Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, April 5, 1960
April 5, 2010 | 1:40 pm
Facts We Won't Find in the Census Report
There's nothing profound about the lady's story. Nothing glamorous. Nothing shocking.
For 17 years she worked diligently at being a housewife, raising four kids. It's a job with much heralded rewards.
But it also can lead to monotony -- a feeling that you're out of touch with the rest of the world.
That's why, when the government made its appeal for census takers, she was among those who responded.
The way she analyzed it, even the routine task of collecting statistics -- asking people how many bathrooms they had -- couldn't be less exciting than going through that almost hypnotic routine at home.
She filled out the application, took the test, and, unlike Teddy Nadler, passed. Then, with her three government issue No. 2 1/2 pencils, her red, white and blue Census Enumerator's badge, her FOSDIC (Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers) book, and a portfolio of other forms and questionnaires, she set out into her assigned neighborhood.
And into a world so strange, so curiously, pitifully different than she had known it that, after her first day, she described it to her husband until he was tired of listening. Then she sat down at her typewriter and filled three pages, telling me.
Her first knock, she related, was answered by a woman in her mid-30s -- an unkempt human in an unkempt house. She wore a dirty chenille bathrobe and had a dirty face, which she rubbed with unconscious, hostile vigor before answering each question.
"I'm sick," she volunteered, after Question No.3. "Threw up all last night."
There was no place on the FOSDIC sheet for that information or some of the other revelations which were to follow.
"It's nerves. I know that's all it is. Too much family trouble."
Before the census enumerator got out of the house, her hostess had collapsed into tears four times. Another statistic which would go unrecorded.
"You understand," the lady of the house kept repeating, "I'm sick, I'm sick."
There was the World War II hero, just down the street -- his tongue thick with bad whisky.
"I'm taking the census, sir. Do you have your advance Census Report ready for me?"
"I threw the damn thing away."
Usable statistic: Marital status -- divorced.
Unusable statistic: "I've still got my medals, not that they do me any good."
Like the woman in the chenille bathrobe, he was angry at the intrusion but sorry that it was such a short one. He was lonely for an ear.
That was the way the first day went.
A lady, 85, still grieving over the loss of her husband. "He went out of his mind before he died." A woman in her 40s who occasionally interrupted the questioning to talk to her parakeet.
Invitations, at 9:30 a.m. to stay for lunch and chat. Invitations for coffee.
"Thank you very much, but I'm past my allotted time."
"But everybody's entitled to a coffee break. I wanted to tell you about my daughter-in-law -- the way she . . . "
'Doesn't Mean Much'
There was Hoffman, an old man bent with arthritis.
"H-O-F-F-M-A-N," he spelled it. "But," he added with a shrug, "the M-A-N part of the name -- that doesn't mean much anymore."
There was the good looking redhead who said, no, her husband didn't live with her, and her daughter, 5, who added the postscript, "But I wish he did."
These were just some of the people whom the housewife-census enumerator put down on paper for me.
"I just count people," she wrote. "I don't count hearts. I learned a lot about loneliness and I learned that even the crude can be kind."
She also learned that, as a census taker, she's anonymous -- nameless and faceless -- a convenient catch-all for the many people who desperately need someone to listen to their sadness.