A meeting of the minds

It was with a cavalier attitude that I called up the Census in a city near me, last week, and offered generously to join their organization, should they need me. Some employee with a name straight out of a 1950s-era reading primer, like Bill or Johnny, cheerfully informed me that there was a test in a few days near me and the exam was all that was separating me from what would surely be a stellar career with the agency. So I agreed to meet up at “the Y,” even though under many other circumstances I would have presumed some kind of gay intimacy would be involved in such an encounter. But I figured this would be a G-rated rendezvous. Johnny boy told me to show up about 15 minutes before the start of the test so I could fill out some forms, which, having already worked with and for the Federal Government, did not surprise me in the least, so I calculated that I needed to arrive at 2:45.

The same flippant approach I had on the phone was with me as I left the house, at 2:43. The Y was around the corner from where I live, and I knew a route to get there that didn’t involve even a single traffic light. I walked in to the gym, my gym, and failed to see any signs directing me to the test, so I asked the receptionist where it was.

“Oh, you must mean the Y W CA, she said,” putting such an emphasis on the “W” that she raised her voice half an octave, like she were speaking of the black sheep in her family. Oh, YWCA, tsk tsk tsk. Such a promising CA until all of that nasty business happened. YMCA and I are just still torn up about it.

She asked me if I knew where it was. I shook my head.

“Well, do you know where the ishchaly is,” she asked, suddenly speaking a foreign language.

I shook my head. “The what?”

“The ishchaly,” she said. Now she looked at me like I was utterly hopeless. I went to the wrong building and I didn’t even know where the damn Ischaly was? A look crossed her face that suggested she was wondering if she should intentionally misdirect me. She gave me a street name, Birch, and from that I could figure out where this unruly child of a building was.

Three blocks and 90 seconds later, I was at the YWCA, next to a building marked, “Ice Chalet.” This reconfirmed my belief that people just don’t give a darn about French pronunciation here in the Pac Northwest.

I looked at my watch which read 2:47, and giggled.

About 15 people were seated around tables in a large room just inside the front door. The tables were set up in a large rectangle so that we could all see each other. Against the windows the Census Bureau employee was setting up all of her supplies for the exam. She seemed more than mildly frustrated. Her hair tied back in a bun, it was starting to escape, in some vaguely direct correlation to her increasing anxiety.

“I’m just not sure why everyone is here so early,” she muttered, and I saw that she had several cat scratches on her forearms. I briefly concerned myself with how many cats she had back at home.

Three people stood around her as she sorted through manilla folders and government-issue pens. Though they didn’t realize it, they had the appearance of zombies, standing aimlessly, rocking slowly on their feet, waiting for her to notice them so they could hear her screams and eat her brains.

“Okay folks,” she asked them, pencils clattering to the floor, “can you just sit down and I’ll get to you. The test doesn’t start until 3:30.”

We told her we’d all been instructed to get here a little before 3. There was some nervous laughter around the room.

Well, we were informed, we were going to take this test at 3:30. And someone in the Richland Census office was going to get an earful from Stacy the Overworked Coordinator. After a long day of no thanks, all she gets are feral cats.

More people trickled in, all before 3. We learned that the fella who’d given us all the wrong start time was named Scott. Bad, bad Scott.

I looked at my fellow Walla Wallans who’d showed up for this exam. There were a lot of retirement-age men and women, some young 20s folks, a few 30-somethings like myself. One woman sat down who looked like she was in the midst of a bad affair with crystal meth. I’m not sure if she really even knew where she was, but she’d thought to bring her ID to qualify for the application.

An older man, in the midst of filling out the Census job form, raised his hand and asked, “What if my supervisory experience is old?”

“It doesn’t matter how old it was,” said Stacy, sorting through the test forms and answer sheets.

“What if it was 50 years ago? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” His sudden laughter shot around the room like semi-automatic fire. I jumped out of my chair a little.

3:10 and we all had our I-9s and job applications to complete. The woman to my right slowly screwed her pencil into her own little sharpener. She wanted to know if she could have extra scratch paper for all the math problems on the test. Clearly no one had informed her that this was not the GRE subject test in math. She was one of those chitchatters who at least waited for eye contact before beginning their monologues. I know how to look at my hands really well, so I was safe, for the most part. The person on the other side of her was not so lucky.

The form asked if I had registered for the Selective Service. Damn it. I checked the no box, and filled in the explanations box two pages over. Hopefully Stacy wouldn’t ask me in front of everyone what “transgender” meant.

One man, near a corner of the room, tried to pick his nose on the down low. Gotta have clean nasal passages to deal with the stress of such a rigorous test as this.

A younger, cockier man said he had a question, which Stacy deferred. “I just need a little more time to get ready,” she said, laughing nervously. “I just don’t know why Scott would tell everyone to come so early, hee hee.”

Scott is trying to drive you crazy, Stacy, that’s why. Maybe you stuck Scott with one of your feral cats, and he wants payback. I’ll never know.

She passed out the test, telling us to check that our answer sheets and test booklets have the same code, A, B, C, or D. The guy who people realized 50 years ago shouldn’t supervise anyone looked alarmed suddenly. His codes didn’t match. Stop the presses! Stacy came over and said, no, sir, this code right here. He’d been trying to match up the Census form numbers. I was just impressed a 70-year-old could read 4 point font. But I wasn’t so sure he was what the Census had in mind for a long form interviewer. Nor was the woman on my right, a.k.a. Nervous Nellie.

“Everyone has these new Passports now,” she said to her table-mate. “I haven’t been out of the country in so long, I’m not sure they’d give me a passport.”

Someone needed to tell her that if prior foreign travel was the prerequisite for getting a passport, nobody would have a passport.

At 4:10 Stacy let us begin the test. Twenty-eight questions.

Seriously? Twenty-eight questions? All this for 28 questions?

The exam was broken into 5 areas, including 6 questions on math. I hoped Nervous Nellie’s 5 pages of scrap paper were enough. One math question was really tricky: add 3.17, 12.6, and 258. Ooh, those tricky, tricky decimal points! I need some scrap paper for this!

Another question asked us to match up people’s names in two columns. This reminded me of some bad database errors I’d worked on in 2004 for the National Institutes of Health. And because I’d worked with Census before, on standards for data collection, I started wondering if I wasn’t having a mini-Slumdog Millionaire moment where every test question could be answered via some prior experience I’ve had with the government. Only instead of winning 30 million rupees I’d get a $11.75 per hour job wandering around Walla Walla county, trying not to get shot for being a temporary Fed. So it was really like the same situation, totally.

I finished the test first, which doesn’t mean I was the smartest in the room, but next to “Don’t let that guy supervise anyone, ” Nervous Nellie, and Meth Face, I wasn’t surprised to be at the head of the pack. No sooner did I think that, however, than Meth Face put down her pencil. And then seemed to eye it longingly, as if it were a thick, juicy ribeye.

Stacy called 15 minutes remaining. Unlike the actual GRE, one was not permitted to leave if one finished early. So I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. At 4:35 Stacy called 5 minutes left. The last 10 had already been the longest of my life. But no way was I going to leave only to have to come back for a retest, people watching what it is.

Finally, she called the end of the test. Nervous Nellie immediately began chattering away. She turned to her weary desk-mate.

“Did you see him finish so early? So early! Just wham! Put his pencil down and took a nap! I wanted to just copy his answers but we have different test numbers.”

Those clever Census people, two steps ahead of a woman with her own pencil sharpener.

Stacy collected all of the exams and told us she just had a couple of things left to tell us. She read straight off of the Census guide for oh, four sentences or so, but then began embellishing.

“Remember, Census Bureau staff have to make a lot of follow up calls. If you don’t hear from us by March, you might not be hearing from us. We can’t call everyone back who applies for a job with us. But if we do call, be nice. If you make us laugh, we’ll be very grateful. So here’s something you could say, but don’t all say it or they’ll know I coached you.”

It took me a moment to comprehend that she was babbling, and then I heard her suggestion for making someone laugh on the phone.

“What did the one snowman say to the other snowman? ‘Smells like carrots.'” A few people chuckled obligingly. There is no way in hell I am going to tell this joke to the Census if they call me, I thought.

A man across the room raised his hand, indicating he had a question. What the hell could it be now? I just wanted to get out of here already. I had slumped down so far in my chair only the top 2 inches of my ass was actually still on the seat. Maybe I could just slither across the floor and into my car.

“Yes,” Stacy asked the man with the raised hand.

“They could also say, ‘all I see is black.'” Silence. And then he mumbled under his breath, “you know, because they have coal for eyes, see.”

I considered stabbing my ears out with my number 2 pencil.

Finally, we were dismissed. I did my best not to look disrespectful, but I was happy to breathe some non-YWCA air.

Thirty minutes later, I was on the road, headed to the bowling alley in Tri-Cities for my weekly league night. A few frames into the first game, my cell phone rang.

It was Stacy. I hadn’t checked a box indicating that I had my own transportation. I briefly considered telling her a joke, then decided against it. I thanked her for calling and answered her question, and then thought about carrots and coal.

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5 Comments on “A meeting of the minds”

  1. Gail
    January 26, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    You could have read this entire blog to her. Then again, I don’t think Stacy would have understood the humor. I never am sure whether to laugh or cry (my Federal tax dollars at work?), but this is such a classic tale. Reminds me of the time I applied for a job with the Postal Service in the 60’s, but I can’t remember anything about where I took the exam, so it just wasn’t the same!

  2. jen
    March 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    So Everett, will you be taking the census or what? I’m looking forward to reading about THAT experience next. 🙂


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