By Ann Parrilli
"Hello. Hello?" I could hear some shuffling on the other side of the door.
"This is the United States Census Bureau. I'm here to help you fill out your census form. It will only 10 minutes. Can you please open the door?"
I was about to graduate from college in Chicago and was determined to spend at least part of the summer of 1970 in Italy. When my roommate said she could get me a temporary job helping with the 1970 census I jumped at the chance.
After a scant three days of training, we were set loose upon the unsuspecting public to ask such unseemly questions as, "How many toilets do you have in the house?" and "Is there anyone living here who is not related to you?"
We could pretty much work our own hours as long as we didn't harass people too late at night. I'm sure I violated that rule more than once in order to launch a sneak attack on a household full of working people who weren't around during the day.
A few days later: "Hello. It's your census worker again. I think I hear that you're home. This will only take a minute".
That was probably not true. This particular household was assigned a long form which took 15 to 20 minutes to complete. But for every completed long form I would be paid $2.50 instead of the $1.25 for a short form. I was not about to let this hefty fish get away.
Despite the turmoil of the late 60s, the average citizen was remarkably compliant and, I hoped, mindful of the penalty incurred for assaulting a census taker or refusing to provide information demand of them by the U.S. government.
A few days later: "Hello. It's your census worker again. Are you feeling better today? I'd like to talk to you if possible". I could hear someone close to the door.
Finally the frail, warbling voice of an elderly woman - "My son said not to open the door to anyone". The accent was eastern European.
"Oh, but I'm a government worker so you have nothing to worry about." And then, shamefully, I persisted. "It's against the law not to comply with the census."
One of my more memorable experiences was the family of 13 recently arrived from China. They smiled politely and lined up in family groups so I would know who belonged to whom because they all seemed to have the same name. But I'm afraid my luck ran out when I asked the Toilet Question.
I went to the bathroom, pointed to the porcelain vessel and asked if there was only one. They gently urged me inside and closed the door, stifling giggles, when they mistakenly assumed that what I needed was to use the lavatory.
And finally: "Hi. I'm back. Did you talk to your son? Can I come in and help you fill our your census form? I could hear her slippers scraping the floor as she approached the door.
"I'm not dressed." I sensed her guard softening.
"Oh, that's okay. I'm guessing you're in a nice warm robe. That's fine."
After a long, dry minute I heard series of locks slowly snapping open. The face that greeted me was older than I expected, apprehensive and kind. When she stepped aside, it was tentatively and a bit unsteadily. Her pink robe was stained here and there and not at all warm looking.
Mrs. Gershen was a frail 82-year-old who lived alone in her high rise apartment. She didn't go out anymore except when her son came to get her every Friday for the Shabbat meal at his house.
As we filled out the census form, she confessed that sometimes when she felt lonely at night she'd take the elevator down to the lobby and chat with the doorman.
Long after the prized form was completed, we were still drinking the tea she had insisted on preparing for me. She told me that she and her husband had left Russia with their three children, embarking on a 30-year odyssey that took them to China, on to Uruguay and finally to the U.S. because they wanted their children to grow up there.
It was dark by the time we washed the teacups. I think I had been there over two hours. She wanted me to stay for dinner but I had a study group in half an hour.
I visited her once more after that but thought better of returning again. She hadn't told her son about our visits and I was uneasy about having manipulated my way around his mandate.
Maybe I was just being selfish and doubted whether I could alleviate the loneliness that had turned an intractable "no" into a brave, if tentative request for friendship.
EDITORIAL NOTE: You are a prolific bunch of writers and there is now a backlog of reader stories to carry us almost to summer. So for awhile, I am not accepting new stories until we work through some of the ones already on the list.