I HATE THEM. YOU DO TOO. Those obnoxious telemarketing jerks who always call at dinnertime, disguising themselves as pollsters. They promise you a ten-minute survey that actually takes twenty because your answers don’t fall among the multiple-choice options on their script. I usually end up hanging up on some sweet little minimum-wage worker who has a gun to her head, forced to ask all the questions, no matter what twisted answers I give her.
I know this because it also describes my own job. The first thing they teach you at the Senseless Bureau—and the one thing they repeat ad nauseum in every annual refresher training—is “Don’t stray from the script. Read the questions verbatim.” So, naturally, anyone with half a brain and the least bit of communication skills immediately strays from the script in real-world interviews.
I used to feel guilty about this. That is, until Angie Larsen, my team leader, accompanied me on a field observation designed to evaluate my performance. I was interviewing a mother of seven children. Of course, I was doing everything by the book so as to score a good review.
The questions dealt with handicaps:
Does Jane have any serious difficulty hearing? —No.
Does Jane have any serious difficulty seeing, even with glasses? —No.
Does Jane have any serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs? —No.
And so on for another five questions. Then I come to the next child:
Does Peter have any serious difficulty hearing?
And on to the third child. The tedium of this is like nails on a chalkboard to me—and I honestly feel bad for the mother, who’s trying to watch at least five of her seven while putting up with my questions—but I’m determined to read the questions verbatim.
Before I’m halfway through the third child, Angie can stand it no longer and interrupts. “She knows the questions! Just ask”—she turns to the woman—“Do any of the children have such difficulties?”
Way to go, Angie. Make me out to be the jerk for toeing the line.
The minute we’re outside, Angie turns to me, “Listen, Big Guy”—she always calls me “Big Guy” and I hate it—“don’t ever sit there and repeat all those questions like that! You’re just asking her to show you the door.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I snap back at her in my own defense. “I was only doing it for your sake; reading ‘as worded’!”
Well, that does it. I’m screwed. You don’t contradict Angie, even if it’s to tell her you know she’s right. I go from “Big Guy” to “Mister” in two seconds flat—as in “Listen, Mister…” And I still have to drive her around for another two hours.
Angie, like all of my team leaders over the last decade, is a middle-aged empty-nester with dyed hair and smoker’s hack. She is easily the most difficult part of my job—right up there with the gun-toting “Type A” refusals. Only, the latter I never have to see again; Angie I have to check in with at least once a week. And it’s always a crap shoot. On her good days she wants to dish the dirt on all the supervisors in the RO—the regional office. She loves to brag about the ones that she’s able to manipulate and rant about the ones she refuses to deal with. My job is to agree with her—that, and ask her advice on doing things her way.
The idle chatter, I’ve learned, is Angie’s way of co-opting me. Once she goads me into griping about a supervisor, she owns me. I’m her “Big Guy.” We can shoot the shit for hours. But disagree with her and hellfire flares in her eyes. The caustic criticism comes in waves. She knows that I know that she’s the one writing my performance reviews. Every deviation from the script and every dig at a supervisor is suddenly fair game for demerits.
So when I’m out in the field and find myself in questionable circumstances, I have to ask, wwad?—What would Angie do? Because sure as shit, whatever I decide to do will be evaluated according to Angie’s anything-but-uniform Code of Justice.
It is with this in mind that I roll the Jeep forward to the call box and press the button. This may, in fact, be a high-tech marijuana-grow operation, or something else illegal, but there’s no way Angie would approve of my charging the bureau for two hours of wages and eighty miles of driving, just to wimp out and go home without making contact.
A youthful male voice answers. I have to strain to make it out.
“US Census Bureau,” I say into the box.
There’s no answer.
I state my purpose. “I’m here for the American—“ But the gates are already swinging open. “Thank you,” I say to the box, determined to be as polite as hell. I watch the camera just beyond the gate swivel to follow me. It creeps me out.
For all the drama of the exterior, what’s inside the walls is perfectly ordinary. About twenty acres of forest has been cleared; at least five have been planted with orchards, and another five with various other crops. As far as I can tell, there’s no pot plantation. Of course, that could all be under grow lights in one or more of the clustered buildings I’m heading toward, about a quarter mile ahead at the bottom of the hill.
As I get closer I see what looks like a compound of residential buildings, almost identical in design. It resembles a barracks; I can’t help but wonder what army is holed up here. Three white, wooden, two-story structures are stark and simple in design. They resemble traditional saltbox farmhouses—only larger—and all are of modern construction. The buildings and the grounds are immaculate, as if they were nothing more than a back-lot movie set.
Beyond the residences there’s a large white barn, built in traditional style, and what appears to be a shop building as big as a commercial warehouse. The roof is laid with solar cells. This explains the electricity. I wonder if this is where the pot is kept. It’s a natural question. What else would anyone with an operation this size be doing way out here with all this security? But if that’s true, then why did they let me in? And where are the pit bulls?
I finally put my finger on what’s so eerie about the place. There are no people. Farms don’t run themselves. And a place this size is sure to employ a fair number of migrant workers. Yet I see no one as I arrive at the first house. This one differs from the rest only in the size of its covered porch and the landscaping in front. Behind a classic white picket fence lies a lush green lawn surrounded by rose bushes in full summer bloom. A large maple tree, about forty feet tall and several feet around at the trunk, shades one side of the yard. A cluster of white benches, perhaps a dozen or more, is arranged in rows facing the tree, as if ready for a meeting.
Besides a few odd pieces of farm equipment over between the shop and the barn, only one other vehicle is visible: an extended-length, white Econoline van, the kind they haul firefighters and road crews around in. It’s parked next to the main house. I pull up beside it and park. Grabbing my computer bag, I check to make sure the ID card on the lanyard around my neck is facing outward, and pull out a business card before hopping out of the Jeep.
That’s when I see him. A boy of nineteen or twenty, emerging from the shadow of the porch and loping toward me. He’s tall, thin, and fairskinned, with a shock of dirty-blond hair sticking out from under a straw hat. I can’t help but think of Tom Sawyer, all grown up.
“Hi there,” I say, extending my business card. “Are you the man of the house?” I know he’s not, but it sounds better and is less likely to offend than “Is your Mom or Dad home?” Besides, teenagers are flattered by the question and it usually makes them more likely to cooperate.
“Nick Prince, Field Representative,” the boy reads from the card. He looks at me with alarm. “Wait. You aren’t the septic guy?”
US Septic Bureau. I kinda like that. On most days I put up with enough shit to make it an apt description. I think this, but don’t say it. Instead I say, “No. The Census Bureau, it’s part of the Department of Commerce—you know, the Federal Government?”
Tom Sawyer’s eyes are suddenly wider now. He gives frantic looks over each shoulder. “Government? Uh, no,” he stammers, “you— you shouldn’t be here. I— I mean— Can you just go now?” He gives me an imploring look. “Please?” He’s beginning to panic.
“OK, fine,” I say, wondering how much pot they grow here. “If you give me a phone number, I can just call instead of coming back.” This is the devil’s deal I offer everyone who tries to give me the bum’s rush. It’s a thinly veiled threat: give up those sacred ten digits, or I’ll be forced to come back.
“I— I can’t do that,” he says with pleading eyes. “Please just go.” He looks back up the road like he’s expecting to be arrested at any moment.
“All right. No problem,” I say, climbing into the Jeep. “Can you just tell me when I can find the man of the house at home?”
“He won’t want to see you,” the boy says nervously, again looking up the road. There’s genuine fear on his face now.
“Well,” I say, pulling another standard arrow out of my quiver, “I’m required by law to make contact. So please give him this and tell him I’ll be back tomorrow.” I hand him an informational brochure.
When this threat of a return visit fails to produce a phone number, I thank him and make my exit. I’m almost to the gate when it begins to open. I’m not sure whether there’s a buried sensor or there’s someone behind that creepy camera monitoring my position. In any case, I’m happy to get out of there and I’m already salivating over the coming beer and strippers.
But just as the gates reach their full-open positions and I’m making my escape, two white vans, identical to the one I saw at the house, approach from the opposite direction. I pull over to let them by, wondering if I should turn back. Chances are good there’s an adult in one of them that can complete the interview—or give me a firm refusal—and I won’t have to come back.
The first van slows as it passes. The driver is an adult male, about 60, with a full, salt-and-pepper beard and no mustache—clearly the Papa Bear of the clan. He scowls at me so hard I expect to burst into flame. Then he guns the engine and shoots through the gate. The second van, right on his tail, is piloted by a kid about Tom Sawyer’s age. He glances quickly at me but does not hesitate.
As he passes, I notice his passengers: nearly a dozen girls and women of varying ages, all with bonneted heads. Then it hits me. This must be an Amish community! No, wait. The Amish don’t drive. Mennonite! That’s it! No marijuana after all. And definitely no guns. I know this because I used to date a girl who was Mennonite. She was disowned by her family when she enlisted in the Air Force, because her religion detests violence. I spin the wheel and gun the engine; with a spray of dirt I pull the Wrangler back through the gates just as they begin to close.
Our procession reaches the main house, where the nervous boy stands stiffly in the same place I just left him moments earlier. The first van pulls to a stop beside him, while the second goes around it and disappears among the other buildings out back. I pull up and park a respectable distance behind the van. I hop out of the Jeep and approach the driver. I want to introduce my myself quickly to dispel any suspicions he may harbor.
But Papa Bear jumps out of the van and only looks at me long enough to shoot daggers before turning to Tom Sawyer. He’s sharing some angry words, unintelligible from my distance. With a look of near terror, the boy stretches my brochure and business card toward the man, who snatches them and turns back toward me. He scans them only briefly as he marches toward me.
“Hi,” I begin, “My name is Nick—“
“I know who you are,” Papa Bear growls, “and we don’t want you here.” He shoves the handful of paper, now crumpled, toward me. “This is private property and I want you off it!” His voice is taut, barely under control, as he points up toward the gate.
“Fine,” I say, nodding compliantly as I jump back into the Jeep. “I know you must be busy. We can do this by phone if you prefer.”
“I prefer,” he spits, lingering on the word, “that you get your ass off my property!”
“Sure,” I say with a sunny grin. Refusal letter, I’m saying to myself, mentally writing up the notes on the visit. Since the Census Bureau never takes just one No for an answer, a letter will be Fed-Ex’d to help Papa Bear “better understand” the importance of the survey. It will even mention the penalty imposed by Title 13, just to impress him. Then I’ll be sent back to try again when things are clearer to him. Right.
I’m ascending the road back to the gate when I glance in the mirror. Papa Bear is in Tom Sawyer’s face again. The boy is shrinking away from him. Then it comes. A backhand across the face so hard that I hear the thwack above the growl of the Jeep’s engine. So much for Mennonite nonviolence. Instinctively I brake. I want to go back and put a stop to it. But, hey, I’m sworn not to notice, so I force myself to drive on.
The boy does not flee his assailant, nor does he strike back. Instead, he stands ramrod stiff as a second blow comes and knocks him to the ground. It wrenches my gut, but I still don’t stop. The last image burned into my mind as the gates close behind me is that of Papa Bear astride Tom Sawyer, beating the living crap out of him. My appetite for beer and strippers has been obliterated. I wish to hell I could send a warrant instead of a refusal letter.