HARDLY A DAY GOES BY WHEN SOME fuckhead doesn’t want to shoot me. Today is no exception. I hear the pump action of the shotgun long before I reach the house. The thick forest obscures all but the clearing in which it sits, somewhere off to the right. At this point I’m only about fifty yards off the paved county road, but in this part of the county I could just as easily stumble onto a pot grow as a family farm. Not this time: there’s no razor wire, no cameras, and—most importantly—no pit bulls attached to my ankles. I hate pit bulls.
I emerge into the clearing with hands raised to my side at about chest level. Not an actual gesture of surrender, but enough to let Shooter Dude know I’m a pussycat, not a crouching tiger. From my right hand I dangle the black computer bag on which the words “US Census” are clearly stitched in white.
The clapboard farmhouse lies just beyond a late-model, black Ford F-250 Crew Cab, its meticulously polished chrome glinting in the sun. I’ve just been dodging muddy chuck-holes big enough to swallow a German shepherd, which means this truck has been spit-shined since it was driven in here. This confirms my suspicion that I’m dealing with a weekend cowboy here, not a real one.
I can see him now, standing on the covered porch with the shotgun leveled in my general direction, but not sighted on me. He holds it to his side at waist level rather than at shoulder height; intended to intimidate rather than kill me. Not that he could. Kill me, that is. I’m willing to bet from his stance and handling of the gun, that he’s not exactly comfortable with it. I continue moving closer.
“Can I help you?” he barks as I round the truck. His voice is at least a full octave below a normal speaking voice.
“Good morning,” I say, all sunny bubbles. The goofier the better. It’s never a good idea to piss on the turf of an armed alpha, no matter how badly aimed the gun is. “I’m from the United States Census Bureau,” I add without breaking my stride. It helps to spell out the full name of the agency to these shooter-types, to avoid any confusion.
“Yeah?” Shooter says with a jut of the chin. “So what do you want?”
“We’re conducting the American Community Survey,” I say in my best Boy Scout, “and we weren’t sure if your household received the questionnaire we mailed out last month.” I know he has because there was a mailbox back at the highway and I confirmed the address.
The dude maintains his guard-dog stance. His blank look tells me he’s contemplating whether he should bark some more or just slip back inside with a macho slam of the door.
“Does that sound familiar?” I ask, trying to stimulate a response. Any response will do, so I can get to the canned spiel cleverly devised by government bureaucrats who have never personally been in such situations as these.
I’m now blithely ascending the steps in a manner that suggests I haven’t noticed the Mossberg 590 in his hands. Never let a cornered animal smell your fear. Or, as my father used to say whenever I’d balk at some critter: He’s more afraid of you than you are of him.
“Uh, I don’t know,” he says, the gun dropping limply to his side. “You’ll have to ask my wife about that. She picks up the mail.” I can almost see his tail tucking between his legs.
“Is she home?” I venture, knowing the answer before I ask. Of course she’s home; the whole Rambo act is for her benefit. If she were gone he wouldn’t have bothered to put down his beer to answer the door. He probably wouldn’t even have been wearing pants.
“Honey!” he yells, sidling by me to the front door, pushing it open and ducking his head inside. “Darlene!”
A muffled female voice comes from somewhere beyond.
“Get out here, it’s the Census guy.”
More unintelligible vocalizations.
“I don’t know! Just get out here!” Shooter stands aside and waits. He avoids eye contact, his duty done and the testosterone now ebbing.
Darlene swings the door fully open, drying her hands on a dishtowel. She shoots an annoyed glance at her husband before turning to me expectantly.
“Hi,” I say, and repeat exactly what I told her guard dog a moment earlier.
“Didn’t we do this already?” Darlene asks, sounding a touch annoyed. From all appearances she runs the household and has a lot to do at the moment. “I thought this was only once every ten years.”
I explain to her, as I do to everyone I meet, that the Census Bureau has always done ongoing surveys, which, for some reason, they never seem to publicize. She checks my ID again and looks skeptical until I give her the expensive glossy fact sheet that the government would rather not pay to distribute.
Ten minutes later I’m back in the Wrangler typing up my notes. Personal visit. Completed interview w/loh. That’s the “lady of the house.” No mention of Shooter or his gun. Nobody cares what I went through to get the interview, as long as it’s done. The bureaucrats will score one for me and move on. Despite Tea Party fears to the contrary, nobody’s private property has been pillaged and burned. And no one has been arrested or thrown into a labor camp.
Not that crime doesn’t figure prominently into my work. And no, I’m not committing them, I’m witnessing them. If anyone ever asks me though, I haven’t seen a thing. That’s because I’m sworn by the Federal Government to ignore what I see and hear. In fact, I could be fined up to $250,000 and spend five years in prison for reporting a crime. Yep. Title 13 of the US Code strictly forbids a Census field representative from divulging anything he learns about respondents during the course of executing his duties. You thought that rule only applied to priests and lawyers. But Title 13 confidentiality is sacrosanct in the Census Bureau.
What this means in real life application is that if I’m visiting your neighbor for a Census interview, and I happen to see you shoot his dog, I can report you—but if I see your neighbor shoot your dog, my lips are sealed, because I’m at his place on Census business. Same rule applies, by the way, if he’s got you in his sights instead of your dog. Sorry, Bub. I’m not here.
Sounds crazy, I know. But the logic goes like this: no one will talk to Census workers if they think that what they say might get back to, oh, the irs, their ex-wife’s lawyer, or their parole officer. So, in exchange for the respondent’s cooperation, the government promises not to rat them out. Even if they’re Jeffrey Dahmer. Because getting Census data takes a much higher priority than body parts in the freezer. If you don’t believe me, look up Title 13.
So yeah, I see a lot of shit in the course of my job that I just keep to myself. Not my problem. It’s just my job. A job I want to keep, even if it is part time without benefits. In this crappy economy I need every fucking cent I can earn. So I face down the guns and the dogs and the electrified fences, brazenly ignoring the “No Trespassing” and “No Solicitor” signs, and endure the idle threats of testosterone-oozing, self-styled sovereign citizens.
Title 13 also happens to prescribe the respondent’s cooperation as well, not that any of them seem to care. And I value my life too much to remind anyone of this. The whopping $500 fine for failure to answer, if it were ever enforced—which it isn’t—might sting someone who’s struggling to get by, but it’s never going to persuade an armed teabagger to cooperate with the Evil Empire that paves his roads, funds his children’s education, and pays his mom’s Medicare bills. No, if I’m going to get compliance, it’s entirely up to me and my conversational skills.
Census work wasn’t exactly my first choice of career. I was supposed to be a dot-com millionaire, but that bubble burst right about the time I graduated from Portland State with a useless degree in Computer Science. So I opted to extend my summer Census job until I found something more dignified. Here I am a decade later—at thirty-two—too old to compete with the latest crop of computer whizzes, even if there were jobs available. Computer skills have a shelf life of about eighteen months max.
Not that Census work doesn’t have its advantages. I drag my ass out of bed at 9 a.m. I average only three hours of work a day. And I get paid to drive a thousand miles a month through four counties of scenic forests in the Oregon Cascades. What’s to complain about? I love driving. Give me an open road and I’m happy. Unpaved ones into the outback are even more exciting. Even if they are unpredictable.