Taking the Census

Sherwood Scroll, April 1977
"It was a dark and stormy night and a lone figure was trudging up the hill." Trudging. The word is used to death by writers of narratives. But there is no other way to describe how we volunteer census takers made our way through town.

I trudged, you trudged, he-she-it trudged, we trudged, they trudged.

The purpose of our trudging was to help the City of Sherwood and the data professionals from Portland State University establish an accurate population figure for the town.

You realize you are trudging when you feel the rocks along the pavement poke through the soles of your shoes. "Shoes growing thin." I whisper, making a mental note to myself, "Maybe you'll be able to buy a new pair with what they pay you."

Hands suffer too. The older houses in Sherwood have little brass door knockers that only a cat's paw could efficiently operate. Knocking is hard on the knuckles. I would have made a lousy Watkins Man. My pitch improves from doorway to doorway. "Hello, I'm taking the census. They want to know the names and ages of people living here. No pets allowed on the survey."

Most people get a kick out of the pet remark, although reactions vary. At one place, the occupant takes a long time opening the door. All the lights are off when he peeks through and looks only at my feet. He refuses to say who he is. When I ask him the names of the people next door he doesn't know them either. I suspect he was probably a census taker himself too at one time: He knows all too well how much information people will give away about themselves without realizing it. (The PSU folks said "neighbors will sing like canaries" if you can't get the information you're looking for. Always go to the neighbors next.)

More then once someone yells "Come in" without asking who I am. They do not seem surprised or dismayed to see me, a total stranger suddenly perched in the middle of their living room. Sometimes the door is already wide open. At one address a big lazy cat stares back at me from his niche on the sofa as I shout hello half a dozen times and never get a response. I must report that by and large the People of Sherwood are easy to know. We'll chat like old friends. I learn to call them by their names. However, by the time I reach census headquarters at City Hall, I forget everyone all over again. I'm amazed by how easy it is to get the pages mixed up or to leave information off the pages. That is an important lesson I learned from taking the census: How easy it is for all those friendly people to become nothing more than an armload of paper.

I have become a bureaucrat!

The man in charge of the census taking is a dour professor from PSU who rather resembles a dissident Russian author, with his scraggly dark beard. He is not the least bit interested in the anecdotes I have to report about all the interesting people and shirt tail relatives and family friends I have struck up a friendship with along the way. He is only interested in my papers and my numbers. I got some of the pages mixed up and he is not so sure I did it by accident. He has stories to tell, about volunteers, you know, who didn't even knock at the doors before they wrote down their numbers. (The higher the numbers the more money the City gets). We volunteers sit respectfully while the professor puts large triangular paper clips around our sheaves of papers and places them where he can in the cramped office. I see my sheaf of papers being balanced on the windowsill and reflect on the Old Testament reading I heard in church: "And so they were scattered and became food for all the wild beasts."

The professor has brought students along and I share pleasantries with them when time allows. They are especially interested in any anecdote that has to do with statistics. My story about the number of sparrows my sister's favorite cat snatches from the air does not amuse them. "Small animal populations diminish by fifteen percent in communities where domesticated cats are allowed." the least charitable student explains.

My ears are still red when I go out in the evening after supper. Some of the houses on my route were not recorded properly and so it is necessary for me to retrace my route as well as I can remember it. The stars are out and the blood has drained from my head into my belly. My thoughts aren't making very much sense.

I am thinking that eventually it will be necessary to take a census in locations far beyond the earth herself. The Solar System itself will need to be counted. I wonder how many souls are waiting for a Census Taker to knock on their door. I see the star-group Orion above me reaching out like a census taker to the Pliades-- always just a few billion light-years out of reach there ahead of him. Someone will have to keep an eye on census takers then too, just as the PSU official and his students did-- constantly driving by in their brown four door car with the State of Oregon seal on the side.

Already little pieces of the earth are sailing through space. Recently the spaceship we dropped on planet Mars radioed back pictures that seemed to show numbers printed on the rocks. The bemused scientists were sure the "numbers" were only incidental shadows in the rock, just as census takers from another part of the galaxy will refuse to consider the possibility that we of the Earth might know how to count.

Census takers from beyond might already be on their way, or may have already arrived. Some scientists believe that the super novae and the X-Ray sources are exactly what spacecraft with nuclear bomb powered piston engines would look like. So get ready. First they will discover us. Then they will count us. They will be like Pastuer peering through his microscope for the first time. At first the Earth itself will look like a giant photosynthesizing engine, a living being unto itself. But upon closer inspection the investigators will see the contradictions in us. "Earth is resource rich and self destructive." the report will say.

Then they will adjust to a higher focus and they will see the cities and the freeways and, most of all, they will see the pieces of paper that flow in and out of the cars and trucks that are hauling them about. Earth's banking system and insurance system will stand proudly to be discovered. The sojourners will look closer yet and see this strange sort of vermin that flies about the air and swarms across the ground on "rills well worn into the planet's surface." They will see large craters in the ground that have been left after the soil itself has been dug up and sifted through and finally they will discover the small passengers within these buildings and vehicles. They will have discovered us at last: Always shuffling papers and signing them and handing them back and forth and losing them in the wind.

Finally they will zero in on the most curious object of all, the City of Sherwood, and will see a census taker chasing his papers about. Or, giving up on that project, sitting down at his typewriter and creating this report instead.
Copyright 2005 by Clyde List
NOTE: The City of Sherwood had a population of less than 3,000 when this article appeared.

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