Those Who Count

at 12:35 AM

A man's voice screams from a back room at a trembling woman while pit bulls lunge at the screen door. At a different house, a tall Indian wearing a turban offers me chai. Elsewhere, a beautiful Tibetan explains naming customs among her people. A young Pakistani mother offers me a taste of the curry dish she is preparing. A suburban housewife screeches obscenities. A Brazilian family explains how to say "excuse me" in Portuguese.

I had reservations about taking a job enumerating for the Census -- knocking on doors feels scary when you spend most of your time behind a computer. But I needed the paycheck.

And also, I discovered, the human contact. I've been thanked and sworn at; invited in and shunned. My assumptions have been endlessly challenged. People I thought would be friendly were rude, others who I thought would be harsh were welcoming. I've learned that stereotypes will inevitably be contradicted, and that the Bay Area is home to a wealth of people, cultures and languages.

Recently, the census has been checking residences identified as vacant. The reports are almost always accurate, and almost always sad. I approach the vacants warily. You never know what awaits. One looks like a child's image of a haunted house: overgrown, peeling paint, tattered curtains. It is in foreclosure. The next has a carton of books by the front door. The owners' daughter explains that her parents were moved to a nursing home. The next is so tidy you'd think someone lived there. A lawn stretches across the enclosed front yard. I can practically hear the whoosh of a tossed football not there, the crack of a toy croquet racket from long ago. Posted on the door is a tarnished brass placard, identifying the residents, Mr. and Mrs. ___. The house is dark and too quiet. I press the bell. There is no answer.

The census is ending. We've counted our many and diverse neighbors, remembered our biases count for nothing, and said a silent goodbye to those who are not, but who once, indeed, did count. I took the job for the paycheck. I leave it with my heart and mind open wider than before.

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With a Perspective, I'm Ann Manheimer.

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