Counting Heads

The first thing I had to do was to abandon the speech we’d rehearsed, which, if I recall it correctly, began with something like: “Hello, my name is (your name). I am an enumerator with the United States Department of Commerce (display your badge) and we are conducting the 1990 census in your neighborhood. With your permission, I would like to ask you a few questions regarding your household.”

No one talks like that around here and it would be profoundly rude to adopt such a tone with my neighbors. Instead, the typical conversation began something like this:

“Mornin’ Ma’am. How you doin’?”

“Why, just fine, thank you. How ’bout yourself?”

“Oh, pretty fair–can’t complain. Looks like we’re in for another hot one but I reckon it beats bein’ out in the rain, anyway.”

“Yeah, I s’pose it does. You the census man?”

“Yes ma’am. I hate to bother you like this, but you know how the government is, it’s gotta get done. You got a minute?”

The government’s notion was to be productive and professional, that is, impersonal. But you just can’t ask people for personal information and walk out on them without leaving a little something in return. It didn’t have to be much, maybe just an acknowledgment that my temporary employer would probably hand out the details of their personal lives to anyone who cared to take a look–if it didn’t get lost first. More often, I simply needed to listen to their problems and share a few of my own.

All of this was time consuming, of course, and for a while I worried about spending too much time sipping coffee at kitchen tables. However, we had been instructed to “follow the local customs” and chewing the fat with the neighbors was demonstrably an integral part of our traditional local culture. Besides, I wouldn’t have taken on the task of visiting seven hundred households if it hadn’t been for the chance to hear people talk.

When I heard that the job was coming up, I knew immediately I wanted to apply for it. It was an instinctive response which I rationalized later, on the basis that meeting all my neighbors would be good for me as a writer. This was a reasonable and entirely justifiable excuse, but in the end, only an excuse.

The truth is that I, and every writer I’ve ever met, was a snoop long before taking up “my craft or sullen art.” I’ve always loved eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers, watching their actions with a sidelong glance, secretly delighting in unguarded revelations.

Sometimes the craft is just an excuse for the habit, giving me the sort of professional immunity granted to priests and psychotherapists and census takers. At my more honest times I see that we writers are really a pitifully maladjusted bunch, hiding behind white sheets of paper, speaking with the great voice to hundreds of thousands of distant people we never meet while keeping our thoughts to ourselves among our neighbors.

The high point, topographically speaking, of my six weeks as an enumerator came when I stood on the bald top of Sheep Hill, the mountain at whose foot our little shack by the tracks sits. I’d been meaning to climb it for twelve years, but never got more than a third of the way up. Armed with the plastic badge of mandatory cooperation pinned to my shirt, I obtained the key to a locked gate from the telephone company and drove to the summit on a gravel road.

Typically, in this country of jumbled terrain, I had to drive ten miles to reach a point about a mile, for those with raven wings, from my front door. It might as well have been Tierra del Fuego or Fargo. To hike it would probably require a tough six hours round trip, because half of that mile-long “shortest distance between two points” is up.

My official purpose was served the moment I reached the end of the road just short of the microwave transmission tower. I could say with certainty that no one lived up there without ever leaving the car. But I couldn’t turn away without spending a federally funded idle hour enjoying the kind of vista that once served vision quests and is now reserved for utility workers.

Standing on a mountain top changes your perspective, not just optically but, more importantly, emotionally. The few square miles of valley nestled between ridge tops which makes up my day to day world seemed at once both grander and more fragile than I’d imagined. It was as if I stood in two places at once, up above and down below, both laughing Gulliver and self-important Lilliputian.

Gathering information has hazards more dangerous than walking up to a neighbor’s porch past ill-tempered dogs. Perhaps the greatest danger was in seeing the data but not the people. For one thing, none of the really important questions appeared on the survey forms. I began to doubt the validity of a statistical abstract in forming a portrait of my community. In the real world, no matter what arithmetic you use, the answer is always the same because, in the end, there’s only one of each.

As I went from door to door, methodically circling clockwise and always working the homes to my right, I began to toy with the notion of a meaningful survey, devoid of names, gender, age and occupation but full of the really big questions and with room for answers that might require volumes just to record a single reply.

At every sixth home I conducted an in-depth interview, using a long questionnaire requiring highly personal information about income, jobs, level of education, military service and health. I was often stuck by the contrast between one long-form interview and the next. One elderly couple, living in an old wooden house on a $6,000 pension, reported ten years worth of elementary school education between the husband and wife. Six houses down the road, a couple in their late twenties were earning over $100,000 annually. Twelve homes up the road, a farmer with a college degree reported working more than sixty hours per week during the previous year for a net loss of $40,000.

On the same mile of road, I met a bartender who lived in a trailer, husbandless and raising two children. She was in a hurry and asked me to come by her establishment that evening. It was a slow night at the bar with a half-dozen regular customers lined up on the bar stools. I ordered a cup of coffee and we worked the interview in between her duties. One besotted old harpie, sitting three seats down, kept offering advice to the young woman, repeating the same defiant mantra with each question, “Name, address and Social Security number, Honey–that’s all you gotta give ’em.”

Actually, none of the forms asked for anyone’s Social Security number, but the long form did require me to ask for her job title and then a description of her main tasks and duties.

“Mixing and serving drinks,” I suggested and began to pencil in my own reply anticipating her agreement.

“Nope–babysitting drunks,” she informed me in all seriousness. I turned my pencil upside down to erase what I’d written and recorded her reply.

Even in its smaller elements (in this case Douglas County voting precinct 63A) a society resembles an untidy rummage sale where cultural artifacts, ranging from cobwebby attitudes left over from days of obsidian tools to this morning’s radio talk show topic, crowd together on the same cluttered table. One old farmer, who managed to withhold every bit of information without ever refusing to answer a single question, gave me a rambling account of his family’s struggle against government perfidy going back to the days of the Greenback-Labor Party and William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech.

The joy of discovering traces of the past was one of the first of many unexpected delights I found and it nearly became an obstacle to the others. To see what is actually there to be seen is harder than digging up stumps. Our perceptions are so deeply rooted in what we expect to see that we almost never notice what is truly there.

I was determined to understand my neighbors, not just to stockpile ore for the stamping mill of my craft, but out of a sense of social and spiritual duty as well. We are, as members of our society, required to know our community in order to make the informed decisions which, as citizens, we must make. Knowing the issues and ourselves is not enough; we have to know each other as well.

Coupled with the biblical mandate that we love our neighbors, the obligation to know the people we live among becomes an essential matter. It’s not merely an ideal goal to work toward but, in the most fundamental sense, it is an inescapable necessity. Even from the most pragmatic view point, we simply can’t live an enjoyable life unless we know, and through knowing, love each other.

Looking back on my stint as an information gatherer, the strongest impression I have is of the nearly  universal decency of my neighbors. Although many people took the opportunity to complain about the government, and a few refused to cooperate, they were polite about it. Well, almost all of them were polite.

At an isolated trailer house a nervous young couple answered the door and explained that they were just visiting and that their friend had only recently moved into the place. In accordance with my instructions to base the survey on residency as of April 1st, 1990 I asked them id they knew the exact date. Before they could reply, a loud male voice began booming, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong..” from somewhere inside. They looked at each other and then at me in alarm. Then the chanting gave way to a stream of expletives the drift of which sent me scurrying to my car.

I paused a moment in the car to note the address and check off the appropriate box on the census form before leaving. A bearded, shirtless, skeletal, yellow-skinned, scabrous fellow appeared in the doorway and accused me of writing down the licence plate number of a van parked in the driveway. A clinical diagnostic term, “amphetamine psychosis,” and the possibility of gunfire occurred to me simultaneously.

“You got a problem?” the thin man demanded to know. I did, but I took care of it by starting my engine and jamming the transmission into reverse.

Still, other than a speed freak, a bar fly and a few toothsome dogs, no one barked at me and, even then, I never got bitten.

After a few weeks, the wearing effects of concentrated attention finally caught up to me. The sheer numbers of people and places and conversations I experienced day after day became more than I could keep track of. It was then that I became aware of something I’d felt before but never really appreciated fully–the benefit of being burned out.

When the tide of statistical information and personal observation reached flood stage it was sink or swim, so I floated instead. I didn’t choose to adopt a different attitude. I was simply too overwhelmed to do anything but enjoy what I was doing without adding any layers of moral or intellectual involvement. Oddly, giving up the attempt at understanding allowed me to know more than I’d thought possible.

There are times in each of our lives when for one reason or another we simply can’t spare the energy it takes to prop up our self image. This is a very frightening condition sometimes, but on other occasions it is a source of great joy. Either way, it is always a time when we are able to learn unexpected things because we’re too tired to do anything but directly experience unadulterated reality.

With my attempt at noting all the differences among my neighbors a hopeless mess, I finally began to appreciate their underlying sameness. In an unexpected way, by looking for the little things that set them apart from each other, I’d been ignoring a large part of who they were.

Observations, especially when it comes to people, always tell us more about the observer than the observed. Every conversation is a Rorschach test. Until you have the knack of losing focus, or, more properly, of abandoning your perspective, it’s impossible to appreciate the multiplicity of an ordinary human. When you simply accept people without attempting to define them you learn more about them, even in the briefest of encounters. With people, face value is full value.

A friend of mine, who holds a doctorate in sociology, shuddered when I pointed out to him that categories of people don’t really exist. “My God,” he moaned, “but that’s all we do. Our whole science is based on breaking people up into categories so that we can compare them to other groups.”

I felt bad about that, after all, he’s good guy and terribly concerned about finding ways for people to get along with each other. But, there’s always more to people than we can understand. People are real but definitions are always false, or at best useless without a deeper understanding.

I’ve listened to the earnest talk of people who are struggling to understand a notion called “community” and wondered what particular bit of earth, if any, they hold dear. Like each individual, each community defies definition, though not understanding.

Robert Frost understood. His poem, The Death of the Hired Hand, probably comes as close as anything I’ve read to the truth about community. In the poem, an old homeless drifter, sick and nearing death, returns to a farm where he’d worked for many years as a hired man. The farmer and his wife take him, he grudgingly, she compassionately. In the course of a good natured but earnest argument over the derelict’s unexpected arrival and what they ought to do about it they try to define the word “home.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” he snorts.

“I should have called it something you don’t have to deserve.” she replies.

I find myself returning to this place which I have not left. Often, in some distant conversation about right and wrong, or love and hate, or the struggle to define what is or isn’t, my thoughts come back to these few square miles of land and to the people who walk the same ground in their daily rounds as I do. It has become more important to me than I can say, to know that we are all here, together.

History: Overstory:Zero, Real Life In Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA 1995; (extract) Portland, Winter 1995, Portland OR

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