in census work, then training tomorrow. The Village Community Meeting Room in Bayview Hunter’s Point. 12 to 2.” 

Click. (this tape will self destruct in 10 seconds) 

I decided to play it out as far as I could. See how safe I felt. The “training“ was chaotic and disorganized. They left the windows open as disheveled, distracted district managers scurried around, handing out HR forms and hand sanitizer. They viewed our IDs, had us swear (loyalty, I think it was, garbled as it was behind their masks), and signed us up for direct deposit.

The actual “training” was done at home, online. By the time my ID badge and iPhone were delivered to my door, I’d already billed for 12 paid hours of online training: Create rapport with potential respondents: praise their plants, or mention their sports teams if they have insignia on their t-shirt.

I’d passed the 10 question final exam; I was all in. 

As an enumerator, I worked on the NRFU project, (pronounced NOORFUU with a straight face by all my census coworkers).   

NRFU = Non-Response Follow-Up.

NRFU’s mission, if we should choose to accept it, was to knock on all doors of census tract addressees who hadn’t responded by mail or online. 

I was assigned cases south of Cesar Chavez: Bernal, Outer Mission, Excelsior,  Ingleside, Bayview Hunters Point, and Daly City.  

One bright, clear, pre-fires mid-August morning, I swung my census bag over my shoulder, placed my census badge in its census lanyard, revved up my census iPhone, put on my mask and shield, and set out to climb Bernal Hill.  

The Dutch House

You always remember your first one. Polite. Calm. Informed. The very tall Dutch father of two wore his mask, I (very short) wore my mask, and we got through the questions quickly. Five minutes flat. He sat on his garden bench and I stood, six-ish feet apart, poking his answers into my phone. He knew about the census. He had just forgotten to do it.

He thanked me for working. I apologized for the question about what sex he considered himself. He laughed, and apologized for the impossible spelling of the family last name.  He offered me water;  I asked for a lemon off his tree.

My Guatemalan Traje

Here’s the thing: I believe I did some good.  I interviewed people who wouldn’t have otherwise been counted. When I worked  the Cesar Chavez Street/Mission Street/San Jose Avenue corridor, I wore my Guatemalan skirt, and my grey hair loose like a flag.  

On Folsom near Precita, I walked up the stairs to an MDU (Multi Dwelling Unit) and rang the bell of apartment No. 3.

A young man came out, unmasked. I walked back down to the sidewalk, explained in Spanish who I was and asked, as I was taught, if he had 10 minutes for me. Looking anxious, not wanting to turn down the nice abuelita, but not sure if it was safe to answer my questions, he hesitated. He pulled a mask out of his pocket, donned it. “Y para que?” “And for what?” he asked. I get it. 

The questions are invasive: name, date of birth, renter or owner, what sex do you consider yourself, what race do you consider yourself, and in that race which country of origin? Who lives with you, and what are they to you?

I answered, in Spanish, suddenly inspired by Gogol, 

“Well, we are counting souls,” I said cheerily,  “pues, we need all souls who live here to be recorded, todas las almas en esta casa, so we can advocate for them and say THESE SOULS need health care, and good schools, and clean water and air, and THESE SOULS deserve good representatives in the government, and, bueno, si, ESTAS ALMAS, THESE SOULS exist.

The young man had been joined on the stoop by two blinking toddlers, then a jumble of other young  Latino men and women.

I saw in his eyes that he got it; he answered the questions solemnly. Then, one by one, I unraveled the relationships of them all:  sisters, brothers, cunadas and cunados. 

It took a long time, but it was totally worth it: Twelve people were living there. 

Twelve people who let me count their souls.  

Count Me! Count Me!

On San Bruno Avenue, I rang the bell of a neat, tidy single-family home. The second-story windows opened, and a pair of smiling ancient Asian faces gazed down at me.  I waved my census badge at them and smiled. They waved and giggled, and made that gesture: wait, wait.  A minute later, the door opened and they came out, grinning ear to ear, proffering their California IDs proudly, like they’d been expecting me. They gesticulated proudly: we live here,  her and me, husband and wife. Their names and birthdates were easily gotten from the IDs. They put on masks then, and we tried, we really tried, there on San Bruno’s sidewalk, to go through the rest of the questions, but in the end, we laughed a lot. What race are you?  I showed them the choices on my phone, they picked ASIAN. Check. 

Renter or Owner? I pantomimed writing checks; they laughed, I laughed. I did not ask them what sex they were. I took the liberty of assuming. I chose China for their country of origin. They kept up a running conversation with me that I could not understand, but we had a grand time laughing and miming, and filling out the questionnaire on my iPhone. Two more souls for the record.

I Don’t Live Here, I’m Just Visiting

The sidewalk gate was slightly open to a long walkway leading to a dark basement unit at the end of the path, at a home on Sunnydale Ave.  A shiny new car was at the curb. Next to the gate, bags of sports equipment were on the sidewalk, waiting to be loaded into the open trunk. I swung the gate open wider and called, “Hello, hello? Census worker here,” I started down the path.

A Black man in his mid-30s, handsome and fit, came towards me,

 “I don’t live here,” he said dismissively, “I’m just visiting.”  He started loading his car, and ignored me.

On the walkway wall, hand-drawn birthday cards were hung with ribbons: HAPPY BIRTHDAY,  LOVE YOU DADDY, and  CONGRATULATIONS DADDY!  Pictures and photographs and report cards of two young boys were also prominently displayed.

There were shoes piled up outside the entryway. I asked if the person who lived there was home.

 “NOPE, Nope, Just. No One. Lives. Here.”  

And then, before I could say anything, he added, angrily,

“AND I NEVER got my stimulus check, where is my stimulus check?”

I said how sorry I was. He was silent. 

Then exploded,  “AND I haven’t got my Unemployment either, I GOT NOTHING!  SO, NO, NO, no offense to you, but I’m not answering any questions for this government that hasn’t helped me for nothing!”

And he slammed the car door for emphasis. And drove away, leaving me in the dust. 

And his soul uncounted.



Join the Conversation

13 Comments

  1. Here’s something to ponder:
    If census meant something, then why are roads in low income and black neighborhood always severely torn up, with deep gouges(no not the side show rashes, deep 1 to 2inch gouges made by heavy machinery.) And they’re never fixed.
    Why are traffic lights horribly timed?

    Is the objective of the census to figure out where black folks are and to ignore their neighborhoods or make it worse? Unfortunately this is a legitimate question.

  2. On second thoughts, properly improving any city doesn’t require invasion of privacy, but instead a city survey team to properly take care of all the neighborhoods, especially where there’s more damage. And stupid traffic planning… should be noted and those responsible fired and replaced by someone intelligent and competent. And even have a meeting in various neighborhoods where residence are given the opportunity to address any unique neighborhood issues. THAT would fix things.

  3. Moving moving moving
    Microcosm of huge problems
    Good for you for walking the beat In COVID and fires and mass unemployment

  4. A sad commentary, showing just how slipshod the census has become. In many better-organized democracies, babies receive an ID number at birth, and are registered at an address. This is too simple for us.

  5. What a great SF Story Naomi! It’s your perfect side gig and what adventures you found along the way. Love that San Bruno family census. Thanks for sharing your story’s!

  6. Thank you for choosing to accept this mission, especially during COVID. And since this is the system we currently have, thanks for doing your best to try to help make it work for those who need it most.

  7. As someone who worked the census in 2010 and in 2020, this captured the spirit and essence of the journey perfectly. Ironically, this time we had IPhones instead of paper, and yet it was so much more complicated and disorganized. It’s always sad to me when people don’t understand the purpose or the history of the census. And everyone deserves to be counted.

  8. A fine account of a tough job, made easier with Naomi’s easy going attitude and openness. Good piece, nicely written.

  9. Great piece Naomi, thanks! Your alma shone through loud and clear!
    I spent the Covid summer in a small Sierra town, where I was visited FOUR times by four different, friendly census workers…the last three visits because I was supposedly a NRFU. Each time, I explained what I had told my first visitor… that this was not my primary residence and that I’d already completed the survey online from my SF home. I can report that each dutifully entered this info into her phone. If nothing else, we each got a few laughs out of it.
    Cheers.

  10. Your stories! I was hoping you and Colin were going to travel to one of the other states, a team , to explore in new territory!

    Did u do that?

  11. Hi Naomi,
    That was an interesting read about your yeoman’s work counting souls. I enjoyed your description of each encounter. Way to go!

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