Saturday, January 28, 2023 Jan 28, 2023
56° F Dallas, TX



They are the ultimate voyeurs. They park themselves on the doorsteps of thousands of homes. They worm their way inside. And then they ask, with a straight face and not a hint of shame or embarrassment, the most penetrating, personal questions: do you cohabitate with somebody? Did you work last week? How much money do you make?

Worse, they never take no for an answer. If you slam your door in their face, they go away-but they come back. If you attempt to dodge them by staying away during business hours, they’ll come back at 4 a.m. or stake out your house until you return. If you flatly tell them you’re not interested, they’ll preach until you surrender.

And if all else fails, they will leech onto your neighbors until they get what they want.

There is no escaping them. They are trained-all 350,000 of them nationwide, 1,500 of them in Dallas County. And they are committed-they’re the U.S. Census, and their mantra, handed to them by President George Bush himself and chorused to anyone who will listen, is “Be a Good American. Stand up and be counted.”

The field work for the 1990 Census is pret-ty much over now-though district offices are still spit-shining their count, they are down to skeletal staffs; the bulk of the work is done. But the legacy of this, this 21st decennial census, will live on for some time: it will be remembered as a kind of second American Revolution, the most resisted, and perhaps least accurate, census since it all began in 1790 with U.S. Marshals going door-to-door and Thomas Jefferson taking the count. Two hundred years later, almost twice as many Americans as ever before either failed or refused to mail in their census forms. Response rates fell below 50 percent in some cities. As a result, record numbers of “enumerators” (a.k.a. human-counters) were hired to swarm across the land like clipboard-carrying locusts to strong-arm the information from the citizenry.

Dallas, Texas, for one, did not cut them any slack.

“WE’VE HAD DOG BITES, FLEA BITES. AND a spider bite out here.” says Arnie Parrish, an assistant manager for field operations in the central census office that canvasses downtown, the Fair Park area, and Oak Cliff north of Loop 12. “The spider bite was a brown recluse, so that’s sort of serious. With the flea bites, there was an infection. And the dog bites-well, they’re never pleasant.”

If Dallas County was in no hurry to stand up and be counted, Parrish’s area was glued to its chair. Only 47 percent of the census forms that were mailed here were returned, as compared to 60 percent of the county as a whole and 60 percent of the state.

Vexed by an exceptionally heavy workload, tough neighborhoods, and apathetic residents, Parrish’s enumerators, whose job it was to visit every housing unit that had not responded, earned every nickel of their $6.50 per hour. A sample of war stories from the Fair Park-Oak Cliff battle front:

Two female enumerators in their twenties were standing in front of a seedy motel that offered rooms by the hour. As they tried to squeeze information from a reluctant manager on a family that had claimed the motel as their home, they were actively solicked by male passers-by.

A male enumerator knocked on a door and had it answered by a woman dressed only in her underpants. After the appropriate introductions had been made, she invited him in and. while still in her underwear, patiently answered all his questions. He never lifted his eyes from his page.

An enumerator visited a home where the woman calmly and straightforwardly explained that she was married to all three men who lived there.

One enumerator was standing outside an apartment interviewing an occupant. Down the hall, an angry man shot another man to death.

A male and female enumerator were chased off a property by a surly, uncooperative resident who then proceeded to follow the couple around in his car for an hour.

But the inner-city neighborhoods did not have the monopoly on strange stories. Not by a long shot.

The “South Dallas” office, which covers the southern communities of Dallas County including Lancaster, Cedar Hill, Grand Prairie, and Wilmer-Hutchins. sent an enumerator out to a rural address where the names of the three occupants, according to a completed census form, were Bessie, Dessie, and Jessie. Sure enough, the three were cows-not people.

“This man had listed his cows as dependents,” says Pat Steyer, a field manager for that office. “The census form had been mailed to his barn, which 20 years ago had been a home. He kept a mailing address out there so he could get his girlie magazines, which he kept from his wife.”

Cows aren’t the only animals that turn up on a census form, though. “It’s obvious when we get a form that says Spike and Bowser, you’re talking pets,” Steyer says. “Or you look for someone’s race, and they’ve checked white and black and brown. Although we assume that’s a dog, we can’t be sure so we go back out there.

“I’m a big animal person, but I do wish (hey would specify animal or person so we could get an accurate population count,” Steyer sighs.

In the county’s Northwest office, which handles part of North Dallas and Irving, Coppell, Car-rollton, and Farmer’s Branch, it was not the names of animals that triggered alarms with field operations managers-it was the names of people. “We had people who gave us fictitious names-the names of movie stars or sports figures or dead presidents-rather than divulge their identity,” says Northwest employee Virginia Peavy.

Peavy says the people who are most serious about protecting their identities do not stop at using someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name; they use his movie tactics, too-they pull a gun or a knife, wave a baseball bat, send out the attack dogs, crank up the sprinkler system. “We’ve run the gamut,” Peavy says. “Whatever is in human nature, we’ve found. Some of our enumerators are brave. Some are not.”

Enumerators who are not so brave sit in their cars, windows

shut tight and doors locked, and lean on the horn when they pull up to hostile territory-hoping that whoever’s inside will come out to them instead of the other way around. Others tiptoe to the door, hearts beating madly, hoping no ill will befall them.

“I’m from Seagoville, and I’ve never really been out of Seagoville,” says 23-year-old Cheryl Rose, who joined the census last April after the company where she worked as a secretary went bankrupt. “So I couldn’t believe it when another enumerator and 1 pulled up at what looked like an abandoned schoolhouse a few weeks ago and found there were people living there. It was in a field right on the Dallas-Ellis county line, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. There was a woman and three or four kids living in one filthy room-with no electricity, no running water that I could see, and chickens and pigs and dogs running wild in the house. I never would have believed that people lived like that in Dallas County.”

It’s hard to believe how some people act in Dallas County, too. When it comes to answering nosy questions, no matter what the reason, a lot of Texas hospitality goes right out the window.

People chase, slam, slur, bite, and roar at these chipper, smiling, overworked, and underpaid part-time government workers. For all kinds of reasons. Some say they don’t trust the government. Or they don’t believe the information they give will be kept confidential. Or they can’t read the census forms, and they’re too embarrassed to admit it. Or they claim that the Bible says they shouldn’t cooperate.

“One family-a young couple with a child-told me that it says in the Bible ’don’t be counted,’ ” says Jody Lochmiller, a crew leader who worked the Northeast Dallas-Richardson area. “And I said, ’I read that story of David in the Bible, and you’ve got the wrong slant on it; that wasn’t the point of the story.” They still weren’t convinced. Only after I put on my sweetest grandmotherly smile and cooed all over their child did I get enough information from them to make a case.”

For every enumerator who knocks on a door, there is at least one strange sighting, one incredible encounter, one priceless peek-however tragic or amusing-at how America lives. After a few times around the block with the census, people like Pal Steyer have pretty much seen it all. Or seen none of it, depending on how you look at it.

Ten years ago during the 1980 Census, Steyer was a crew leader in charge of a team of enumerators. One day, she sent one of them to interview some reluctant occupants of a house in an eastern suburb, but the enumerator came back to the office empty-handed. So Steyer took the case herself, as crew leaders do, and drove out to give it a try.

“I ended up interviewing a colony of elderly nudists,” says Steyer. “And they were just as sweet as can be.”

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