The Census

A gentleman commented on my car the other day.  This happens all the time.  When you own a newer version of a car that everyone over a certain age seemed to have had at one point in their lives, they want to tell you their story.  I’ve heard a lot of VW Bug stories.

I noticed he was carrying a Census bag.  I asked about it and then mentioned that I worked on the 2000 Census.  He knitted his eyebrows together and stared at me.  “You were old enough to work during the last census?”

Turns out I was.  It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d actually do.  But when I was working as a Park Ranger in the Fall of 1999, a guy came to the ticket desk and asked if we could post the sign he was holding.  The sign advertised Census jobs and the number to call to take the test.  One hung in our back room where the seasonal employees would see it.  I’m figuring someone knew that most Park Rangers are seasonal employees and would be looking for work after their term was up (like me).  I stared at that poster as it hung in the back room.  When my term was up at the end of the year I knew I was going to Europe for a month, but hadn’t any clue what I was doing after that.  Though I didn’t really think I’d need it, I took down the number.

When I came back from Europe at the end of January, 2000, I started scouring want ads trying to find something that would spark my interest.  Nothing did.  I traveled up to Vermont where my uncle suggested I could use my clinical experience (minimal though it was) and my computer experience to get a job at a medical software company up there.  I never did apply for that job.

I spent most of February 2000 wondering how I was ever going to find that “one thing” that I’d want to do for the rest of my life.  I had not yet learned that it was possible to not have to pick one thing at all.

Getting desperate, I thought I’d take the census test.  At least it would be something to fill my time while job searching.  I aced the test and was called a couple weeks later to come in for the training.  I went through a week of learning how the government goes about counting the population of the entire country and why it’s so important.  Then I took an oath promising to protect the country “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  This may sound odd for a census taker, but I had to take the same oath when I worked for the park service, so it didn’t phase me anymore.

At the end of the class, the instructor (who was to be our boss) asked if I would like to be his assistant instead of walking door-to-door.  He told me what it would entail, and I agreed.  So I never ended up knocking on doors asking people who had yet to turn in their census to fill it out with me.  Instead, I would travel around meeting up with people who were doing just that – my fellow classmates.  I would take all the paperwork they had completed that day, review it, and help them problem-solve any issues they were having.  Then, I’d go meet with my boss and the other assistant at a local diner where we would gather all our paperwork and bring to him any problems we couldn’t resolve.

This was also the first and only job where I’ve ever had to fire people.  If employees were not following procedures or seemed to be claiming more hours than their work showed, it was my job to ask them to account for their time and warn them of what we were seeing.  If they didn’t shape up, I was the one to tell they we were letting them go – and then fill out a bunch of forms explaining why.

At one point in my census term a trainer was unable to do one of his scheduled trainings.  I can’t recall how it was that I came to get that job, but one week I found myself conducting the training that I myself had been through just a couple months earlier.  I was a mere 23 and most if not all of my students were older than me, but that didn’t really bother me.  I knew I knew what I was talking about and felt confident in my ability to speak in front of groups.  I had been a tour guide on my college campus, and then as a park ranger – I knew I loved to train and teach but didn’t yet realize what a gift that truly was.

The census has a bunch of different phases.  Official “Census Day” was April 1, 2000.  Prior to that day, we were in a “mapping” phase, where we would go around looking at the maps the previous phase had come up with and working on editing them – drawing in new developments, new houses – making sure every dwelling was on our map.  After April 1, anyone who hadn’t yet turned in their census got a knock on their door.

I can’t recall how many phases of which I was part.  I left my census job at the end of June – about to do something my mother had a few months earlier tried to convince me would never happen.  I was about to prove her wrong.