THE BLOG

Tales From the Census Trail: KT's Bit

06/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My town may be the only place in America where the thought of going to door-to-door to count one's neighbors is a coveted position, second only to head football coach or preacher's wife.

Despite the obvious reasons for Census Fever, I have a few theories on why there's a mad rush to become a Census Enumerator in the South. First, it provides unparalleled access to neighborhood gossip and home decorating ideas. Second, everyone wants to know which college grads are hiding in their childhood bedrooms at Mom's house. (Start the counting with me.) And finally, some lucky enumerator is going to get to interview Tim Tebow. My guess is he'll be counted at least 50 times by sorority girls impersonating federal employees.

(Note to enumerators: all of these dreams will be squashed once you sign the confidentiality agreement that threatens you with everything except hard labor in Siberia if you release any personally identifiable Information.)

Recounting Census tales from a place that often feels like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is an uphill battle that begins with a training session, where too many questions begin with, "If I have a concealed weapons permit, can I..."

But for now, forget about the train-wreck that is training. Counting people is going to be infinitely more fun than counting the 32 hours of recitation from the Census manual that makes you a certifiable expert in maps and government acronyms.

Before training, there was a test. Before the test, there was the question of whether working for the Census Bureau would look good at the top of my résumé. And before all that, there was a very bleak résumé.

To say that landing a job with the Census Bureau was a monumental step forward in my career trajectory would be an understatement. A MASSIVE understatement. I had just failed my recession-proof job as an "English-speaking au pair" because I couldn't make my Deutsch-speaking Barbie say anything besides "Let's take a nap!" and "How about some Apfelstrudel?" As an unfit nanny lacking in age-appropriate creativity and language skills, I fled from my Austrian fairytale in search of a quick job that would pass the time while I applied for all those real, exciting jobs that I would certainly get within a matter of weeks, right?

I was wrong. And proven dead wrong when I heard that Lara, a walking Rosetta Stone with too many master's degrees, was indeed peddling cable boxes in the suburbs of Chicago. Ah, the benefits of higher education.

But she had an escape plan for both of us, and announced this plan to the very people who couldn't really sympathize with our Census excitement.

When Lara told an entire room full of our peers and fellow scholarship recipients -- all of whom are law students at Top 14 schools, published authors, or McKinsey analysts -- that she was applying to work with the Census Bureau, there were a few laughs. Maybe one or two smiles out of pity. I was the only one who begged her for the inside scoop on how to become an enumerator.

But back in January, I almost didn't take the test. I'm ashamed to admit that I was still a tad bit of an employment snob. I still felt like an expensive education should mean something to the world. I had the Tiger Woods complex: I had worked hard and felt entitled. (Except my entitlement dream was comparably tame and included a job with benefits and maybe half a desk. That seemed fair.)

Needless to say, any pretension I possessed disappeared after weeks of rejection, and I scheduled an appointment to take the test at a local school. My mother, whom I've been mooching off of for the past three months, drove me to the test and decided to stay and take it, too. We thought it might be a fun bonding experience, and it was fun until she almost caused my disqualification for glancing across the aisle periodically to see how her beautiful, talented baby girl was progressing on the math section (like any doting, millennial mother would.)

But in taking the test, I saw the full effects of the recession on small town America, firsthand. Before arriving, I wrongfully assumed that the test-takers would consist of students, retirees, and other people with way too much time on their hands. Instead, I found myself in a room full of businessmen and soccer moms in suits, most over age 40. It appeared my entire hometown was desperate for extra income. I later chatted up the proctor and discovered that she was a small business owner finishing her PhD.

Like my fellow test-takers, I took the test seriously. I studied the practice test, ate a balanced meal beforehand and brought five sharpened number two pencils with me. I was prepared. Determined. The model candidate for employment. The test wasn't difficult, but I was determined to make it challenging. Never underestimate the ability of a young woman like myself to over-think a basic map. Or to raise her hand five times during the test to argue the wording of question eight.

But somehow, I walked out of the test alive and hopeful. Maybe working my way through Census District XXXXXX would help me find meaning in an otherwise pathetic existence. It's not as glamorous as cooking your way through Julia Child's cookbook, but whatever. It pays the mortgage. I mean the rent. I mean... never mind. It pays enough.