346 and Counting

Anne Beausang
September 01, 2000

I drive an '89 Blazer. I've never christened my car; no Bess, Midge, or Gray Ghost. The poor thing remains nameless, genderless, and (coincidentally) almost brakeless. But as I've become aware, it suffers from no shortage of spunk.

cabin in green countryside

My foray into the deeper nature of my car's character came about when I became an enumerator for the Census. Urban residents receive their questionnaires in the mail. Enumerators scour the countryside, hand-delivering questionnaires and searching for possible housing units, as a special outreach program to ensure that every remote dweller is counted. Rural. Such a mild-mannered, unassuming term. Or so I thought.

I am a geography major with no sense of direction. Four years ago one of my professors at Penn State assigned the task of transferring to paper our mental maps of the campus. Mine looked like a scary, straggly, spidery thing: all of the areas familiar to me existed as discrete entities connected by spindly legs across the void of my ignorance. In much the same way, to my mind, those friendly green road signs that announce upcoming exits work by pure magic. What a heady feeling that knowing only where I hope to end up, I can set out from State College and follow these signs to the correct destination.

Day One on the Census job found a bewildered me at my local supervisor's office surrounded by Assignment Area Locator maps, Assignment Area maps, index maps, Block maps, and road maps—all tools I would need to guide me from house to house. There, Pat Foley, aka Crew Leader Pat, the kind-hearted donor of the multiple maps, and I tried to determine the optimal route from Milesburg (where we were sure we were) to Bell Hollow Road (which we were reasonably sure existed). A quarter of an hour of the basics, such as "OK, so you're saying that Eagle Valley Road and Route 220 are THE SAME THING?" heralded the arrival of our supervisor, Marge, who (being a native of the area in question) promptly stepped in and sorted us out, tossing about such jargon as Skytop, the Valley, Up the Mountain, Down the Mountain, Over the Mountain. This led me to the conclusion that there existed, somewhere, a mountain. I was, however, no closer to Bell Hollow Road.

Luckily for me, Crew Leader Pat was nodding her head wisely. So we gathered our gear and headed off to the parking lot, where the Blazer hummed in anticipation. I settled into the driver's seat, buckled my seat belt and turned expectantly toward Pat. She unabashedly remarked, "I have no idea what she was talking about. I just didn't want to look stupid." And, after a moment's consideration, "Just ask somewhere."

So I did—frequently—during the 15 days I moonlighted with the Census. Each time I spoke to a store clerk, gas station attendant, postal worker, or neighbor I tore a sheet off the official Privacy Act notepad, which alerts citizens to their confidentiality rights under Title 17 of the U.S. code. The information I gather cannot be used or viewed by any other government agency, including the IRS. A violation of the confidentiality agreement costs me a hefty fine and a seven-year stint at the local penitentiary. That's where the game begins. How can I get you to tell me your address without violating Title 17? The rules are these: 1) Each contestant (or enumerator) is prohibited from showing any official address or map to the inhabitant in question. 2) A contestant may not read aloud any information contained in the official address binder. 3) It is forbidden for a contestant to enter the premises of the inhabitant in question.

The spiel goes something like this, "Hello, my name is Anne Beausang, and I'm from the U.S. Census Bureau. We're updating address information and handing out questionnaires in your area. Here is a form that explains the confidentiality of your answers. Could you please tell me your mailing address?" At which point the resident either complies charmingly, or else eyes my black binder suspiciously and asks what I've already got written down. One taciturn old gentleman refused to accept my apologetic plea, as I explained that I wasn't at liberty to divulge that information—not even to him. Feeling slightly rigid and ridiculous, I handed him his questionnaire, which he eyed somewhat askance, and continued my scripted speech. This is your questionnaire for Census 2000. It's due back April 1. Postage has already been paid, and there's a 1-800 number inside if you have any questions. The plaid-clad gentleman grumbled about a government you couldn't trust and grudgingly accepted the form.

"One more question, sir, I addressed his back, timidly. Are there any other living quarters, occupied or vacant,on your property? He waved an arm. There was a cabin off in the woods, but no one lives there now. "I wouldn't even try to drive up his driveway, if I were you." I scoffed and patted the as-yet-untested Blazer. We'll give it a shot, I said rashly. After all, the Enumerator's Training Manual clearly states, A major part of your job is to leave an addressed questionnaire at EACH HOUSING UNIT you identify, occupied or vacant. Abandoned trailers, empty hunting cabins, and homes under construction with walls and roof in place by Census Day, April 1, all receive questionnaires. This cabin qualified, so I revved that baby into 4-wheel drive. Mud splashing, tires churning, the Blazer crunched up the driveway, handling the curves like a Monster Truck. But that, I was soon to discover, was the easy part. Upon reaching the summit I saw the driveway yielded no possibility of turning around. I slid the questionnaire into a plastic bag, hung it from the doorknob of the empty house, making sure the red label screamed "Census 2000" for all to see, and ascertained the situation.

There was no hope for it. I hopped back in the driver's seat, brushed aside the fleeting entreaty, Mommy, that flitted across my mind, craned my neck over my shoulder, shut my eyes, decided all things considered I'd be better off with them open, and put the proverbial pedal to the metal.

I survived my run-in with the driveway. But as I drove away that night, I realized I was celebrating too soon. I became aware of a grating sound, which evoked images of the Blazer's muffler dragging along the ground, and I wondered what a muffler looked like.

Reminding myself that I was calm, cool, and collected, I pulled over to the side of the increasingly desolate road, dropped to my haunches and peered at the vulnerable underside and unknown organs of the Blazer. I was able to recognize the large stick staring me in the face as a foreign object. After much prodding and wiggling, I removed the offending limb and tossed it to the curbside.

The Blazer and I resumed our course down Eagle Valley Road. As we chugged along, a friendly green road sign rose up before us, twinkling in my high beams and bearing the encouragement, State College 12 miles.

Last Updated September 01, 2000