I wrote this article in March of 2010. Jean, my neighbor, has since died.
During the 1990 census, my aunt was asked to fill out the long census form. I am not sure what the long form asks now, but in 1990 it asked a lot of questions about type of housing: building types, size of building, indoor plumbing, heat, electricity, water, etc. The longer form also asked more detailed questions about the inhabitants. It queried regarding occupations, health, disabilities, education, methods of transport to and from work (biking, walking, carpooling, mass transit?), etc. I want to fill out one the long forms. I want to be more than a number, sex, race, and age.
I want to be described and understood. However, even with the long form, my apartment is not exactly exciting. It is typical- nothing unusual or interesting. A number would probably describe it adequately. (I would, however complain about my lack of central heating.) I might simply have to lie. “I live in a wigwam that is off the grid and has no indoor plumbing. The wigwam, however, does have central air energized by the manure-powered generator out back. I live part of the year here, but for 2 months I live in Sweden, 1 month a year in Morocco, and each July I take a month long retreat on Minnesota, focusing on fly-fishing and meditation. I have several vagrants hanging out in my front hall closet until the rain stops.” I have never been offered the long form.
I am not sure what the long form is asking these days. Do they still ask about carpooling, buses and whether you are on the grid? Are they now asking about internet access and phones? “Do you or anyone living with you have a Twitter account?” I am curious about internet access and how many people actually own computers. I think having a home computer with an internet connection is akin to having a diamond ring- a fun luxury. Being a little on the overindulgent side, I have both. However, so much of life these days seems to be done over the internet and not having home internet access now would be a large hassle (as opposed to a diamond ring, the lack of which leads to no real inconveniences at all). Many businesses and services act as if everyone has easy access to these expensive items and services. I wonder how many people actually do.
When I lived in Baltimore, people lived in run down condemned houses with lead paint, no heat, no water, and no electricity. Houses burned down regularly from the kerosene heaters people used to heat themselves. Now everyone I know has a cell phone. I seem to be further and further away from the squalor these days. I wonder if everyone in Baltimore now has a cell phone.
My husband has one of those handheld computer phones. The cost of running one of those things for 2 months is equal to the cost of a dinner for 2 at Cesar’s. I would much rather have the dinner at Cesar than 2 months of email going to my back pocket. The point is not quite valid, however, since my husband’s email still does go to his back pocket and we go to Cesar’s a lot more than once every 2 months.
I am going to try to find the Irish/English/Portuguese/French/German/etc box on the form. One of the doctors at my work asked me about my ethnic background and I said Irish and Portuguese (my answer for this question varies depending on my mood.) He replied “oh- a fiery combination.” I don’t think anyone has every described me as fiery and my husband was highly amused by the descriptor. The census form, however, offers me only “White,” which is hardly descriptive either. I think I prefer fiery, however inaccurate the adjective may be.
My neighbor came over to my apartment this morning and gave me my census form. I am apparently an 85 year old Chinese woman with very poor hearing and poor understanding of English. She mistakenly filled out my form. (Actually a kind neighbor filled it out for her.) She also filled out her own census form, so we have double the number of old Chinese ladies living on my floor and my husband and I are clearly absent.
She was given the regular short form, too. She keeps catching her kitchen on fire and I think we are going to have to insist her stove be turned off soon. She forgets that she is cooking and then goes off for a nap. She is just getting old and is forgetful. The census questionnaire doesn’t have a box on its form for that either.