It All Counts For Something

Back in the summer of 1980, a US Census office opened near my neighborhood. Like some local friends, I filled out an application and took the entrance exam. (It was frightfully easy.) My friend Andrew’s mom was a supervisor there, and she later confided in me that I’d scored the highest test grade of anybody at that office. I was hired on the spot, and started working for the US Department of Commerce.

My job was to go through piles of census forms that people had filled out, and make sure they filled in everything correctly. It was pretty straightforward – we had a template to follow, so I could review a form pretty quickly. Too quickly, as it turned out. My supervisor kept coming over to “advise me” that I was working too fast and making everybody else look bad. Since it was too hard to slow down my pace, I ended up doing a lot more chatting with my coworkers than I normally would have.

We ended up with a fairly tight-knit group. There were some guys I ended up befriending, and a few that I already knew from grammar school or high school. While it wasn’t my first job, it was a decent one and paid fairly well. (Or at least it seemed to pay well at that point in my life…)

Our office was a repurposed warehouse, so it was mainly a big open space. For some bizarre reason they constructed “shelving” out of cardboard boxes set on their sides, and most of the desks were also made of cardboard. (Yes, cardboard desks. The US government spares no expense.)

The building itself was in a section of the Bronx that mostly had auto junk yards, so there wasn’t a lot around us to do on our lunch hour. Once the weather got really hot (into the high 90s) the office manager would break out his trust wrench and open up the fire hydrant out front. We’d jump around in the spray to cool off, then happily file back into the building soaking wet to work on our paper forms.

It was pretty cool.

Until we ran out of forms.

We’d gone through all the forms for our district, so we took on forms from some other nearby districts. That lasted maybe two weeks, and then we had nothing to do.

Nothing at all. For two weeks. On the government dime.

We found out some of us actually did not know how to make paper airplanes, so we conducted an airplane seminar. In a fit of utter boredom, several of us dismantled an unused desk and used the cardboard to construct a plane. We then took it to the roof and tossed it off.

It failed.

Spectacularly.

After two weeks of nothing, the office manager gathered the male (!) workers together to inform us that we’d been drafted as enumerators. That meant we had to go out to those places that hadn’t filled out forms and try to get them filled out. None of us wanted to do it, but the manager made two compelling arguments that swayed us.

  1. We’d get a 30% raise, and
  2. If we didn’t do it, he’d fire us.

Those were two very compelling arguments, so we did a one-day training and got our lists and headed out. The manager made us show up to work every morning at our normal start time (7am) and gave us a pep talk and sent us out. We all headed back home and went back to bed – who the hell is going to answer the door at 7am? So my first day I knocked on a bunch of doors and managed to get a couple of people to fill out the form. (Most people were absent or uncooperative.)

I showed up to work the next morning with only two successes and was concerned. Manager did his pep thing then went around the room. “How many did you get? One? That’s terrific!” “How many, none? That’s ok, you’ll do better today.”

So my two was pretty good after all.

We stuck with enumerating for a month before the job ended. Not a bad way to spend a summer.

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