Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Civil Service! Census 2010

Great public effort impresses me. I romanticize it. For years I've watched documentaries and read about the New Deal and the Work Progress Administration, FDR's mobilization of scores of citizens to rebuild the country and end the Great Depression. It was an American epic - men building trails and lodges in the parks, planting trees, building bridges. Many of my literary heroes, like Lorine Niedecker, Ralph Ellison, Loren Eiseley, and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote for the Federal Writer's Project. And as I sit here in 2010 and watch the G.O.P. filibuster even debate on finance reform, I can't help but wish we could all take up our shovels and pens and go fix something.

So, I joined the U.S. Census. I'm an enumerator. That means I'm one of the people who go door to door in neighborhoods and check up on households who didn't return the census form. I had my first day of training today and I can't help but wonder if Ralph Ellison was this bored on his first day of FWP training. It's profoundly not romantic, not glamorous. I realized today that there's nothing glamorous in the individual experiences that are the molecules of great collective effort. The U.S. Census, taken decennially since 1790, is the largest peacetime civilian workforce in America. There are over half a million census workers in the U.S. In the abstract, it's still impressive and I suppose I'm still happy to be part of it. We'll see if I'm still saying that eight weeks from now.

The fellow pictured above is taking the census in 1910, taking down the information of some Native Americans in Wisconsin. I'm going to be like him, only without the cool beard, or cool hat, or cool pipe... I'll be like an uncool version of this guy. Maybe in 2110, some poor grad student will sign up to be an enumerator and find a picture of me online and think I look cool. Who knows.


Jennifer Lowe said...

Man, I tried to do this in *1990* and only made it through the four-day training. You are therefore way cooler than I will ever be. Cool like owls are cool.

Eric said...

Ha! After seeing how downtrodden you were in T.A. seminar, I'm impressed that you even made it through the training.