: Working the Census: Bringing a Family Back to Life :

an excerpt by Efrem Sigel


The man we encounter in the doorway of his eighth-floor Greenwich Village apartment—in his early sixties, grumpy, with mournful eyes and two days’ stubble—is not happy about opening the door at 7 p.m. to see who is knocking so loudly.   He speaks slowly and slurs his words; perhaps we’ve awakened him from a nap or interrupted a tête-a- tête with a bottle of Jim Beam.  But in the end he answers all ten questions put to him by my colleague Stuart, an official enumerator for the U.S. Census 2010. 

            Our unnamed interviewee—by law, the names of Census respondents must remain confidential for seventy-two  years—bridles only at question 3, which Stuart asks exactly as he was trained to do: “Are you male or female?”  To which the man replies, eyes narrowing, “Are you kidding?”  The male/female question never fails to provoke a raised eyebrow or a look of disbelief, even though in 2010 it’s not entirely absurd—not in New York City, not in Greenwich Village, and especially not in a district like mine that is home to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, andTransgender Community Center. 

            Stuart is one of six enumerators whom I’m supervising this spring in a six-block area of the West Village.  I assign them case binders of addresses and apartments to contact, I log in and check their questionnaires, I help them deal with people who refuse to answer the door, I visit recalcitrant apartment doormen who are keeping enumerators from doing their job, I sign their daily payroll sheets.  And, with my government-issued plastic badge identifying me as a crew leader, I accompany them on visits to make sure they’re doing their jobs correctly. Their work requires fortitude: enumerators often deal with people who are never home and whose neighbors know nothing about them, with supers who belligerently try to shoo them away, with absentee owners from Europe who do not respond to a Notice of Visit slipped under the door.