Doin' the Census in the Bronx
t the age of twenty-one, I graduated from the State University of New Yorkat Binghamton. I was still unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I was trying to make up my mind between journalism (which I eventually chose), city planning and high-school teaching. So, like many of my peers during the laid-back 1970s, I decided to "take a year off," basically living at home in Co-op City and working at an "ordinary" job before finally making a decision and going to graduate school for my master's.
The problem was, even getting an ordinary job, without any real job skills, was tough. For whatever reason, I didn't want to go back to either of my previous short-term employers, R&J Records, a record wholesaler on Sherman Avenue in Inwood, or the Record Hunter, the famed record store on Fifth Avenue. I tried driving a yellow cab out of a garage on Jerome Avenue near Yankee Stadium, but I found it so stressful that I soon quit. For a while, I worked part-time doing title searches in the Bronx County Courthouse for a real-estate company, but that came to an end after two months. Then, my friend Angelo told me that the Census was hiring, and told me how to apply.
Few people knew, and probably still don't, that the census doesn't only come to life every ten years. During the "off years" it does surveys for every federal agency under the sun. The survey I would be doing was for the Justice Department and called the National Crime Survey. Families were chosen at random to be interviewed for the purpose of seeing whether the rates of specific crimes were going up or down.
I applied, was accepted, and was told I would work on a team in the Northeast Bronx, near where I lived. But first, I had a to attend a one-week training session in Lower Manhattan. Our tours with the Census Bureau would be only six weeks, but, we were assured, the bureau did one survey after another and was always hiring. "If you're good," one head honcho addressed us, "You can become a crew chief!" Definitely something to consider.
After the training session, I was assigned to a team that would operate around the Allerton Avenue area - the same area where Angelo and several of my high school friends used to live. I was overjoyed, and although I had never lived there myself, I knew those streets inside-out, so the job would be easy. The first day, our whole group, about twenty of us, met at the diner on the north side of Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road for a little orientation with our new crew chief, Nick, a young, well-dressed Greek-American guy who'd previously worked as a painting contractor.
We got our list of interviewees and our interview questions, and it was off to the races. I was a little annoyed that the policy of this survey was to not notify people in advance that we were coming, but on the whole, people were cooperative, especially after I displayed a big badge that identified me as a federal employee. The only exception was one woman on Gun Hill Road who slammed the door on me for reasons unknown. A few people politely refused to answer the questions, like three young Fordham University coeds who shared an apartment on Cruger Avenue, but those I could tolerate.
A lot of the bureau's rules were a pain. For example, if only one member of the family was home, you had to put the answer down as a "partial," and then come back the next day, or the day afterward, to speak to the wife or husband. After a while, I learned to just ask, "Does your wife feel the same way you do?"
Also, the question "During the last year, were you ever robbed, raped, assaulted, physically attacked..." could be inflammatory, so eventually I just asked, "in the last year, have any crimes been committed against you?" and let them do the talking.
The job did have its pleasant features. Often, I took a break to sit down at Al's Luncheonette on Allerton, listening to the war stories of the colorful Russian immigrant owner, or I sifted through the old records and books at Lianna's antique store, further to the east.
One time, I interviewed an elderly, very well-spoken doctor on Williamsbridge Road who talked about the neighborhood and how stable it was. "Of course, there was one building on the street that had, shall we say, that bad element, but of course, that building just burned down." He winked his eye, implying that he had something to do with it.
Another time, I was so taken with a young lady I interviewed on Holland Avenue that the day after I interviewed her for the Census, I called her and asked her for a date. She was the daughter of a State Senator, no less, whose office was on Pelham Parkway North, right next to the diner. Completely unprofessional behavior, perhaps, but at twenty-one, pursuit of the opposite sex overrode everything and anything. She wasn't interested.
Once a week, we all got together at the diner, handed Nick our paperwork, then got a new list of people to interview. Nick tried to start a contest among us by announcing who had the most completed interviews for the week, something I didn't appreciate. I usually came in second or third, but one very jovial and outgoing man - Mr. Del Giudice - always came in with the highest totals. Del Giudice, who was born in the old country, spoke Italian, and since at least half of the Allerton Avenue area was still Italian-American, he apparently was a hit.
"It's those stories he tells," Nick related to us, cheerfully.
After the sixth week, we met in the diner one last time. Nick congratulated us and then said, "You might not have noticed that Mr. Del Giudice isn’t here." He was right, although I hadn't noticed it until he mentioned it.
Well, it seemed that Nick's opinions of him had cooled a little bit. "His totals were a little too high, so we decided to re-interview some of the people he said he interviewed. He made all his interviews up, and we're prosecuting him. Oh, by the way, Ron?"
"We checked up on a few of yours, too, but you're OK!" I breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently Nick didn't know - or care - about my "partials."
"What about more surveys? How do we apply?"
Nick breathed heavily. “They just announced that they're cutting back on the number of surveys they're doing. I don't know when the next one is. I’m gonna go back to contracting for a while. I wish you guys the best."
A week or two later, I took a trip over to the trusty Lehman College job board (supposedly for Lehman students only, but no one was checking). Soon, I was working as a "permit clerk" for a plumbing company on Webster Avenue. I had to go down to the Buildings Department every day and try to get permits for the jobs they were doing. That job, too, was a quite a trip, as they said in the '70s, but that's a story for another day.