By Peter Carlson
Sunday, July 4, 2010; B01
I knocked on the door of a basement apartment in a dingy hallway that smelled like old sweat socks.
A gruff voice growled through the closed door. "Who is it?"
"Peter Carlson from the United States Census Bureau."
"I already mailed in my form."
Of course he had. The kind of people who yell at census workers through locked doors always say they already mailed in their form.
"Apparently, we didn't receive it, sir," I said to the door. "Can I do a quick interview with you now?"
It was 10:30 in the morning. "I'll come back another time. When would be convenient?"
"Never!" he yelled. "Don't come back."
But I did come back. A census enumerator is required to try three times.
"I'm busy," he bellowed through that closed door on the second visit.
"Stop harassing me," he hollered on the third. "Go away."
I went away, thinking, I should come back every day until he opens that damn door. But of course, I didn't. I had other doors to knock on, and besides, I'm not sure I want to be there when he opens his.
I'm a retired newspaperman, and I enlisted as a temporary $18.50-an-hour census worker because I figured it would be interesting. As every reporter knows, it's always entertaining to meet the American people in all their wacky glory.
You learn a lot about your fellow human beings when you take a census -- and not just the answers to the official questions. I spent six weeks working in Montgomery County, and here's what I learned: The American people are quirky, cranky and a little paranoid. They're also a bit confused about race, especially the census's racial categories, but they're surprisingly good humored about it.
Of course, I saw a skewed sample of Americans. Here's why: Every 10 years, the Census Bureau mails questionnaires to every home in the nation. Roughly 70 percent of people promptly fill out the form and mail it back. Those folks are, well, the kind of people who promptly mail back census questionnaires.
The other 30 percent don't mail in the form because they forgot, or they lost it, or their dog ate it, or they didn't understand it, or they hate questionnaires, or they hate the government, or they just don't give a damn, or . . . whatever.
When the government asks Americans to stand up and be counted, these are the folks who remain seated. They're also the folks who got a personal visit from me -- or one of the other 600,000 temporary census workers. The Constitution requires that we count them whether they want to be counted or not.
Knocking on their doors is an adventure. You never know who'll answer. One man opened the door while brushing his teeth and responded to all my questions with a big blob of bubbly toothpaste bobbing up and down on his cheek. One young guy spent the entire interview tapping on his iPhone, updating his Facebook friends about his exciting census experience.
A deaf and blind woman held out her hand and told me to ask my questions by slowly tracing each letter on her palm.
One woman invited me into her house and led me through her living room, which was piled high with papers, to her kitchen, which was also piled with papers. After the interview, she asked if I could help her with a writing project.
And then there was the old guy who protested when I called him "sir." He said he couldn't stand the officers he was forced to call "sir" back in World War II.
See? The American people really are entertaining. Unfortunately, the census form provides no place to capture their delightful quirkiness.
In one Rockville neighborhood, I met immigrants from Suriname, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru, Lesotho, Russia, Ukraine, Malawi, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Sri Lanka -- all living within a mile of one another. I felt patriotic knowing they'd all chosen to live in this country -- the same country my Swedish and Irish grandparents chose 11 censuses ago.
A woman from Panama told me she felt "honored" to be included in the U.S. census. But other people refused that honor. There were lots of them -- the crusty, the nasty, the paranoids muttering about the government or grumbling, "I don't want anybody to know where I live." One woman was willing to tell me that four people lived in her apartment, but she refused to reveal their names. "The names are on licenses, they're in the schools," she said. "Everybody knows who we are."
"I don't know who you are," I pointed out.
"The information is available," she said as she shut the door, "but I'm not giving it out."
One guy who refused to reveal his name suggested an alias. "Just call me Jimmy Jones," he said. "I don't like the government, and I don't like the questions on the form."
I don't like the government either (who does?), but come on, people, the government already knows where you live. That guy who delivers your mail -- who do you think he works for? I find it bizarre that people think nothing of sharing personal information with the salesclerk who sold them a toaster, but they get all antsy when a census-taker asks their name.
When did Americans get this paranoid? The Census Bureau's official online history offers a clue in its account of the 1970 Census: "Researchers also noted a growing distrust of government and resistance to responding to the census."
Well, I guess the '60s could make anybody paranoid. And so could every subsequent decade. Maybe the Census Bureau should start tracking our paranoia, perhaps with a question on the 2020 form:
How paranoid are you?
__ Not paranoid.
__ Moderately paranoid.
__ Why the hell are you asking me that?
__ Get away from the door or I'll shoot, you jack-booted stormtrooper!
I myself got a tad paranoid during each interview when I reached Question 6 on the form: "What is your race?" Race is a touchy subject in America, and it's not something I usually ask strangers about while standing in their doorways. But it wasn't a problem. In fact, people seemed to have fun with the question.
A lot of white folks smiled and answered, "Just plain old white bread" or "Pure vanilla." And several young black people burst out laughing when they read the last word in the form's description of their race -- "Black, African American or Negro."
When I asked a 90-year old woman the race question, she said, "Oh, I'm a Michigan girl."
One old white guy identified his race as "homo sapien." He said he learned on Wikipedia that it's the only true race and we're all in it together.
I tend to agree, but the census doesn't. The questionnaire lists 12 races, plus a box labeled "Some other race." Several choices seem more like nationalities than races -- Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean -- and this caused some confusion. Some people told me their race was Salvadoran or Iranian.
A Korean immigrant, who kept apologizing for her accent, identified herself and her husband as Korean. When I asked about the race of her children, she said, "Oh, they American."
"American isn't really a race," I said. "Americans come in many races. Should I put down Korean for them, too?"
"No, no," she insisted. "I Korean, they American."
So I checked the box marked "Some other race" and filled in "American." Sounds like that old melting pot is still bubbling.
One guy told me he was white but said his wife insisted on being identified as Armenian.
"What about your kids?" I asked. "What should I put for them?"
He thought for a moment and then got a mischievous grin on his face. "Put down Armenian Irish," he said.
I wrote it down, thinking, Is Armenian Irish really a race?
That seemed weird enough, but a few days later and about a mile away, it got weirder. I interviewed a guy who identified his race as white. His wife's race, he said, was Peruvian.
"And the kids?" I asked.
"They're half and half," he said.
"You want me to put down half and half?"
No, he didn't. He thought out loud for a couple of minutes. White Peruvian? No, that wasn't it. American Peruvian? Not really.
"Put down Irish Peruvian," he said.
So I did. In just six weeks of census work, I felt like I'd witnessed the birth of two new races. Is this a great country or what?
When people get this casual, this playful, this zany about their racial identity, I think we've turned some kind of psychic corner on race in America.
And that's the kind of revelation that could serve to lessen our collective paranoia level. (But, alas, it probably won't.)
I can't wait for the 2020 Census.
Peter Carlson, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a columnist for American History magazine. He is also the author of "K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist." He served as a temporary census worker this year.