Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Census Report: An Honest Day's Work

After months of hearing, reading, learning and teaching the rules of the road, at last, this week, all was put into practice with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Group Quarters count, known as SBE—or Service Based Enumeration—which tallies individuals at shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans and random locales such as subway stations and parks.

Monday, I joined fellow Crew Leader Z, along with three of her enumerators and three of mine. Destination: A seven-story shelter in Brooklyn housing single women, many diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. This particular shelter is transient, meaning the population potentially turns over on a daily basis. On premises, there’s medical staff, social workers, job counseling and meals, along with seven beds to a room, and shower and bath facilities. Every time a resident enters the building, they must consent to security much like an airport: pass any bags through a conveyer, hand wands, metal detectors… the works. The Marriott, this is not.

We arrived before noon and set up our station in the back of a large, airy conference room. In front were two round tables, where we would enumerate—or count—a dozen residents at a time. The expected population for the day was a mammoth 190. For the first 90 minutes, we prepared countless forms, which must be filled out meticulously. A check mark instead of an “X” could invalidate the individual’s count. Most crucial is the ICR, or Individual Census Record, which the women fill out on their own or, if requested, with our assistance. On SBE ICRs, the Census requires at least three of five questions be completed in order for it to qualify: full name, sex, date of birth/age, of Latin/Latino/Hispanic descent, and race (a choice of 14).

And… go! The facility had made announcements over the previous few days, informing residents that we were coming and why. The short answer: “Your response helps the government fund facilities like this one. The Census determines how tax dollars are spent in every community across the country.” For the first hour, we scurried at an expeditious clip, helping when needed, explaining purpose, moving women in and out of the room, offering coffee and cookies as a reward (provided by the shelter)—and trying to make sure as many government-issued ball point pens as possible remained on tables.

One satisfying coup came when a 20-something shyly asked question after question about who sees the information, what they do with it, whether it’s shared with the facility, etc. “I don’t want to sound ignorant; I just want to know why I should do this,” she said. We gently responded to each query. “Okay, I want to think about it.” In our microcosm, it was quite satisfying when she returned a few minutes later, looking down at the floor, thanked us and asked for assistance with the ICR.

The most intriguing moment of the day came when a resident entered to participate—who was obviously a man. Effeminate, with long braids, but clearly based on appearance and voice, he was not transgender. Sure enough, as we processed the ICR, we noted he identifies as female, a clear case of gender dysphoria. Heartbreaking to imagine what that individual endured to end up in the shelter. One has to wonder whether he was thrown out of home, teased, beaten up, how his journey faltered to end up there. Sad, but also a blessing that safe havens are available for such folks.

By 5 p.m., silence… We had completed ICRs for all of 50 women out of the anticipated 190. At dinner, half an hour later, enumerator G offered an announcement, encouraging involvement. She asked those who had participated to share with their friends that the process was simple. She emphasized confidentiality. She was cordial, professional and compassionate. And then the bitch fight began. “Fuck the government!” “Fuck you!” “Get out of my house!” She stood her ground and told the group that they could all fuck off! Okay, kidding. The shelter’s supervisor intervened, swept G out of the room and we waited for another smattering of ladies one floor up at our post. We’d been warned that a number of residents suffer paranoia. Yeah, no kidding.

At 6:30, my enumerator R and I were due at a second shelter, so we took flight. This facility was much smaller, made up of single women and their children who reside longer-term. Thankfully, for all of the drama we left behind, this was a breeze. The supervisor of the three-story structure—which looked like any other apartment building on the street—invited us in to her office and provided 100% of the information: names, sex, birth dates, nationality and race. With SBE facilities, this is as acceptable as asking individuals to fill out forms. The best part: We were able to accomplish our task without invading residents’ space, disturbing their routine or potentially frightening anyone. It couldn’t have been easier.

The caveat was the realization that many of these displaced women have two and three kids, all with different last names. Not to appear overly judgmental about the women, or the men that fathered their kids, but someone needs to learn to keep their britches zippered, for their own good.

Meanwhile, back at the first shelter of the day, Z and the remaining crew of six continued to struggle with the count—until the night manager casually mentioned to G, “This would be a lot easier if you used our list.” Uh, say what? Sure enough, the facility maintains personal info about everyone staying there. Z was stupefied. With gentle persuasion, she was able to obtain a roster with everything we needed, and 90 minutes later, the facility was wrapped. In total, there were more than 200 ICRs, 100% complete.

Imagine if the daytime supervisors had bothered to share this list with us—which we had asked for. Apparently, because it includes Social Security Nos., he was unwilling to offer that it existed—and preferred we spend 10 hours invading the premises, upsetting some residents and risking a low count, which ultimately could keep his facility from getting government money. Dumb.

After completing the second shelter with R, I headed to the Census office to turn in paperwork... I walked in my living room at 10 p.m., 12 hours after I’d started phone calls that morning. Happy hour got started late Monday. Believe me, after all that, I needed to drink. Uh, I mean, a drink. Yeah, that’s what I meant.

Day two: Tuesday morning, I was greeted with fervent rain and wicked winds, as I headed out for my third SBE: a soup kitchen, which is not as far from home as it is inaccessible by subway. That meant the bus, baby. I walked 10 minutes, umbrella mocking me as it turned inside and out, I waited, got off the bus and promptly walked five blocks the wrong way. When I found the church hosting the soup kitchen, the doors were still locked for our 11:30 a.m. appointment. My enumerators and I found refuge at a nearby bodega, the only thing open within eye view.

Once inside, we were greeted by contact M, a 75-year-old lady with a heart of gold. She explained that while 60 were originally expected, the count was likely to be less than half, because of the inclement weather. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs today. Are you all hungry?” We politely declined, though the fragrance was begging me to pack a plate. Meanwhile, I received a call from Census supervisor O, who informed me that a couple feds from Washington were visiting our Brooklyn office and he’d be bringing them by the soup kitchen to observe. “Okay, people,” I told my enums. “Be cool, be clean. And if I start to say, ‘Mother fucker’ out loud, someone stomp on my foot.”

As the crowd began to gather, M asked us all to join hands in a circle to pray and give thanks for the meal. As I looked downward, my eyes moistened. A sweet moment. For the next 90 minutes, as each person finished his or her meal, we explained our purpose and handed out ICRs, and when requested, helped folks fill them out. M made sure no one left the premises without talking with us, as she continually encouraged the Census staffers to share in the food.

When the feds arrived with O, they asked about the process, and we shared how some procedures might be made more efficient. I maintained decorum, kept my mouth clean and filtered every sentence before it tripped out of my noggin—because as jovial as these two dudes appeared, one must always assume an ulterior motive. This is, after all, the federal government. I ain’t stupid, you know.

At 1 p.m., M closed the doors and sure enough, our count came in low: Instead of the expected pop of 60, we had fewer than 20. I filled out an “Info Comm,” used to explain discrepancies between what is expected and what’s delivered, we checked our paperwork and were out the door.

I went to the office to turn in my completed packet and by 5 p.m. was headed home. Somewhere along the way, naturally, I managed to lose my umbrella, so I donned my dorky white U.S. Census Bureau baseball cap, a reward from O, and decided to skip the subway and walk 20 minutes home. What an exhilarating experience these two days had been, gratifying, full of new sights and sounds, challenging at times and certainly humbling. An honest couple day’s work. Mother fucker, I felt good.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Washed Up

It's that kind of day in New York... naturally, the one time I had to walk 10 minutes, wait for a bus, exit in a neighborhood I didn't know, walk in the wrong direction for five blocks, arrive at my destination and find it locked. Oh, just fucking lovely.Apparently, the end-of-month rainfall helped tally the wettest March in New York history, with 10.63 inches in Central Park by Tuesday evening, beating a record set in 1983.

Happy Birthday, Celine Dion!

Spring of 1990. My buddy and workmate Johnny Gatski and I traveled daily from work at Radio World in Falls Church, Va., to my townhouse two miles away, where we would fix our lunch and spend 20 minutes watching a movie. One day, motoring back to the office down Columbia Pike, a song comes on the radio. I hear the voice, I recognize the chorus... "Where does my heart beat now..." "Hey, this is that new artist Celine Dion. I recognize the title from the Billboard Hot 100." At that point, the singer's first American hit was at No. 47.

Within three minutes, my life forever changed. One song. One voice. Such an occurrence had happened only once before, the first time I heard Sheena Easton's "Morning Train," listening to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" in my college dorm. I was instantly obsessed with the greatest voice I'd heard in my life. Previously, Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John had ignited passion for great female pipes. My discovery of Sheena led to parallel fervor for Billboard magazine, following "Morning Train" up the Hot 100 to No. 1; and each of Sheena's subsequent releases through ups and downs.

By 1990, living in Washington, D.C., I was willing to pay $265 a year for a Billboard subscription, and I'd memorize the big chart, highlighting in yellow all the singles I owned, and in the meantime, maintaining my own chart... the Taylor Top Ten, then Taylor Top Twenty, Taylor Top Thirty—all neatly deemed the TTT—until I reached Forty—and renamed it C2, for Chuck's Chart.

Celine reached the top 10 with "My Heart," and launched a career. I did the same, propelling to a post at Billboard in New York as Radio Editor in 1995. As Celine's hits progressed, so did my prowess to cover acts I coveted. Man, was I in the right place at the right time. As the mag's pop geek, I claimed ownership of Hanson, 'N Sync, Britney, Christina, BBMak, Jessica, 98 Degrees and the entire youth pop revolution in its heyday. And Celine (actually, generously handed over by my Billboard mentor Larry Flick, who previously coveted Celine coverage).

Over the years, I had the honor of five Billboard Celine cover stories as she gained prominence. As "My Heart Will Go On" continued to break chart and sales records, I wrote one piece after another, with every interview over the phone. I needled Rene, "When might I meet Celine face to face?" Finally, in 1998, when they were in New York for the "VH1 Divas" telecast, I had my moment. And then Rene invited me to dinner with she and her peeps in NYC's West Village. I sat beside Celine. We shared mashed potatoes. We sang TV theme songs. She was generous, comforting, genuine. I figured life was complete... ...Until January 2002. Celine had taken two years off after her millennium concert Dec. 31, 1999 in Montreal—which I attended—to have a kid, and was marking her grand return with "A New Day Has Come" in March. Billboard editor Timothy White suggested we ask for the first interview as a BB cover story. Rene agreed, and within a week, I was in Montreal, in their home, listening to proposed tracks for the new album. Rene asked for my opinion and in fact, one song, "Sorry for Love," was produced as a midtempo ballad and uptempo dance track, a la Cher's "Believe." "Rene, this could break Celine to the clubs, not with a remix, but an original track," I offered. "The gays will love this." Rene observed. He made a call. When the album debuted two months later, the dance version indeed appeared on the disc, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Later that day, I met young Rene Charles, gave him a gift, had lunch with Rene and Celine, and then a three-hour face-to-face interview with Celine in the dining room, as snow gently fell outside—so soon after 9/11, which we talked about. She cried. I cried.

Ultimately, I wrote up one hell of a package for Billboard. Tim White allowed it to spread over five pages (unheard of anymore with Billboard's spit-it-out mandate). The article was a profound happening for the publication, with quotes picked up around the world. Canadian weekly "7 Jours" interviewed me about interviewing Celine. It was a staggering peak for me as a journalist.

In time, Celine's five-year run at Caesar's Palace in Vegas launched. I was there opening night, every year following, and present on closing night. Each time, she and Rene indulged me with backstage visits. And photos. Ironically, my career at Billboard peaked as Celine's did the same on the pop charts. Our last cover venture came in October 2007, with release of her "Taking Chances" album. I had one more coup, when Billboard delivered a wondrous 10-page special section on Celine's 25th anniversary in the music biz, which I was given total editorial charge of, thanks to the mag's Thom Duffy, who had promised for three years running that if it ever came together, I'd be given carte blanche to write. Celine and I spent more than two hours on the phone, as she was in a car, heading out for a family vacation. My interrogation was comprehensive, and when they reached the airport, Celine literally put on the brakes and sat there until we were finished. Again, a consummate pro and wholly giving.

And today Celine Dion turns 42. She's signed to another round in Vegas beginning in 2011. I'm crossing fingers that again, I shall be there for opening night. To hear "My Heart Will Go On" once more. To say hello. To moisten up, as I do every time I see Celine live. To hear the greatest singer of our time. Amen, cool cats. Amen.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ricky Martin's Gay? God, Next Thing I'll Hear The Sky Is Blue

On his web site today, Ricky Martin decided to set the earth's axis spinning in reverse, by sharing a shocking revelation: Yes, that queen is a homosexual. What next? Paul Lynde? Rock Hudson? George Michael? Tom Cruise? Nathan Lane? Clay Aiken? God, is the whole world gay?

Like so many before him, Martin chose his day of reckoning with great dignity: "Hmm, my career is screwed. I need some publicity in the worst way. Hey, let me finally come out, even though everyone saw those beach photos with my boyfriend three years ago."

He writes,"This was not supposed to happen 5 or 10 years ago, it is supposed to happen now. These years in silence and reflection made me stronger and reminded me that acceptance has to come from within and that this kind of truth gives me the power to conquer emotions I didn't even know existed. What will happen from now on? It doesn't matter. I can only focus on what's happening in this moment. The word "happiness" takes on a new meaning for me as of today. It has been a very intense process. Every word I write in this letter is born out of love, acceptance, detachment and real contentment. Writing this is a solid step towards my inner peace and [a] vital part of my evolution. I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am."

I'm just thinking that jasdtv... oops, I nodded off there for a minute! This took him 38 years? What a wuss. Is that silence that I hear the world's ambivalence to this latent news flash?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Smoking Nun's New Banner!

Since our first post June 7, 2008, The Smoking Nun has shouted out its prominence via a pretty rudimentary banner, courtesy of provider Blogspot and my limited savvy with fonts and colors.

It may have taken two hours to figure out how to create—in Word, of all primitive apps—but at last, The Nun blog has a custom banner. Real happy about that. That deceptively regal script font would almost make one think this is a classy destination.

Why My Orthodontist Is A Hero

Bless my heart. My brother Chris and I may have parents with the good fortune of excellent health into their golden years (Diddy is 86, Mamer just turned 84 on Thursday), but unfortunately, we both ended up with Evelyn's teeth. As a late bloomer, I couldn't get braces until 15—and even then I had to have baby teeth yanked out of my head to make room for the permanents. They simply refused to give way.

The day I got my wires was a blessed event. I loathed my big buck front teeth and was masochistic every time I went to get my braces tightened: "You can do more, Dr. Pillis," even though I then couldn't chew solid food for two days. I also had to wear the infamous night brace to push those bucks back in my head. Half the time, I'd wake up in the morning and find it on the other side of the room, having sprung it in my sleep.

In all, I wore those babies for a year and a half. My ortho took them off the day before my junior high school prom, as a special favor. To this day, my heroes: Casey Kasem and Dr. Pillis.Young Charles, fifth grade.Still young Charles, seventh grade, probably my favorite school picture ever, despite those buckeroos.Ninth grade. Chris, 3 years older, already had graduated past braces.Junior prom, with my girlfriend Sarah Sprinkle. Yes, we're wearing matching mint green. You got a problem with that?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Astonishing! Nothing Happened @ Earth Hour

Wow, everything feels so different in NYC now that we've succeeded in going dark for Earth Hour from 8:30-9:30 p.m. this evening. (See post below.) Times Square before... and after... (Uh, a virtual zero.)And the alleged view across the city in 2009... Isn't Photoshop a wondrous tool?

Earth Hour: Saturday At 8:30 p.m.

This time it's not a blackout. In an attempt to bring awareness to the fact that the globe might burst into flames at any moment, cities across the world will be turning off the lights for one hour Saturday at 8:30 p.m. to acknowledge Earth Hour, including New York's Empire State Building.

The campaign began in Sydney in 2007 with 2.2 million homes and businesses turning off their lights to highlight the alleged threat of climate change. Last year, one billion people worldwide, including more than 80 million in the U.S., thought it was fun to sit in the dark, ultimately proving... nothing!

Oh, wait: "It's about showing support for action on
climate change," some guy with the World Wildlife Fund said. While organizers admit there's no way to measure how much energy is saved, it should still send a message to leaders that global warming is of great concern to folks.

You betcha! Loud and clear! Just like every other cause ignored by politicians. Not to sound cynical, but I feel just as green with my energy-saving florescent bulbs ON, thank you.