Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Census Employee: A Week To Remember

From the beginning of this temporary gig with the U.S. Census, I’ve vowed to use the experience as a new life adventure—a fresh opportunity to meet folks from walks of life far from journalism and entertainment, while, best of all, having an opportunity to literally walk Brooklyn street by street, block after block, house to house.

That week spent humbly placing staff recruiting cards on car windows in the snow… not so adventurous—though with camera in hand, I had a grand time snapping pics of intriguing architecture around the nabe. After all, it’s not every day you happen past Norah Jones’ house.

This week has been a total rush. My team of Crew Leaders remains in between assignments, awaiting the “big picture” toward the end of the month, when we log residents at Group Quarters—soup kitchens, homeless shelters, dorms and mobile food vans. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, on March 31, we’ll venture out to count homeless folks in parks, under bridges and the like.

In the meantime, we're on loan to other departments in Brooklyn NW's operation: My supervisor O lent out five Crew Leaders to staff recruiting, keeping two to himself—including meese. My assignment for the next couple weeks is to work through a list of 50+ pre-designated churches, community centers and schools, all within walking distance of home, potentially willing to lend space to the Census Bureau for training “enumerators,” those who will actually be parading apartment to apartment, to garner all info required for the Census questionnaire. Every resident that doesn’t respond to the big Q mailed out April 1… we shall find you!

(My role, as Crew Leader, will be to maintain contact with at least a half dozen enumerators assigned to me—to make sure they’re fulfilling duties, properly filling out paperwork, dealing with challenges—and reporting all back to the main office.)

But that's then. For now, I’m having a fucking blast crashing all sorts of facilities I’ve walked by a hundred times without ever having privilege to peak inside. My first coup was Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus on Flatbush Avenue. After I flashed my Census badge, I was admitted. It took three meets and 30 minutes to find the right contact. I met H, who has worked at the university for 30 years. Her office sports wood paneling, straight out of the 1970s. She flipped through a steel gray Rolodex to look up phone numbers. “Wow, that’s been in service for a while,” I offered. “This was my predecessor’s,” she said. “I tried to move my contacts online, but this is still faster. I’ll never give it up.” As a dude who still maintains a paper weekly appointment book, I nodded.

My spiel: “We’re looking for public spaces where we can train for five days, 40 hours, close to public transportation and restaurants… and this is ideal…” H, the university’s Special Events director, wasted no time accommodating. Score! She offered to show me the designated room—where trustees meetings are held—filled with windows overlooking an enormous soccer field, right in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Who knew?

Afterward, I indulged my intrepid curiosity (life mantra: “The answer is yes until someone says no”). With a pass to wander freely, I took a self-guided tour of the main building. So many international students. So many computers and laptops. Boy, things have changed since my university days in the 1980s.

Later that afternoon, I visited St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, three blocks from home. I’ve been in the main public space several times—our coop hosts its annual meeting there—but I’ve never seen the worship space or the upper regions of the glorious historic site. Again, I made my appeal, to musical director G. The good news is that most everyone I talk to knows the Census is taking place this year. I don’t have to provide a lot of background. G didn’t blink; he offered the choir room, showing me the room. Once more, I was giddy over access to spaces I’d never had “authority” to visit. Total rush.

The next morning, O asked me to back up a bit and check on a Group Quarters facility, to make sure the Census could count their residents on April 1. Damn, what a difference a day makes. This downtrodden facility in downtown Brooklyn is located on a side street mixed with crappy bodegas, a meat market, shuttered businesses—and a grotesque glossy residential high-rise under construction, offering multi-million-dollar condos.

Waiting to meet with supervisor K, I sat in the TV room with the “inmates,” wondering if it was prudent for potentially combustible personalities to watch Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club,” a reality show with a bunch of entitled drunken bitches pretty much beating the shit out of each other. At the front desk, I had introduced myself: “Chuck Taylor.” A guy who overheard took delight in my name. “You’re the sneaker!” He then introduced me to two of his pals. “You gotta meet this guy… What’s your name?” Ha ha ha, “He’s the sneaker.” I was never certain if he worked… or lived there.

I’m trying to be a nice guy here (for a change). But c’mon, I was surrounded by loonies! It was fucking fabulous! My greatest fear was that someone might take a look at my Census badge and conclude, “You betcha,” then lock me up, never to be seen again… In the end, I got what I needed, K was a pleasure, told me that 50 crazies live there, I filled out my paperwork… and escaped! Adventure: accomplished.

That afternoon, it was back to searching out training locales. I made my way to the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, 10 minutes on foot from home. Again: I’ve always been curious about this historic landmark, where, in the 1850s, first pastor Henry Ward Beecher publicly opposed slavery and supported the Underground Railroad—with actual tunnels under the church.

I made nice with contact S, who not only agreed to lending space to the Census, but shared it with me: the original Plymouth sanctuary, a giant two-story room surrounded with stunning stained glass. When I shared with S that I lived in the nabe and always wished I had a reason to see inside, she gave me a tour of the main sanctuary—again, surrounded by beautiful stained glass—where President Lincoln prayed in 1860. She also showed me a chunk of the original Plymouth Rock on display. “May I touch it?” She responded, “That dark spot in the middle… yes. You’re not the first.”

Okay, yes, score! In two days, I secured a third venue for Census training. I earned my wages for the week. But, my god, the experience has been magical: two historic churches, wandering all over a private university seeing what higher learning means in the millennium, and an honest-to-god loony bin. Loving every minute.