This April I took a multiple-choice test for a temporary job with the census.
One of my fellow trainees suggested the job was a step backwards for someone with a PhD in Biology, but I saw it as opportunity to engage in the study of my own species.
I also did this for fun. I did it for the sun, the socializing, and the exercise. I got paid to explore the hidden nooks in my neighborhood during the nicest part of the year.
My neighborhood (FolSOMA) is at the very heart of San Francisco and is transforming quickly. Many new funky establishments such as Langton Labs, Wicked Grounds, Rancho Parnassus, and Passion Cafe are opening up; along them are old favorites like GoldTeethUS, the Defenistration Building, and Stormy Leather. Yuppy condo lofts are invading every available development lot.
Impervious to these developments an agglomeration of public housing projects (of a flavor called SROs) remains. In other cities, they would have been relocated elsewhere. San Francisco decided to be different by keeping such places central and visible, placing most city housing and social service facilities within a 5 block radius of City Hall (and coincidentally, my house).
I won’t besmirch the spirit of the urban planning decision, but it’s not without consequence. We’re the tall peak on many of these topo crime maps and every one of my car owning roommates has had a window busted.
Many people who live in San Francisco avoid our area. Many census employees specifically asked not to be assigned to my district. I relished the chance to get to know my neighborhood, to see what was usually hidden, to travel without going far from home.
My beat focused on the SRO (single room occupancy) hotels in the vicinity of 6th and Mission street.
SROs vary in their quality, purpose and clientele. Some house the disabled and the elderly, provide social services, and engage their residents with group activities in common rooms. These tend to be painted in cheerful pastel tones. Some are community centers specialized for a particular demographic, (e.g. low income working Filipino families) and might even have more than one room per unit. Such SROs resemble clean well run college dorms or decent apartment buildings.
The ones I was assigned were very much at the other end of the spectrum. They housed recovering drug addicts, parolees, and the mentally disabled. Many of the residents preferred to hide in their rooms, emerging only to relieve themselves, and even then not always.
Their long hallways of single room units shared one bathroom as the only communal space. It’s these buildings that earn SROs their reputation. These were the rooms I pried open with my questions. Did you live here on April 1st? What is your name, date of birth, ethnicity?
“Count me? What for? Everyone knows I don’t count. Just look at me.”
I had to introduce myself four times to an amnesiac during one interview. Each time we got two questions further along, she interrupted urgently. “No, wait, wait… hold on! Who are you?” Rinse and repeat.
I stumped a schizophrenic by asking him how many people lived in his room. “You mean in here?” he said, pointing at his head.
Presuming I was doing genealogical research, an elderly man ebulliently traced out his linage to King Ferdinand of Spain. Then, excitedly, he started mumbling: “Swiss bank account numbers”, passwords, and the whereabouts of lock boxes that would confirm the splendor of his ancestry. He confessed that no one ever believed or understood him. Evidently he had been waiting for someone to arrive at his door and restore him to his rightful place in opulence and history, and now his dream had come true.
I liked the no nonsense talk that established clear expectations. “You know what man. I’m going to slam this door right in your face, and then if you gonna knock again, I’m going to stab you.” But wait! An unlikely assistant emerged from the bathroom. Haggard and female, she looked like half her hair was forcibly torn out. Who better to speak sense to the young man? She addressed the now slamming door, “You can’t [BOOM] treat people who come nice like that. You gotta learn the social rules kid, especially now that you got a kid of your own to feed and make educated. Do you really want a carbon copy of yourself?”
The official title of my position with the census was “enumerator” but besides counting people I got to play many other roles.
To “clients” I played a sympathetic ear or the pathetic dummy getting chased away from the door.
A janitor gave me a word of warning as the metal gate of yet another SRO opened with a buzz, “Bad things happen here” and as it slammed shut behind me, “You’re on your own, kid.”
Can you really call us Feds?
In one hallway, I met a curious woman (in more ways than one) who asked me who I was and what I was doing there. Having processed my answer, she stole away into a room around the corner. Audibly, she said, “I think you should go beat up that nice white boy walking down our hallway and take everything he’s got.” Life has taught me to take such amusements in stride. I immediately walked to the room she entered, greeted its occupants with a firm look, and moved along.
I heard this story from a fellow census employee with first hand shelter experience. On the day that the homeless got their public funds checks, buses queued outside. The homeless hurried to get 50$ round trip tickets to a casino in Reno, NV plus an all-you-can-eat buffet. The check cashing place on the corner, the ticket booth for the bus, the casino filling up its down time with the dumb, down and out, low-rollers. A whole niche economy.
While many were eager to be interviewed, intentions varied wildly. An older guy was proud to give the date of birth of his younger girlfriend, eager to spill the numbers that reflected so well on his virility. I inadvertently flattered him by trying to infer the relation from the data, “Might this be your daughter?”
“Nah, it’s my girlfriend…
“Pretty good, right? She just got home from the hospital recovering from seizures and shit, so I can’t show her to you right now.”
Two kinds of people routinely slammed the door in my face, yet I’m not sure either would be happy with the comparison. They were repulsive in their shiny shirts and crispy suits or obscene in their birthday suits. In yuppy dwellings (to which I was also assigned) rich snobs “didn’t have the time.” One hid behind his door, the other behind the intercom. The powerless and the powerful both exerted themselves in vain (as I usually got them in the end.)
I came to your door to count you and you turned me away. You told me I’m worthless, that I’m wasting your time. You told me that you will stab me and teach me to avoid you. By now I have learned to expect these things.
You were weak, pathetic to your own self, just wanted to be left alone. “I’m sleeping, I’m always sleeping, I’d rather not wake up,” you’d say.
The SRO environment resembled an elementary school on permanent recess. The teachers had given up and classes have long been dismissed… but the news still felt fresh! The students milled about the hallways with a mercantilistic eye for what others had to trade. Cookies? Cigarettes? Services?
Rent was subtracted directly from their SSI benefits and left them with an operational budget of 5$ a day, (approximately the allowance for an average elementary school kid in San Francisco.) They couldn’t afford consumerism as a distraction, so they sought other diversions.
In front of the building, a story of the same genre unfolded.
A knotted elderly, mentally deranged gentleman held a a cane with its handle to the ground. An array of soda cans was arranged at his feet. He swung his club wildly, missing mostly, but occasionally launching a can high into the air above and then back down into the busy intersection.
A hunched scraggly elderly lady appeared out of nowhere. ”What are you up to today? Causing trouble as always?”
It seemed for a moment as if she was readying to deliver a reprimand, but instead, she sat on the curb, rested her chin in her palms and watched this unique sporting event adoringly, “Fun, fun … what fun!”
One of the most memorable lessons from training was not to bribe clients for interviews. When our trainer had participated in an earlier phase of the Census, Operation Homeless, she thought ahead and purchased cigarettes as handouts. Her group leader prevented her from acting on her good idea, saying it was considered a bribe and that “we just don’t do that kind of thing.”
I thought back to her words when I turned down repeated requests for cigarettes in exchange for interviews. But bribery has many guises. If sympathy is a bribe, I expended a lot of it.
One guy asked if I would provide any “services” in exchange for the interview. Evidently, in the world of social welfare they swim in, “services” is a common euphemism. Each is like a treat for jumping through a hoop. “If you cooperate, I may be able to get you some services.”
For those that were uncooperative I had to rely on manager’s records to complete the census. In those cases, I spent time interacting with the invariably Indian or Nepali management staff. To the smell of Indian spices and a view of an alter to a Hindu god, we’d kick back in the office and they’d tell me something like, “When you talk to Indian woman, you don’t have to ask her middle initial. All Indian women have middle initial same as husband’s first name”.
I felt like I was cajoling with prison guards. Their removed and judgmental attitudes and positions behind caged windows made them gatekeeper-overlords of this domain.
I left a message on this door before.
This time, I heard a voice.
“Come back when I am sober.”
… and neither am I yet sure of the implications of these Censing experiences, not two blocks from home.