Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Muncie Boyhood: The Plight of the Enumerator

My youngest daughter is headed to college in just a few weeks. This summer, she has been trying without success to find a job to supplement her spending money while she is away at school. (If you are in the Indy area and you have a babysitting need or an odd job she could do for you, let me know.)  Her plight has brought back some memories. 

Thirty-one years ago, in the summer of 1980, I was doing the same thing in Muncie, Indiana.

Jimmy Carter was still President, and the economy was in awful shape. Iran was holding our people hostage, and we were learning the meaning of the word “malaise.” I was headed to college in West Virginia in August, and I desperately needed to find a short-term job so that I could get some money ahead.

That’s where the R.L. Polk Company entered my life, and I became an “Enumerator.”

The R.L. Polk Company was in town to gather detailed data from every single address in the entire city so that they could publish a new Muncie City Directory. They needed guys like me to go door to door to collect the necessary information. I found the ad in the Muncie Star and jumped on the job.

Now, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like too difficult of a job. The way it worked is that the enumerators would show up at the Polk office out on Wheeling Avenue first thing each morning to get the sheets that listed the addresses that were to be covered that day. Then, he or she would head immediately to the appropriate area to begin the canvas. At the end of the day, we were supposed to just bring the papers back and turn them in.

Simple, right?

In concept, it was. In reality, they always gave you considerably more addresses to cover than any reasonable person could actually hit in a given day, and when you returned without completing your area….well, you’d have thought that you’d stolen the manager’s underwear or something.  Or maybe I'd started the Enumerating Apocalypse!

“You need to get this covered! If you don’t do better than that, we’ll have to fire you! Pick it up!”

The next day, you got your unfinished area, and then the next area too. Within a couple of days, I realized that I didn’t have time to walk from door to door. No. Rather, I was basically jogging or running pretty much the entire day, every day! By the end of the summer, I was in the best physical shape of my life!

Still, it was never enough. They constantly hounded me to get more done accompanied by more threats about my job. The whole month of July in 1980 I thought I was about to be fired.

When I started this job, I was one of maybe twenty or thirty enumerators and they had a constant flow of new people, but despite the constant threats, I was one of the last three that they held onto until the project was completed. I made it all the way to the end, and despite the threats, the company was a life-saver with regard to my money for school.

Along the way, I had a few interesting interactions in my door to door enumerating.

In a neighborhood near the Ball State University campus at a nicely kept older bungalow, I stood on a large porch and attempted to gain the personal information I needed from a guy who looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Today, it would be even more difficult to do this job because people are more careful about giving out personal information, but back then, I was expected to find out the names of all occupants. Their ages/dates of birth. Occupations. Did they own or rent. Phone numbers. Marital status. Etc.

So, I’m running down this list with this professional looking young fellow, and we get to the question about occupation.

“What is your occupation?” I asked.

“Jeweler,” he replied.

Time for a brain fart. I could not for the life of me remember how to spell the word jeweler. On top of that, being from the south side of Muncie, chances are that I was pronouncing it with one less syllable than the word actually contains… “Jewler.” So, I’m standing there a bit frozen in the process, trying to figure out how to spell the man’s occupation. He’s standing there watching me. I’ve got the paper on my clipboard held so that he could see what I’m doing.

I had a moment of brilliant stupidity. I thoughtlessly wrote the following:

OCCUPATION:   Jew.

Without thinking, I had abbreviated the man’s occupational status as a jeweler with a simple “Jew.” To make matters worse, what I had done sort of occurred to me as I finished so I gave a short little chuckle at what seemed to me to be a simple mistake. However, before I could acknowledge the error in judgment, the man said: “We’re done talking!” Then abruptly, he angrily stepped back inside and slammed the door.

I was left standing there, unsure of what to do next. Should I knock and try to apologize, or just leave? I can’t remember if I tried to knock or not, but I know I never spoke to him again.  I felt really bad that I had so offended him.

I promise, I’m not anti-Semitic. I was just a goofy teenage boy from the south side of Muncie who forgot how to spell jeweler.

In another occurrence, I found myself canvassing a little neighborhood of tiny two-room rentals on the east side of town, just off of 18th Street between Macedonia Avenue and Mock Street. In retrospect, it was probably ridiculous to even canvas these because I’m sure the turn-over there was fast and furious and the occupants would be completely different by the time the book was published, but there was no skipping it if I wanted to keep my job. After all, I was always on the edge of being fired.

As just a bit of background, I lived at 21st and Hackley Streets, which was just under a mile from this spot. For some reason, I decided it would be a good idea to park at home and walk over to this one, which was a mistake because it was further than I had really thought, and that turned out to be a major time-waster for me for that day.

The decision to park at home that day also gave me what I believe was a real brush with death. I had knocked my way into a few other uncomfortable situations, but this was the one as I look back that was the most serious.

2011 E. 18th Street in Muncie.  Sight of my dangerous encounter!

I entered the little community of tiny rentals and began my job. I worked my way around to the back, stopping at each little house and gleaning what useful (or useless) information I could along the way. About two-thirds of the way around, I stepped up to a tiny porch on which a rough-looking guy was standing, smoking a cigarette, and watching me approach.


“Good morning,” I said. “I’m with the R.L. Polk Company, and I’m going around getting information for a new city directory. Could I ask you a few questions?”

“No.”

“Are you sure, sir?” I replied. “This is an important project because it helps the police and fire departments in the case of an emergency.”

“No! I don’t want to be in your directory! Don’t put anything about me in that book!”

“Um, okay.” As I handed him a piece of paper, I added, “Here’s an information sheet. If you change your mind, just call the number.”

“I’m not going to change my mind. You’re not going to put me in there, right?”

“No sir, participation is completely voluntary.”

“Okay, then.”

I couldn't put anything in there about him if I wanted to because other than the obvious fact that he was paranoid, I didn't know anything about him.

I went on to the next door and put the man out of my mind. After all, I’d been doing this for a few weeks and he wasn’t the first one to refuse to participate. You just learned to move on. There was no time to dwell on the rejections. In the next fifteen minutes or so, I finished up enumerating the tiny collection of what looked like Monopoly houses and headed back to my house where my car was waiting to take me to the next neighborhood on my list.

I was walking briskly west on 18th Street and mumbling to myself about being so stupid as to park at home, when a car rolled up next to me. I looked over at the older, plain-looking sedan as it slowly paced me. It was the man from the little rental house who had adamantly rejected participating.

“Hey! You’re not going to put me in that book are you?” he asked with a serious and somewhat scary look on his face.

“No sir.”

“Are you sure? Because I really don’t want to be in that book!”

“No problem, sir,” I replied. “We won’t put you in there unless you want to be in it.”

“You’re sure now?” he pressed me a bit more.

“I’m sure.”

Frankly, I was significantly uncomfortable by this point. I had never had anyone act like this before, and the company had not prepped me on what to do with a reaction like the one I was facing. It was the middle of the day, but I was on foot with my car almost a mile away.

“Well, okay,” he said. And then, he seemed to think about it for a moment, and he asked, “Do you need a ride?”

“Um, no sir. No thanks.”

He looked at me a moment longer, and then drove off.

In the years since then, I have often wondered who that guy was. Was he a serial killer? Based on his reaction, he was obviously hiding. Hiding from whom? Hiding why? What would have happened if I’d been na├»ve enough to jump into that car with him expecting a quick ride over to my house?

Somehow, I just don’t get the feeling that he would have taken me home.

In August, my job with the R.L. Polk Company came to an end. I never got fired even though I was threatened with it right up to the last. In fact, about a week before I was to move to Williamstown, West Virginia for my first semester of college, I got a phone call from someone at the R.L. Polk Company.

“We were wondering if you’d be interested in considering a career with the R.L. Polk Company?”

My response? “Um, no thanks.”

4 comments:

  1. This was a really interesting post. I liked it a lot. You should consider writing a biography on how you grew up.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. In essence, I am writing a biography...one blog post at a time. We'll see where it all goes. Mike

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  3. I have used the Polk Directories for many years in doing research. Although I have found them accurate 90%+ of the time, I have found errors or info that could not be correct. I had heard that some of these canvassors or enumerators sometimes just filled info in to speed along their work without really talking to people. I recall looking in one city directory in the mid 1990s to find my name, with my wife's name being the name of an ex-wife from 15 years before. I always wondered how the person got that info as the year before and the year after were correct. did someone open up a 15 year old directory and copy my info? ;-)

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    1. One day, when I was canvassing a neighborhood and hopelessly behind schedule, I had a person approach me and offer me some info on the next house...he said they weren't home. I gratefully accepted the info and went on to the next. Turns out it was a "checker" from Polk....I nearly got fired for not knocking on that door anyway.

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