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.

“See!?”

“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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Carla brings me to my ... census
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2015/1125/Carla-brings-me-to-my-census
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe