Polygamy, armed drug dealers and ignorami ahead and all around marked the follow-up census I took. I went in as a hippie sort earning some eating and drinking money, but quickly found I was straight and boring in contrast to my assignments.
I was a young thing back in 1970, but deluded myself into feeling sophisticated. The job as advertised in the Boston Globe was to walk the streets carrying my clipboard of names and addresses, and wearing my federal ID on my shirt pocket.
Anyone who was in elementary school through college in America heard repeatedly that the Constitution requires a full count of all of us every ten years. What could be simpler or more common knowledge?
Well, boys and girls, not all of us paid attention when we heard it or when the census forms arrived by mail every decade or on TV or the billboards or in the posters in the barber shops. A freight car of people had no idea what it was about.
Not surprisingly, follow-up, manual census is for those who didn’t return the mail forms. It would have been a lot easier and much cheaper for all of us if folk read their mail, did their duty, and returned the post-paid forms. Then again, hungry college students would have to work in cat-food factories (another of my local jobs) or other unpleasant tasks. Follow-up census costs are a tax we all pay for the obliviousness of a quarter of us.
Don’t Knock Again
My supervisor was African-American, as were many of the follow-up workers. He had a mischievous grin as he handed me my assignment list. He must have thought it was a bit of a joke to send the blond, pinkish guy to the very nonwhite parts of Roxbury.
It turns out that at least then and likely now those most likely not to have returned their census forms were not hippie protesters. Instead, they tended to be the poorest and least educated citizens, those who simply didn’t get it and who tossed the mailer. Then in Roxbury well over 90% of my assignments were African-American.
As my mother’s son and a boomer and a Boy Scout, I grew up with duty and thoroughness. I was to do what I agreed to, I had the Romper Room ideals of Mr. Do-Bee, and I forged ahead.
On my first day though, the steel-plated apartment door thwarted my good intentions. Clipboard under arm, I pounded repeatedly on that door in the big building on Seaver Street. Sure that I heard citizens just needing to be counted, I knocked again. An elderly woman opened a door across the hall and whispered for me to come to her. She explained that a drug dealer lived there and was as likely to shoot me and dispose of my body as not. She also suggested that if I found other metal-reinforced doors in apartment buildings to pass those by as well.
It was my education turn. I thought of dealers in college terms, like friends of friends who had Baggies of pot or some droopy haired type with granny glasses hawking window-pane acid. Armored and lethal were not words I had linked to dealers…until that moment.
Several apartments were very familial in ways I didn’t know as well. I remember the first polygamous family I met. The father and husband to many was there and as candid as one can be. There were five wives and I think 13 children.
My pathetic, stereotypical form had boxes for single, married, divorced and widowed. There was nothing for wives 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Part of my job was to return at the end of each day with my completed forms and reports of any problems or questions. While I was the first to find this situation, my supervisor was not at all disturbed. He said the important thing was that everyone was accounted for by name, gender and age. In this case, I was to report the first wife and have the other women as unrelated adults at that address.
Having gone to high school in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in New York City, including the Bronx, Boston surprised me in the census. We just don’t know how to do slums here. We have Bromley Heath and other projects, but they aren’t falling-down dreadful.
Likewise, many of the areas my supervisor said were slums had single-family houses. Yes, their yards might have a dozen spent beer cans, but there were yards. People had their own land and own house.
At one such home in so-so shape, the elderly Polish immigrant who came to the door seemed genuinely afraid of me. It was midday, but he fixed on my census ID as though I represented some oppressive authoritarian figure. I was probably a quarter of his age.
He answered my few questions, slowly and with repeated sweeps of my face and clipboard. He seemed to be measuring my every move and motive.
As I thanked him and left, I heard the door close and him gasp loudly. The drama unfolded as he began begging for my help. It turned out that his wife of over half a century was upstairs, she was dying of cancer, and he had locked himself out.
He had a ladder.
He said he was too feeble to climb it, but again begged, this time for me to climb to the third-floor bedroom window which he knew to be open. Then he second and third guessed himself. His wife would surely be terrified to see an unknown man entering their bedroom.
Yet, in the end, that was the only plan he could propose. I am not much for heights, but his terror made me brave enough. I lugged he heavy, wooden ladder from under the house and set to the task.
I called out to her repeatedly before I pushed up the window. As it was, that was meaningless. She was nearly deaf, hardly spoke any English, and was apparently so drugged against her pain that I could have been a centaur and she would not have been disturbed.
I simply greeted her, told her that her husband had locked himself out and would be upstairs as soon as I could let him in, and sidled down the stairs.
He was waiting on the front porch and hugged me powerfully. While he ran upstairs to his wife, I took down and put away his ladder. He came out of the house with two dollars. I told him that not only was that totally unnecessary, but that we weren’t supposed to take anything of value from anyone.
He’d have none of it. He thought I had done him a great service. Finally, I just took the damned $2. It was clearly a lot for him, but he could not seem to bear the burden of obligation to me. We hugged again and he returned to his vigil.
I told the supervisor who said to forget it and that it never happened.
My badge-like ID was rather plain with just the census seal, my title and my name. Nowadays, I bet they will at least have picture IDs.
However, at one visit, the ID offered a brief, negative bonding moment. It came with a large family. The eldest son, 19, was there, as were numerous siblings and their mother. They were African-American and I was still white.
The mother answered the questions and seemed quite happy to complete the forms with me. Her eldest though kept circling. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more.
He poked my ID and fixed my eyes with his. “Your name is Ball,” he said, letting my last name linger between us. “My name is Ball,” he added with another pause. “We both know what that means.”
His mother was deeply embarrassed and her blush was obvious even with under her medium chocolate complexion. She told him to leave.
Yet, he was quite right. He had no way of knowing, but I did come from slave-owning families. He and I could well be related or at the least could mirror that history.
What Can I Win?
A repeated theme truly surprised me. Many of the follow-up families had no idea what the census was. Again and again, someone would ask what they stood to win if they answered my questions.
For those of us who grew up in regular public schools in middle-class towns, the census was just a once-a-decade process. Everybody knew about it.
That was not so in Roxbury. Instead, it had the glamor of a contest or a lottery. Tell the feds how many toilets were in the apartment, plus your ages and so forth, and what could you win?
Many were both disappointed and incredulous to hear it was just a counting event. Why should they bother if there was nothing in it for them.
I quickly learned not to bother talking about federal dollars for programs and number of Congressional representatives. What was in it for them? Nothing really, but if they answered, the census folk would stop showing up or calling. In the end, they were counted.