Carla brings me to my ... census

I had no intention of divulging personal details to federal employees.

Phil Marden

We’d heard they were coming – with their clipboards and questions, their staid government sedans, roving the street like hungry bears, sniffing out information. They seemed so nosy, so insensitively insistent, the census takers. And for what? So they could update some bloated publication better used as a doorstop?

Already I was irritated by the thought of having to divulge so much personal information, but when Judy, our friend across the street, told us she’d spent more than half an hour the previous evening answering a census taker’s questions, that did it for me. I locked the front door. I closed the blinds. And when the knock finally came, I didn’t answer.

“They’ll be back,” my wife, Ellen, said.

Of course they would. That’s what frustrated me. It wasn’t that I had anything to hide; it was just the thought of being interrogated about my private life by someone I didn’t know. Could they appreciate how that felt, these intrusive data collectors?

After several more days of refusing to answer the door, I let my guard down one afternoon and walked out to the car. The census taker spotted me and sprinted across three lawns to catch up. I was stunned. I was angry. Why did they need my data? Couldn’t the government just skip my house?

Evidently not. The census taker stood there, harried and huffing, flipping through papers on his clipboard. He’d been trying all week to catch me and, now that he had, he wasn’t leaving.

Determined to keep my private life private from these government wolves, I told the man I would not answer his questions. He glared at me, but to no avail. Eventually, he walked away, but I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.

“Great!” Ellen said, when I told her. “They’ve probably put us on some list!”

“He said we’d hear from his boss,” I told her.


“He seemed frazzled,” I said. “I think he was just bluffing.”

He wasn’t.

A week went by, then another. All my neighbors had answered their census questions, the staid government sedans had disappeared, and a sense of normalcy was returning to the neighborhood. Then one afternoon there came a knock at the door. I answered to find a plump, middle-aged lady on my porch, a briefcase in one hand and a shiny badge in the other. 

Suddenly, I realized my mistake. My heart jabbed at my chest while my mind screamed: You idiot! Why couldn’t you just roll with it? I swallowed hard, vaguely aware that I was sweating.

“I’m Carla with the US Census Bureau,” she said, introducing herself the way the male census official had weeks earlier. Only there was something different about Carla. She reminded me of my aunt Mary. She hadn’t sprinted across three lawns to accost me. And, most important, she was smiling.

So I let her in, offered her a bottle of water, and waited for the barrage of questions. But first, she asked about my wife and 2-year-old son, whose photos she’d spotted on the wall. Then Carla told me about her own kids and grandkids and where they were living and what they were doing. I learned a lot about Carla, as she was in no hurry to get to the interview or, once it began, to end it. She was pleasant and relaxed. And so was I. Something about Carla just put me at ease.

After about an hour, she put away her papers and we visited a few minutes more. Then she thanked me for the water and said goodbye, waving as she climbed into her car. I didn’t mind her visit at all, I realized. Or the following one, three months later. Or the next.

“She’s made you her special project,” Ellen joked, laughing.

Maybe she had. Carla would call or stop by every few months, asking if our information had changed. We always talked about our families and lives. It was as if we were friends.

Later, to my surprise, I received a Christmas card from Carla. “Have enjoyed getting to know you, John,” she’d written. “Merry Christmas to you and your family.”

Not long afterward we moved to a new city, and I lost touch with Carla, whom, I realize now, I was fortunate to have met. She taught me, better than anyone, that a smile can unlock any door.

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