I've been working for the census.
I had tried before but either I was too busy or applied too late. This year, with Covid, I was afraid the count might never start. But in mid-August the experts at the U.S. Department of Commerce decided it was do-or-die and I was available.
At a Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood they handed out more-or-less working government-issued iPhone 8s to a wide variety of masked individuals. Soon I was walking around the odd part of Los Angeles where I live, armed with a badge, a clipboard, an assortment of preprinted forms, and an iPhone app that works as well as an intermittent cellular connection will allow.
I thought I might share some of my experiences.
The Unspeakable, Part 1
Most of my census tracking involved walking up and down the hills that divide the west side of Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. The big hills - mountains elsewhere - are divided by canyons, and what were once rivers, now dry arroyos, paved to become fast-moving (or, before Covid, bumper-to-bumper congested) crossroads from the West Side to the Valley. Multimillion dollar homes sprawl up hillsides, roads twist and spiral, some connecting canyon to canyon, in a network known only to commuter apps like Waze and Google Maps.
Tucked within those hills sit the tribal micro-communities by which some Los Angelenos define themselves, a steadily evolving coded text full of signification and meaning, decipherable by locals and the occasional trained itinerant semiologist.
Instead of the smell of ripe figs, which I would sample from the overhanging trees at all possible opportunities, or of engorged lemons, which I gathered according to the longstanding rules of urban foraging, this canyon smelled of horse.
There are horse canyons in Los Angeles; this wasn’t one of them. Nor was it artsy and edgy like Laurel Canyon. This canyon was flat-out stinking rich. Huge mansions that could have housed schools dug their ways up the hillside.
My case list had me rising along one finger-like escarpment for most of the day. Eventually the route led up to a long, flattened plain that tightened to the width of a city block, and I spent most of the afternoon marching from house to house along a single narrow street. As the numbers grew larger, the neighborhood became more of a mixed bag. Some places seemed modest and old while others had been renovated within an inch of their lives, transformed into dwellings resembling Mac computer packaging design with an assortment of fetish finishes.
“Why are they finishing their houses with such expensive materials?” one old-timer asked me, standing outside his adobe. “Copper roofs. Travertine siding. Carerra slabs. It just adds so much to the cost.”
Another neighbor turned out to be a construction project manager who specialized in hillside development. He waxed about the plethora of empty houses listing for over 19 million dollars in the neighborhood.
“There are over a hundred of them,” he said. “Just sitting there. And no one’s buying. Wonder why.”
“Well, keeps me going,” he said and smiled conspiratorially.
As I worked my way toward the last of the houses on that street, I noticed a mail truck chugging up the hill followed by a mobile animal grooming unit. I approached a small house that looked as if it had last been redone — tastefully — in the mid-nineties. An older woman answered the door. She wore a white terry cloth robe and she was holding her phone to her ear.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, covering the mouthpiece. “I’m on an important call. Could you come back in half an hour?
I started to ask if she felt comfortable with computers, because she could fill out the census form online, but from her expression, I realized she was a little hard of hearing. I raised my voice. Holding up her hand, she said, “Don’t you have the other houses to do on this block? Come back.”
She was right. I could do that. The next house on my list had a realty sign in front. The intercom didn’t seem to work, and the front gate had a missing handle. I reached over and opened it, figuring the missing handle was some kind of real estate technique, like those combination key locks that contain house keys.
The house, ranch-style with several misbegotten additions, seemed to be empty. After thumbing my case notes in the shade, I left the obligatory Notice of Visit. Exiting the gate, I crossed the street, and left another Notice at another un-redone Seventies-style Cape Cod that looked as though it might still contain its original cottage cheese ceilings. This one had an impressive customized 20 by 20 tent-like structure stretching out from the garage. A two-car tent, I thought. Oh, wait…a boat. Imagine pulling that boat up and down the canyon, I thought.
As I was finishing my notes, two women came out of the first house. One crossed the street to a newish Subaru. The other opened the trunk to her 5 series BMW. The BMW owner wore retro clear plastic sunglasses with green lenses. She had a strange resemblance to Susan Sarandon minus the red hair.
“Which house are you coming out of?” I asked, making my voice as unthreatening as possible. I held up my badge as I crossed the street toward them.
The woman sliding into the Suburu pointed to the house with the missing gate handle, “That one.”
The Susan Sarandon in shades put her hands on her hips, looked me up and down, and demanded, “Are you from the government?”
“You’re here to line us up and herd us out, aren’t you?”
“Sort of. Numerically, digitally, anyway. I’m with the Census Bureau.” I thrust my badge forward.
“I figured,” she said.
The Census’ “Refusal by respondent” rubric has a subcategory: “Anti-government concerns.” The woman with the sunglasses proceeded to express several of those anxieties as I stood in a basic athletic stance (ready to run) while she went on about how you couldn’t trust the government, the post office, or the IRS (naturally), escalating to welfare and SSI cheats. Gun control fanatics came up, too. (She was “for.”) I nodded and kept saying, “I agree,” and “I’m on your side,” even about the guns.
As the woman took a breath to reload, the other woman joined us. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you?” she said.
“Are you two sisters?” I asked. Actually, I was wondering if they were a couple.
“We should be,” Susan Sarandon said. “No, she’s my friend. She’s helping me. This is my house. It’s rented. I used to live here. She used to live across the street. I have a new rental moving in tomorrow. Is that what you want to know?”
“No, actually,” I said. “Not at all. I’m only interested in April 1, 2020.”
“Why?” Her eyes narrowed behind her shades.
“Because that’s the day of the Census.”
And she started to wind up again.
“I’m out of here,” announced her friend, jumping into her car. I watched as her Subaru disappeared down the hill.
“Bet you wish you could do that, too,” Susan Sarandon said, with a mixture of resentment and, I thought, wistfulness.
Actually, I still had twenty minutes to kill.
“Follow me in here, I gotta get something. I hope you’re not an ax murderer,” she added.
“No ax,” I said, deliberately not mentioning anything about ball point pens.
Why do people have mud rooms in a place where it barely rains? I took in white wainscoting, knotty pine, and a lot of dark woodgrain cabinetry. As I followed her back outside, she went off again about something like guns and self protection, during which time I noticed the buckle-size diamond engagement ring next to the bracelet-thick diamond-and-colored-jewel studded wedding band. Looked real to me.
At this point I was learning that she was a conservative from New Orleans who liked guns just like everyone else, and… I forget, because I tuned out. Like a good government employee, I somehow eked out that the house was rented on April 1st to a family of five, two boys and a girl. She wouldn’t guess their ages. (Check “DK,” for Doesn’t Know.) She wouldn’t give me their names. (So, Person 1, 2, 3…) Of course, she wouldn’t give me her name (therefore, Proxy 1) but with the house’s address (already recorded) it all squared with the app, which added up to good-enough-for-government-work.
Now I had to escape, which was slowed by another diatribe about government roundups, which ended with, “Well you wouldn’t understand because you’re not Jewish.”
“You’re Jewish?” I asked.
“Hell yeah. Is that a problem?” She meant that.
“I’m Jewish,” I said. She didn’t believe me.
“No, really. I’ve got kids in yeshivas,” I said. This stumped her completely.
“Well, I bet you hate Netanyahu.”
“No, as a matter of fact I kind of admire him. Not about everything, I mean he panders, but…”
And suddenly she was agreeing with me. “Yeah, you can be in office for too long.”
And just as suddenly the air went out of the balloon and she was bored with me, and said simply: “I’m late for yoga.”
“Go to yoga,” I said.
It had been at least half an hour. There was a beat where I could tell that she was working herself up again, but I said, “Yoga,” and she agreed and got in the car, and said, only half humorously, “Don’t report me to your overlords,” and left.
Not about the yoga, I said to the air.
I strolled back to the house where the lady in the white terry cloth bathrobe lived.
A dog grooming minivan was parked in her driveway.
The Unspeakable, Part 2
As I approached, I could make out the woman in the bathrobe talking to a younger blond woman, presumably the dog groomer, in a language I could not recognize. English phrases flitted about now and again like buzzing flies. “I’ll miss you,” was one. Maybe the dog groomer was moving on or changing jobs.
I stood a safe distance away and listened for a while, thinking, “not Russian,” then “no, nothing Slavic, either.” I wondered if it was a Scandinavian language I’d never heard — Norwegian? Had I ever heard Norwegian? The woman broke off, and dipped back into the house.
“What language were you speaking?” I asked the young blond woman.
“Hungarian. We’re both Hungarian.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“I love Budapest.”
The older woman came out of the house, said something in what must have been Magyar and handed the younger woman an envelope.
“We were talking about Budapest,” I said.
“Yes. Nice place to visit,” she said dryly. Well, she’s here, I thought. She must have left for a reason.
“And to eat,” I added.”
“Yes, that, too,” she conceded politely.
“And the opera house…”
There, I had her. That lit her up.
“Yes, the opera house,” she said, drawing out the “s” of “yes.” “One of the finest.”
“And it’s so small,” I recalled.
“It’s a great opera house.”
She led me through her house, filled with paintings — I thought I recognized a Sam Francis — out to the pool where she had arranged white wrought-iron furniture.
I sat at a table next to the window that opened to her kitchen. Drooping shade trees faced south-east on the other side of the oval pool, leaning out over the canyon bluff toward downtown Los Angeles. She returned with a mask and a freshly groomed Maltese, apologized for the hearing aids she needed to insert, and we began filling out the Census form on the app.
She was born in 1929, the same year as my mother, but in December, so she was approaching 91. As the cardiologists described my mother, this woman was “a young ninety-one.”
She lived alone. Her husband had died a few years earlier, no sentiment expressed. No children. They had emigrated to the United States after the war — all of this in passing. It was of no interest to the Census bureau. I'd met one man the day before whose wife had died six weeks earlier. As far as the Census was concerned, with its monomaniacal obsession with April 1st, 2020, if his wife was alive on April 1, she counted; good for the next ten years. They have to draw a line somewhere, I guess.
“How will you celebrate your ninety-first birthday,” I asked after we had finished off the official questions.
She shrugged. “If I make it, I’ll throw a party.”
We had tried to plan one for my mother. She’d died a few weeks before her ninetieth.
“What did you do last year, for your ninetieth? That was a big one.”
“I threw a party, too. No. My friends threw me a party. With a caterer. It was very nice. Americans, they make good friends. Some, anyway.”
“Do you miss Hungary?”
“I go back sometimes. I am happy here.”
“My goodness,” I said. “You were a girl during the war. That must have been awful.” I had noted to myself earlier, she had to have been between ten and fifteen.
“Yes,” she said. And then she raised the sleeve of her bathrobe. It was sudden and felt so intimate.
The tattoo was higher on her arm than I expected, and on the inside.
The blue ink, still prominent, clearly hand-etched, now blurred, seemed to have sunk below the skin to settle on some medium, translucent level. The impression was three dimensional. I noticed a “2” that seemed more like a “Z,” as if the tattooer had struggled with the curves of the crooked number on the small, bent arm. I felt an impulse to ask to photograph it but I didn’t dare ask. It was evidence, fragile backing that needed to be preserved.
“So… Hungary. That was… Auschwitz.”
“Incredible you survived.”
“I can’t imagine. I mean I can, but I can’t. Have you told your story, like to one of the museum organizations?”
“No. Who would believe me?”
She recoiled slightly.
“No one would believe it…I saw my innocent ten-year-old brother…”
I struggled to control my conflicting emotions. Compared to the way I suddenly felt, she appeared far more solid.
“I…” I stumbled, pointing to myself, trying somehow to emphasize that these were just my flat-footed, naive, perhaps well-intended but in reality foolish thoughts. "I think it is important to tell these things. There are people who want to hear. Like me. Like my children. There are those that deny…”
“I mean those people, too,” she said. “And others." She paused, then looked me straight in the eye. "It’s just not believable.”
“I don’t know. My children, they would love… well, not love, but they would want to hear it. They’d be honored. I have a twenty-year-old daughter. Her favorite book… one that moved her… enormously… is Night.” I remembered the author was Hungarian. “Did you know…” and I misplaced Eli Wiesel’s name. She had forgotten it, too. We both tried to remember.
“I met him once,” she said. “At a reading.” She’d been minimally impressed by Elie Wiesel, I gathered from her tone.
“It would be easy,” I coaxed. “My daughter could come and record you on her iPhone.”
I held up the iPhone with its app. “Her name is Sarah. You could tell it to Sarah. She would want to hear it. It’s them, the young, who need to hear.”
I was on the point of begging, insisting, even. I felt I should push. I felt I shouldn’t. It was wrong to open something closed, to enter a gate just like that, to invade privacy. I had to be the wrong person for this, but here I was. Yet, she seemed to consider it.
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe it’s time.”
Then she smiled.
“Maybe when I’m older.” And she laughed girlishly.
I wrote down my name and number. She handed me her card as I left. She owned a gallery which she still ran out of her home. I glanced around one last time at the collection on the white walls. Yes, that was indeed a Sam Francis. There also was something that reminded me of depression-era muralists, and early twentieth-century landscapes.
“Nice,” I said. She smiled again. Politely.
I took some time in my car before I went back to work.
Driving down the canyon there was that horse smell again. Ah, yes, I said to myself, polo season.
The Sir Paul Crawl
Another day, another canyon.
I was knocking at Paul McCartney’s gate for a third time, and this time it was open. Dare I go in? I had promised friends that if he were home I would call and we’d FaceTime it.
I was surprised how many of my friends told me they had made the pilgrimage to Liverpool and done the Paul crawl, stopping at his childhood home, passing by the teenage clubs, seeking out Strawberry Fields, and crossing Penny Lane. One had even stayed at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel.
I hadn’t done that, but I had marched each of my children over to The Dakota on individual trips to New York to show them where John Lennon died. It wasn’t as if I’d been in the city that day. But I certainly remembered where I was. We all remember.
Sir Paul’s Los Angeles residence was a good distance down an olive tree-lined road and partway up a bluff, surrounded by tall hedges, on its own flat escarpment. Pretty much hidden, in other words, as you might expect.
From down the former ravine, now a city street, you could make out cedar shingle roofs. Clapboard buildings appeared to surround a large swimming pool. There seemed to be a number of furled white sun umbrellas, too, all neatly wrapped and waiting.
Workmen, I had noticed, had been redoing the low cement sidewalls to the driveway. Nothing special, just rounded cement borders, but they seemed to be protecting the healthy, leafy trees.
Sir Paul’s place hovered over another huge estate, acres and several addresses wide, that frequently was rented out for entertainment. William Morris-Endeavor held its celebrity-chocked parties there. Beyonce, I understood, sang live at the last one, and performed quite a long private set with an orchestra, but Paul didn’t hear her because he’s never in. One neighborhood rumor says that Paul’s place is where George Harrison died. Another one says that it was the bad wife’s place, the one who took him for … well, not everything, but a lot … and that it’s painful for him.
Balancing the government iPhone 8 in one hand, and my personal XR in the other, I thought: “Who do I call first?” The childhood schoolmate, who still looks like Paul? The female friend who lives close by, who I bet would shriek and scream, like the teenagers a gazillion years ago on the Ed Sullivan show? Wait, what about my kids? They’re Beatles fans, too. My daughter adores Stella McCartney. Could Stella be visiting?
A white pickup piled high with tarp-covered debris rumbled towards me. It stopped to disgorge a crew wearing burnt-orange long-sleeved shirts with some kind of organizational logo. The men hoisted aluminum poles and headed down the path.
Eventually they reached me. Tree trimmers. The gates closed. I dropped a Notice of Visit next to the intercom that no one ever answered, and marched back down the road toward the main canyon street.
There were a few more houses — demesnes, really — to hit on the next side street. No one would answer. Or if anyone did, if I reached, say, a housekeeper, they wouldn’t dare participate. And if on the rare chance I spoke to an owner, they’d be outraged at my impertinence.
I’m not giving you my name. I’m not giving you my number. I am certainly not telling you anything about whether I own or rent this place. Who the hell are you?
I arrived at the estate with three gates and four addresses that sat below the McCartney house. A black brick wall interrupted a portion of the high surrounding hedges. Set above the intercom was a “Service” sign in silver embossed letters. I pressed the button; it rang like a telephone, then: “Hello.”
“Hi, I’m, um… I’m with the Census.”