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Story pick: Knocking on America's doors

I always thought the most interesting thing about the Census is the data it produces, the cold, objective view it offers of what is actually going on out there. Most of the stories about the actual collecting of the data -- about what an undertaking it is and how it wreaks havoc with the unemployment rate -- draw me in only as far as the headline. It's only once all the questionnaires are collected and the statisticians get to work that the real news will begin to dribble out.

And then I found myself reading former Post reporter Peter Carlson's piece on his experiences as a census worker and I was sucked in.

As he describes it, being a Census worker is a cross between being a telemarketer and a reporter. I always say being a journalist consists of going from one awkward social interaction to another. And most depictions of journalism in fiction or on film fail to fully capture that, as if badgering people who don't want to be badgered is the most dignified thing you could do. People tell you to get lost, or they say things they shouldn't, or they simply don't respond.

I appreciated the way Carlson captures not just what he learned but also the drudgery and the constant rejection that he endures, partly out of curiosity and partly out of obligation. Completing the Census, as we're reminded over and over, is our civic duty.

His account of the six weeks he spent knocking on doors in Montgomery County starts out with a voice behind a door.

I knocked on the door of a basement apartment in a dingy hallway that smelled like old sweat socks.

A gruff voice growled through the closed door. "Who is it?"

"Peter Carlson from the United States Census Bureau."

"I already mailed in my form."

Of course he had. The kind of people who yell at census workers through locked doors always say they already mailed in their form.

"Apparently, we didn't receive it, sir," I said to the door. "Can I do a quick interview with you now?"

"I'm sleeping."

It was 10:30 in the morning. "I'll come back another time. When would be convenient?"

"Never!" he yelled. "Don't come back."

But I did come back. A census enumerator is required to try three times.

"I'm busy," he bellowed through that closed door on the second visit.

"Stop harassing me," he hollered on the third. "Go away."

I went away, thinking, I should come back every day until he opens that damn door. But of course, I didn't. I had other doors to knock on, and besides, I'm not sure I want to be there when he opens his.

The larger insights the Census has to offer may be years away, but for now, we have this entertaining peek into the lives of some of our fellow citizens.

By Annys Shin  | July 6, 2010; 9:32 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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