Census, 1980

By

An excerpt from Love and Shame and Love by Peter Orner, our November Rumpus Book Club selection (which is already receiving wonderful reviews, so now’s a great time to join the RBC if you aren’t already a member):

Census, 1980

Miriam dressed up as the Easter bunny for Easter Seals. That bulbous-headed costume, those big floppy feet. She volunteered for the March of Dimes. She sold magazine subscriptions. She trained to be a docent at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and could speak at length about mummification and hieroglyphics. She worked as a substitute high school teacher, Gordon Tech, Lane Tech, Maine West, Glenbrook South. She also worked as a census taker. In 1980, the year the Second City was demoted to third and Jane Byrne was so livid she threatened to sue the federal government for defaming Chicago’s character, Miriam tramped the streets of the city to count the people.

Popper would go door to door with her and listen to the song and dance. Yes, I’m with the government but the Census Bureau is an independent agency under the auspices of the Commerce Department charged solely with the collection of numerical and demographical data. We’re not interested in, for instance, your criminal record, tax history, immigration status…

Slam.

Knock again.

All information is strictly confidential. It is against federal law to share information collected by the census. The government merely wants to –

Slam.

Knock, knock, again.

The census is a constitutional mandate. The founding fathers believed that the lifeblood of democracy itself was dependent on an accurate –

Slam.

Banging on the door, Look, do me a favor, and just throw out a number, any number –

***

Miriam in a trench coat, sunglasses on her head, carrying a bundle of questionnaires and booklets. Anything, anything to get out of the suburbs. On the Kennedy Expressway – the City rising – she would say, Look around, observe! And Popper would call out the sights: Old Orchard, Morton Salt, Aabbitt Adhesives, The Polish Catholic Union, Ukrainian National Bank, Magikist Lips, Budweiser, Mickey the Smoke Stack!

She loved construction, she loved muggings. She loved traffic. She loved traffic reports. 14 minutes to the Circle Exchange. Kennedy, 19 Minutes to Montrose, the Ryan outbound 28 minutes to 95th, Lake Shore Drive free and clear from Monroe to Hollywood, fender bender on the inbound Ike, gaper’s block from Manheim to the Post Office—Traffic sponsored by Ray Hara’s King Datsun, home of king-sized discounts…

“That’s us. 19 minutes to Montrose! We’re flying in today….”

A Fall River girl in Chicago and she couldn’t get enough. New England was stale, complacent. Chicago was about the new. Knock it down, big boy, and build me something better. The City of “I Will” won’t be slowed by sentimental nostalgia. And Miriam, census taker, counter of souls, was now a real cog in this unstoppable wheel of energy. This remarkable place where a woman – a woman! – was even elected Himself.

But census taking, the act itself, is its own special hell. Popper began, even then, to understand the shame that can come when attempting to answer even the most basic questions about one’s life.

In his census memories it is always raining and they are always drenched. And Miriam would say, “Enough of this already, let’s have a drink.” And so together they’d flee to the nearest bar, never more than a block or two away, and she’d plunk her stack on the bar and say to the bartender, usually a slow-eyed man emerging out of a corner of darkness, “Give me a martini. Very very dry.”

To Popper: “Cola or Uncola?”

“Uncola. No, wait. A Coke. No, uncola. No, wait, a Coke.”

She’d given up smoking by then but she always held an unlit red-tipped cigarette between her fingers.

“How many persons in your household?”

“Humans only?”

“Humans only.”

“Four.”

“Immediate family?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are all four in your immediate family? The people you live with?”

“I’m confused.”

“Occupation?”

“Archeologist.”

“Highest degree attained?”

“Huh?”

“What grade are you in?”

“Fifth.”

“Years in the state of Illinois, not excluding terms of military service?”

“Whole life.”

“Religion?”

“I know, I know. We’re Jewish but I don’t have to be. I can be anything – ”

***

He remembers this. They were on South Pulaski and the door of a basement apartment was immediately opened by an alarmingly tall woman with a wild mass of orange hair. She swatted away the speech. “Come on in, Commerce Department.”

The woman lived in a single room, a kitchen and a living room. Rain was banging on the little rectangular windows. She lived eye-level with the wet feet going by on the sidewalk. One lamp hung from a chain, a single bulb behind a tattered red shade. The light in the room was the color of washed out blood. You could tell where the border between the kitchen and the living was supposed to be by where the linoleum ended and the worn, banana-colored carpet began, but her stuff didn’t seem to care what was the kitchen and what was wasn’t. In the reddish shadows, he could see scattered piles of newspapers, old mail, coupon books, clothes and unwashed dishes. Spent Kleenex was strewn across the apartment like little crumplets of flowers. On the single chair in the room was a plant the size of a man. Shoved into one corner was an upright piano that doubled as a bookshelf and a place for shoes. On the sofa, a small load of lumber.

“Make yourself at home!”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to trouble you. I only have a few very brief – ”

“Sit.”

For a few moments they stood there confused. Sit where? The woman motioned toward the chairless kitchen table. As they got closer, they saw that on the other side of the table, wedged against the wall, was another, lower, couch. On it were crumpled sheets and a pillow. They sat. The orange-haired woman might have been tall enough for the couch to double as a bed and a kitchen chair, but Miriam and her kid were smallish people. Miriam scooted forward so that at least her head and arm were above the table. Popper did his best to do the same, shoving his chin just over the edge.

“No! Sit back! Make yourselves comfortable!”

Miriam propped her papers up on her knees and poised her pencil. The woman joined them on the couch bed.

“Move over a bit, honey,” Miriam said.

“So what was it you wanted to ask me, Commerce Department?”

“How many people in your household?”

The orange-haired woman swayed backwards and laughed. Then she stopped and abruptly stood up. The effect was like a trampoline. The two of them flung upward.

The woman looked around the apartment as if she were looking for somebody who’d been hiding.

“You know I used to have a lot of men,” she said and reached down and set her large hand on the top of Popper’s head. “Cute when they’re little. They ought to snip it off early.”

“Age,” Miriam said. “You can be approximate.”

“Are you married? You must be married. Petite, pretty. Although I notice, no ring. It’s in your pocket? Men talk easier that way. Answer your questions?”

“Source of monthly income?”

“Happily married?”

Miriam changed her grip on her pencil and sank deeper into the half couch.

“Disability,” the orange-haired woman said to buoy her a little. “I’m on disability. 160 a week. Monthly, that’s – You’re not from here.”

“Massachusetts,” Miriam said. “I’m from Massachusetts. Alternate source of income? Stock dividends, bond yields, interest on long-term saving accounts – ”

“Would you two like some pretzels? I’m sure the little monkey eats pretzels.” From the front pocket of her blue jeans she yanked out a crumpled bag of pretzels and handed it to Popper. He took one pretzel and listened to himself chomp in his own ears.

“Doesn’t talk much does he, Commerce Department?”

“I’ve only got a few more –”

“Oh, don’t be shy. Ask away.”

“Would you consider yourself white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Aleutian Islander and/or Eskimo?”

The rain went on banging on the windows. Miriam was diligent. She soldiered on. The training manual had said expect certain countees to be resistant. Remember the three P’s: Patience, Persistence, Politeness.

“And my hair’s not really red.”

“It’s not?”

“I dye it. Out of vanity. I’m not saying I was ever beautiful. Not like you. I was never as beautiful as someone like you. I can only imagine what you must have looked like as a child.”

“Highest degree attained?” Miriam whispered.

“I’m not lonely. You can think what you want.”

He watched his mother write this down. She’d begun to write it all down, everything. But he remembers thinking this was true. The red-haired woman wasn’t lonely. It was the two of them who had come to her out of the rain.

“Occupation?”

“Insomniac.”

“What’s he do?”

“Who?”

“Your other monkey.”

“He’s an attorney.”

Miriam wrote this down also. Popper read it. My other monkey is an attorney.

“Religious affiliation?”

The orange-haired woman watched his mother so intently and for so long that the afternoon collapsed. The patterns of wrinkles radiating from her eyes were like fresh cobwebs. She reached for Miriam’s throat with her big fingers and held them there, gently.

Popper spoke then for the first time all afternoon, nearly shrieking,“It’s not required!”

 ***

The last shred of outside light now gone, only that blood light, but the rain still banging on the little windows. He doesn’t remember leaving. He doesn’t remember the walk back to the car, South Pulaski reaching flat for uncountable miles, or even the rain, the rain beading on his mother’s coat, the rain in his shoes, the rain in his eyes, the silence between the two of them on the drive home, none of it.

***

Line drawings by Eric Orner.

Learn more about The Rumpus Book Club here.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →