John Gastaldo Photographer

Pinky Panther and The Census Man

Hey Census guy! Hey Census man! 

I turned my head when I heard that twice in five minutes yelled by complete strangers in San Diego's North Park on a recent Friday evening.
It had to be the black and white shoulder bag with the words "US Census emblazoned across it.  
Wow! people actually thanked me for doing The Count! 

For the past seven weeks Ive been one of those men or women walking around your neighborhood, knocking on doors to see if  we can get everyone to finish up their census questionnaire in person or online. 

Remember those pesky letters in the mail that were sent to you, that you were asked to fill out so we can make sure everyone is counted and the count goes toward proper representation in congress and in terms of funding things? Well, if you didn't, we came to your door to asked politely if you would.  We are the army that plied you with little pieces of paper known as NOVs(notice of visitation)tucked into your sometimes-drafty doorframe, to remind you. 
If you were lucky, we actually got to interview you using our smartphones and its menu of choices to determine the count of US residents and where they were living on April 1st or as will be in the case when the data comes out, to which state you moved from/have moved to. 

Working as an enumerator is a lot like working as a journalist in newspapers, or retail sales.  Its about making contact with people. And the push and pull of getting them to do something for you, well, actually the Federal Government, in particular the Department of Commerce. 

It isn't always easy and it requires quick thinking.  In some ways, it gives you a small taste of what door-to-door salespeople once experienced, back in the day.  Journalists not only make good census workers, they love the interesting data that comes from it.  When I worked in newspapers there was one reporter at my last paper who lived for the US Census data.  She knew it provided an eyeball-catching way to a story she had no difficulty writing, especially in the first year after Census date is gathered.   In this case, next year.   Its easy pickings.  

I got my start in early August as I was among dozens of enumerators trained, outfitted and sworn in during a ceremony in Balboa Park that looked like something out of a corporate field trip with tables and chairs and the passing out of shoulder bags, cell phones and paperwork.        Lots of paperwork. 

In the process I learned big acronyms like NRFU, NOV, CFS, ACO, RI, and words like" in-movers," proxies" and "census day." 

The idea to work for the Census came from another former newspaper coworker who thought it might dovetail well with the qualities most good journalists possess, driving to strange locations, knocking on strange doors and talking to strange people(some of them).  If you don't like people or talking to people, this might not be a "good fit" as they say.  If on the other hand, you don't mind walking up and down steps, through sometimes grungy alleys, trying back doors, using your outside voice to gain access when there isnt any and overall, being persuasive, then you might thrive.  When assigned a difficult case, where previous attempts to find residents had failed,  I made it my mission to change that.  Sometimes it worked. 

I used my Spanish to eliminate the case notes that said "language barrier," even figuring out how to enumerate cases in Haitian Creole and Mandarin, because in the end, most people know enough English combined with hand gestures to communicate good answers. 
We are without a doubt, a global village. 

After a knocked door is opened, an enumerator has mere seconds to establish rapport, "Hi, (smiling)I'm John with the US Census," I usually announced, to which I normally got one of five responses, "I don't have time," "I filled it out already," "I just moved in," "I dont speak English," "I dont trust the government,(only got that one once)and "one of you was here already last week."  At which point my tried-and-true follow up of, "this will only take five minutes" sometimes convinced even the hardest of souls to at least work with me, even when I was fumbling with the not-ready-for-prime-time-software program within each phone. 
Most people were friendly enough to let me know whether to proceed or not.  Some days I did a good number of interviews and on others I didnt talk to anyone but neighbors. I made friendly with the postman or Amazon delivery person, or anyone else I could convince to allow me access.  The black and white Census Bag has that cache that says official business, and most respond by letting us pass.  Sometimes you just get lucky and if you wait around long enough doors will open.  Or someone will have the code.  And for that I am grateful. 

Over the weeks, I've heard stories through the grapevine about other enumerators who had doors slammed in their faces, had to hear profanity and worse.  Thankfully I was not exposed to that.  The worst incident I experienced  involved a drunk guy in a building hallway telling me I had no right to be there.  There was another time a resident answered his door dripping wet from the shower in just a towel, and the time I did an interview with a woman who insisted we not use her real name but told me to put down Pinky Panther.   True story. 

And because its way above my pay grade to make determinations, I entered Pinky Panther and her information into the system. 
I'm sure back at Census command they are still laughing about that one. 
The things I came away with are that people are people.  They are good and bad, and maybe that's why the census sent us back so many times to the same place.  They figured at some point, someone might have the right time and patience to go through the process.  And help us close out another case. 

Today I turned in my badge, my shoulder bag, reams of paperwork  and the hand sanitizer I never used.  I am no longer a census man.  But I look forward to the information I helped provide.  And maybe to 2030.  Maybe.  

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