Censusing the Woods, Part 2 | WCAI

Censusing the Woods, Part 2

Apr 14, 2020

This week Bob continues his account of being a census taker in 1990.

Most of our work as census takers was straightforward and unexciting. We visited the households that had not yet returned their short forms, and led those with the long forms through the questions. Nonetheless, there were many examples of the unexpected.

Jean Finch, for instance (no relation), knocked on one door and was greeted by a man totally naked. He didn’t seem to be aggressively exposing himself, though, and Jean, always the professional, led him through the long form without further incident.

Paul, another member of our group, knocked on the door of a motel room listed as the residence of a Pakistani immigrant. When the door opened, he found nine men in the motel room. The man to whom the room was rented explained that these were his “cousins” who had just arrived for a visit. Since we were not obliged to verify any of the information we gathered, Paul listed the number of people living there as “one.”

Another thing that impressed me was the literal-mindedness of the census bureau. When we took someone through the long form, we were required to ask the questions in exactly the manner in which they appeared on the form. Some of these proved embarrassing, such as the question that asked, “What is your race?

I had to pose this question to a very fit-looking middle aged couple who were obviously white. When I did so the man said, “What?”

I repeated the question, and again he said, “What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “but we’re required to ask these questions exactly as they appear on the long form without adding any leading information.”

“Oh, O.K.”

“So,” I said, “if you don’t mind, ‘What is your race?’”

He turned to his wife and said, “I don’t know, honey – what would you say, 5 K?

But the most dramatic example of the Census Bureau’s literal mindedness came when we were assigned our respective areas of the town to survey. Aside from a few dozen inhabited structures at the periphery of my map, the bulk of the territory I was assigned to census turned out to be Nickerson State Park – the 1800-acre preserve of ponds and woodlands in the southeastern part of Brewster. There were a number of structures within the Park, including several toilet facilities and a Youth Camp for at-risk teenage boys sat the park headquarters, but, to my knowledge, there were no year-round permanent inhabitants

I pointed this out to our group director, but he was a professional bureaucrat and merely confirmed my assignment by saying, “We census every square foot of land, no matter where it is and record any residents we find there.”

Well, who was I to argue?  Though Nickerson is a heavily populated place in the summer, it was pretty empty in early April. So I spent the next several days “censusing” the park, walking down each empty dirt road in the bright spring sunlight, investigating several extensive groves of white pine, faithfully recoding every duck, chipmunk, blue jay, raccoon, trout, and deer I came upon, unwilling to leave out even the smallest resident of this populated community.