Enumerator insights

After 7½ years of retirement, I returned to the workplace part-time for two months this year.

The job was supposed to begin in May and run through the summer but got pushed back to August and then abruptly cut off at the end of September.

I was a federal agent.

The private identifying details we recorded are sworn to secrecy – or the equivalent, for those of us who follow Scripture and refuse to take oaths. But I’m still trying to put the experience into perspective.

For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked through the available Census files in my genealogical research, as you’ll see in the posts on my Orphan George blog. It’s become something of a specialty for me, along with the Quaker minutes. I mean, it’s how I learned that Grandpa married the girl next door. There’s also one set of ancestors who were recorded twice in 1860 but with enough differences to make me suspect there were two Jacob Ehrstines closely related – one detail in the 1870 Census cleared that up. And I have one ancestor who shaved another year or two off her age every decade, though I have no idea whether it was intentional or out of ignorance, considering that Quakers didn’t celebrate birthdays.

So I set forth in part out of gratitude for those earlier enumerators. The first ones, incidentally, were federal marshals. This was that important.

What surprised me as I hit the streets and knocked on doors on behalf of the Census Bureau was how physically hard it becomes – bending over an iPhone placed on a clipboard to input data quickly had my back aching, especially. For a dozen years, I managed to work a double shift every Saturday as a newspaper editor, yet here I was pushing my limits when it got close to five hours a day. (Wimp!) Six really maxed it. An article in the Washington Post enlightened me that I wasn’t alone here, so I couldn’t blame it all on age.

I am surprised by how many Americans don’t know what a census is or that it’s required every ten years or that they don’t want to be recorded.

Well, I now also have a clearer understanding of why one household might disappear ten years later but reappear again in a subsequent Census. You know, be there in 1800 and 1820 but not 1810.

I am also surprised how much of my brain space got wrapped in a job again. You know, replaying cases and wondering how I might have done them differently. This was supposed to be something I could let go of at quitting time. Not so, though.

Inputting data in an app on an iPhone still strikes me as tedious. You might have guessed I pretty much hate texting, except as an alternative to an actual phone call. (Emails seem to be my preferred form of communicating these days.) How do kids do it, texting with their thumbs? Or are their exchanges all typos?

Oh, yes, another confession. I’ve typed for nearly six decades now. Self-taught, earned my livelihood with it. Written whole books, even. But ask me to re-create a keyboard from memory, and I have no clue where the individual letters of the alphabet are. The memory is all in my fingers, not my head. Seriously.

So I can’t imagine keyboarding with my thumbs. As I was saying about the kids? Besides, thumbs are awfully fat for those tiny screens. My dry fingers had enough trouble connecting, even before getting to any issue of accuracy.

In my rounds, I had a few near falls (including one wooden step that wasn’t nailed down anymore), a couple of dogs who could have turned nasty, some close calls in traffic, but emerged unscathed.

Some of the most enjoyable interviews turned out to be those where I could put my very limited Spanish to work. Other enumerators had backed off, so I guessed it was up to me, and somehow, we got the required data, often with a lot of laughter. Yes, I made some funnies.

The best part of the job, though, was meeting people who, for the most part, were warm, friendly, helpful. I have a much clearer understanding of the neighborhoods around me.

Would I do it again?

No, I’ll be too feeble – or feebleminded – in another decade.

But maybe you’d want to give it a crack.

Cash in a time of Covid

Well, this used to be the start of the Christmas shopping season, and with Coronavirus I’m assuming that our Thanksgiving gatherings are smaller than usual. (Anyone sitting down to a turkey TV dinner rather than a family gathering?)

Traditionally, today is a day when we’re supposed to think about what we’re grateful for during the past year, but we’re more likely reflecting on what we really miss.

Those face-to-face times when we’re altogether, especially. (Including those casual opportunities to pass along treasures to others, too … as I’ve pondered while culling my bookshelves.)

It’s even having me admit how little cash I’ve used since March, instead putting most of my small purchases “on plastic,” the way, say, most kids have long been doing. For just a cup of coffee?

I’m wondering what else, besides cash, has been a victim of this pandemic.

High on my list would be communal worship, singing together, dancing, concerts and plays, swimming and similar exercise as well as sporting events with live crowds, study groups, parties.

For the record, I’m grateful nobody among my family or friends has come down with Covid and that none of us has been evicted. Also, for one in particular, being furloughed opened the door to an even better position. So the list of positives begins to emerge.

How about you?

It’s surprising to see how much early morning commuter traffic there is here

As a line in one of my poems goes, New Hampshire is for the most part a daytime state. The thought arose in downtown Portsmouth around six o’clock on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening around  this time of the year nearly three decades ago, and it still holds.

For added perspective, let me add that Portsmouth was – and until Covid – continued to be the place with the most nightlife in the Granite State, yet the center felt deserted that evening, save for a few furtive figures dashing from doorways and down the sidewalks.

Well, tourist season had long passed and the weather was definitely frigid. I imagined that everybody was already huddled inside somewhere.

Lately, I’ve been thinking there’s a good reason for that daytime state observation. The bulk of the populace in the state has a long daily commute to and from the workplace.

~*~

When I lived in Manchester, my apartment was only a few miles from the office. I had backways to zip from home to work and back.

In moving to Dover, things changed. My hour-long daily commute over Manchester involved part of the afternoon rush hour, which blessedly was headed mostly in the opposite direction. For the late-night return, the roads were nearly empty.

Working the vampire shift or weekends definitely gives you a different view of a certain subculture of society. You can shop or run other errands when so many others are locked away on their jobs.

One thing I learned to avoid in my free time was trying to head south, meaning toward Boston, any earlier than 9 a.m., when the bottleneck at the Great Bay bridge would finally clear out. (After years of construction, that problem’s finally been alleviated. Hooray!)

Other than that, I haven’t thought much about rush hours, but recently, given repeated opportunities to dash across the state in the morning on behalf of my elder daughter’s business, I’ve been retracing my former daily commute plus a little more, just at a much different hour.

Hoping to avoid the morning rush hour, I’ve set forth as early as 5:30 but been surprised by the amount of traffic already on the road, significantly more than I’ve been seeing at 8 or 9 in the evening. By 6:30 a.m., the headlights streaming out of seemingly rural locales (what we call towns or others might consider townships) is quite steady – in one direction. Many of them, I’m guessing, are headed toward jobs in Massachusetts, ones that might start at 8 or 9.

As I ponder the flow, I’m wondering how much heavier it was before Covid and all of the work-at-home shift that’s followed. Did the drivers I’m seeing previously have to leave that much earlier to accommodate the heavier traffic volume?

Still, if you’re among those who have to rise at 4 or 5 to commute four to six hours a day, that leaves little time for evening activities. It strikes me as a high price to pay, but then so is the cost of housing in the Bay State, where most of the good-paying jobs are.

Did you know nonprofits are a big part of the economy?

In my novel Nearly Canaan, Jaya resumes her career in nonprofit enterprises – a field she left in moving to the Yoga Bootcamp from Manhattan.

Running nonprofits turns out to be a management specialty – and they are a major player in the economy, even if you don’t read a lot about them in the business section of the newspaper.

Here are some considerations.

~*~

  1. The nonprofit sector accounts for $65 billion of the U.S. economy – 5.4 percent of the gross national product.
  2. Nonprofits hire a tenth of the workforce – more than national defense, construction, real estate, and space exploration combined.
  3. There are more than 1.2 million public charities and foundations in the country.
  4. Only one-third of the organizations file with the IRS, leaving the rest off of the economic radar.
  5. The 950,000 public charity organizations – ranging across arts, culture, education, health care, and human services – comprise two-thirds of the nonprofits sector.
  6. Most of them are small. Nearly 30 percent of the public service organizations operate at under $100,000 a year. The largest group, 37 percent, runs between $100,000 and $499,999. The largest group, of $10 million or more, is just 5.3 percent of the organizations but doles out 87 percent of the money.
  7. Nearly half of their revenue comes from fees for services and goods – ticket sales, tuition, hospital fees, membership fees, and product sales. Another third comes from government programs and grants. The remainder comes from donations (15 percent) and investment income (5 percent).
  8. Religion is the largest charity category, with a third of the pot, followed by education, 13 percent. Other standouts: Health, at 7.4 percent; arts, culture, and humanities at 4.1 percent; environment or animals, 2 percent.
  9. One in four Americans volunteers time and service to these causes. Their volunteer service, averaging 52 hours a year per person, is valued at $1.5 trillion. They also donate $358 billion in fundraising.
  10. The total assets of public charities in the U.S. comes to $3.7 trillion.

~*~

Do you donate to any nonprofit groups? Do you volunteer? Do you rely on their services?

 

It came as a harsh realization

I have no fondness for any of the offices I’ve worked in. They were all impersonal, and for the most part institutional. The best one, on a college campus, was a former dormitory room with painted concrete-block walls. The newsrooms were more like sweatshops. One, at least, made an effort in remodeling, but there were some other negative factors.

A few of my home writing spaces stand a notch higher, though I had some where I sat cross-legged on the floor to type.

Well, come to think of it, the one I really miss is the second-floor studio I converted from a bedroom in the townhouse I rented on the hilltop in Manchester. Everything was in reach there, and I did have a good view of the street and sky. Not that my current third-floor lair is anything to complain about, apart from running up against the sloping ceiling.

I really had dreamed about converting the top of the barn into my author’s haven but see no need to do that these days. The fact is, we really need to downsize, now that it’s just the two of us rather than five. And now that my work’s mostly digital, I don’t require as much storage space for filing cabinets and mailing supplies.

How about your own working spaces? Employment? Kitchen? Workshop? Hobbies?

Work! A four-letter word

One of the ideas at work — oops! — in my novel What’s Left, is work itself.

Most of us tend to think of it as menial labor, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be. In the story, for example, Cassia’s aunt Pia has a way of making every task fun and meaningful. And Cassia and her brothers and cousins all put in hours at the family restaurant from an early age on.

~*~

Her aunt Nita also had some insights on work. Here’s one I cut from the final version of the book — we simply had more on our plate than we could manage:

Day by day Nita worked her column like a line cook … a station chef. And she dared tell me journalism’s not like an assembly-line job?

~*~

The poet Donald Hall once broke labor out into three kids: work, jobs, and chores. Maybe you’ll see how they differ.

Tell me about something you do for the pure joy of doing it, even though other people might think of as, uh, tedious work.

For some of you, this could be gardening or cabinetry or decorating cakes or arranging flowers or, well, you get the drift. For others it might be an art or sport or public service.

Is it something you also get paid to do? Or could you?

~*~

 

Feel like quitting?

Got the day after Labor Day blues? Think of a job or school or volunteer post. Whatever. If you need an excuse, you can always tell them something like this.

  1. I’m tired.
  2. Won Megabucks.
  3. Am about to be beamed up, out of here.
  4. Got a better offer.
  5. Have had enough B.S.
  6. Don’t like the public I’m dealing with or my coworkers or the setting or my surroundings.
  7. Don’t agree with policy.
  8. Can’t live with the dress code.
  9. Just don’t care.
  10. It’s too expensive compared to the pay.

~*~

And here I am, retired.

What would you add as an excuse?

 

Roads not taken on the way to earning a living

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia ponders her father’s career. In an earlier draft, she noted:

At the least, he might take a position on a magazine or major metropolitan daily, based on the portfolio he’s amassed.

Even so, about the time he moves in with her family:

He replies honestly. He’s living hand-to-mouth as it is, thanks to his full-time professional calling.

~*~

I’ve known more than a few people with great talent and great potential. Somewhere, though, they failed to leap the gap. I could point to big changes in society that increased the distance, but even so, I mourn that we’ve lost much.

Step back and look at your situation now. In the movie version, where would you find glamour? And what would come across as funky? Give it a title, if you will, as part of your pitch. Let’s live fully, where we are!

~*~

Don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

Police staffing rates in various big cities

  • Baltimore: 40.6 officers for every 10,000 residents / 48.2 total personnel
  • Boston: 31.5 / 39.7
  • Chicago: 43.9 / 48.2
  • Dallas: 24.8 / 29.0
  • Miami Beach: 26.7 / 34.7
  • New York: 42.3 / 60.0
  • Philadelphia: 40.2 / 50.9
  • Los Angeles: 24.6 / 31.7
  • Seattle: 19.8 / 27.8
  • Washington, D.C.: 55.1 / 63.9

In contrast, Dover, New Hampshire, where I live, the figures are 16.1 and 23.5.

(Based on 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data)