Looking for Life in the Machine:

A Census 2020 Enumerator’s Diary

08.13.2020 Thursday

Today I begin looking for life in the machine with a government-issued iPhone. Got 54 cases today in the FDC app — the first address on my list is on the next block but I don’t match the number with an image. It’s going to be an earn-and-learn mission.

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08.16.2020 Sunday

Notes from the first week:

Talked with (in mover) Hanna, a neighbor I was looking forward to meeting as she and her husband (who was not around during my visit) purchased and are renovating a small historic home on a busy street before it was purchased by a developer — who were snooping around for sure.

Parked in the shade of a mature tree at the fork of the road to use the map app to locate my next case — the machine told me You have arrived! It was a new home on the other side of the tree with no number. A young man opened the door and confirmed the address but was in a meeting … he promised to call the Census number on the Notice of Vist (NOV) with his case number I neatly recorded in the boxes and, pushing a shoe through the door he told me to put it under the shoe. The improvised stoop of stairs was nearly chest-high to me as the structure was in the flood plain of the Snohomish River, just across the busy road. He was a polite, good-looking man who lived alone; and, as I walked back to my car, I so wanted to know why he built his home just steps from the (very busy) railroad tracks?

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08.27,2020 Thursday

A disturbing couple of hours were spent in the large single-room-occupancy (SRO) building on First Street last week. Fortunately, the manager was helpful by telling me which units were unoccupied which saved leaving a Notice of Visit (NOV) slips at those doors. Many were at work as it was late afternoon. But I did meet Ms. C. who completed an interview as I learned was her birthday! She brought home fried pork earlier to celebrate. Ms. C. wanted me to know that she was returning soon to Oregon where her kids live and were asking for her to return. She had moved to Snohomish to be with a friend who had passed.

And just yesterday, Wednesday, one of my first cases was a historic farmhouse-style home but with a yard of cars under tarps, a collapsed white picket fence, and a porch crowed with a couch that blocked the front door. The first tread was missing and the handrail was ready to fall. As there was no place to leave an NOV, I went around back. A hot tub was built into a corner of the structure, but was long overgrown, with a mysterious element growing on the sides. Most impressive was an expansive wooden deck that had been losing the battle with gravity for years. Continuing on around to the backyard, it was full of abandoned projects. On the shady side of the house, I saw a small woman sitting under a tree, behind a small table, watching me. I said Hello, loudly, and approached, she smalled. Told her I was here to count her for the Census, and she agreed. She and her husband had lived in the house for 28 years, she told me when I asked if she was living here on April 1, 2020. The ashtray/bowl was full of butts, but she didn’t smoke while I was there and didn’t wear a mask, even though I was. When we came to the part where a respondent can list the origin of their heritage, she said “Swedish” then began to tear up while telling me a story from her past that I didn’t get, but she grew more, quietly emotional. After an appropriate pause, I apologized for upsetting her and pointing the way to the front of the house, asked if I could get out that way, (as opposed to retracing my steps). She said yes, still seated under the small tree, perhaps it was more of a large bush, I would need another look. Also wanted another look at the hot tub installation in its poignant stage of entropy.

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08.30,2020 Sunday

Yesterday afternoon I found myself with several cases in the Three Rivers Mobile Home and RV Park, off Elliott Road on the way to the High Bridge Road in Monroe. It was a large park of trailers that didn’t seem very mobile with shed-style structures covering many of them. And I was intimidated by the chaotic look of the place and its improvised unit numbering system made it a challenge to locate the cases, so I left.
Circling back after a few cases on Lost Lake Road, I passed the park just as an Amazon van was pulling out so I returned, telling myself to man up: the addresses can be found. One place with the sounds of a large family coming from inside with no obvious front door and as I was opening a gate to the large child-proof yard, a neighbor told me to knock on the door of the shed alongside the trailer. That’s when I noticed a previous NOV slip and moved on to another case.
Following a number of no-one-answers, I came to a unit with a white curtain in the door blowing a strong breeze through the unit. A knock on the nearby window brought a mother and daughter to the door, I said if the daughter was over 15 she could do the interview and after checking with her mother she agreed — a pretty, small 19-year-old (I came to find out) girl with the largest eyelash extensions I’ve ever seen on a person. Her name was Dyanna she lived with her mother, a younger sister, and a 50ish-year-old brother (she wasn’t sure of his age). Dyanna spoke accent-free English and proved interested and helpful.
Moving around the loop, a young male resident helped me with the whereabouts of trailer #60: it’s gone he said, moved out — this is when I learned that the data collection app on the iPhone has the option: “empty mobile trailer site,” who knew?
A satisfying final case was the first where I found a translator, the neighbor, who came over and eventually invited me inside to sit on the couch for the interview — the three of us in the shed covering the trailer, which without windows was dark a few steps in. The owner stood at the door of the first room in the long trailer and every question involved an amazingly fast conversation between the neighbors while the white boy sat, watching them, and looking at his iPhone, ready to click on the answers … and proudly complete the case.

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09.10.2020 Thursday

Phone date with Willie C., the manager of a 35 single room apartment building on First, to act as a proxy for my eight cases at 7p. tonight!

Got ’em! And with much surprising laughter. Willie was resistant to helping me again, he didn’t understand that the cases reappear if the resident didn’t respond to the NOV I left at the door on my first visit. His cases were down the list on the iPhone which meant scrolling down between each case and too often the iPhone couldn’t keep up reloading — you know, watching the rotating circle. Willie has managed the apartments for 25 years after discharge from the Navy on this coast, he grew up in Manhattan and still has the accent. A little over halfway through of asking the same questions eight times over, Willie says, the job would drive me to drink! “Well, got to tell you, Willie, I am nursing a short whiskey on the rocks,” I confessed.

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09.12.2020 Saturday

It may be better to talk about today, tomorrow.

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09.13.2020 Sunday

The Field Data app used on the iPhone to complete cases assigned has a feature, a repetitive feature, for adding notes. Yesterday I attempted a case at a unit in subsidized housing where a small elderly lady, restraining a serious dog, asked, no, demanded: why do you people keep coming? I already told the girl who was here last that I wasn’t living here on April first. But I knew that because I had read the previous dozen notes written by as many colleagues … yet, here I was asking her the same question, again!
I talked her into giving it another try and I followed the screens on my phone until finally clicked on the option: “in-mover.” I knew it was off as the screen didn’t appear asking for her name. Sure enough, the case moves to the inactive list, it is not completed, I failed too, just as the dozen or so other enumerators had before me.
The phone in my hands is a machine, it can’t read the notes, and it has no idea how close we all came to completing the case. A tech person, I suppose, writes the note: “Needs Work.” What is that supposed to mean I wonder when I just wanted to know where I failed to complete the case.
At home, I went back into the case at the supervisor’s suggestion … this time I added my name as the poxy, and my phone number, and selected Enumerator’s Personal Knowledge — and the case was accepted as completed. The supervisor texted me a Yeh!

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09.18.2020 Friday

My second supervisor, Judy, picked up my iPhone and gear today, during the noon hour — like turning in your badge, I’m done.

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09.20.2020 Sunday

My favorite memory: the contemporary farmhouse was sited on a knoll overlooking the large farm operation with beef, pork, and eggs for sale. It’s a steep, noisy gravel drive up to the house and a resident is outside asking if she can help me. I’m here to count the people who live in this house (noting the address on the iPhone). Think she said that she did it online or sent it in, which a lot of my cases would claim, and, with the experience, I could now say in a polite way — this address is on the phone, let’s get it done. The count was 5, a farm family of evenly spaced children — she, let’s call her Ms.B., was fully on board with getting-it-done while wearing a mask reminding us to find Joy in Everyday. Towards the end of the data gathering, I mentioned that I had been to her home for a housing survey run by the Census Bureau, many years ago, when the house was new, her husband did the interview with me. Also told her that my wife and I renovated the first Catholic church of Snohomish and had come across her family name as early supporters of the church. Yes, Ms. B. confirmed that she had married into the family and at least two of the sons have farm operations in the Snohomish valley. As I turned to go, the children, playing in the garage with the door open a few inches, one by one stuck their faces in the space under the garage door. I remembered the names and matched them with the faces peering up at me: You’re all counted, I said, giving my bag a couple of pats on the oversized Census label.

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