What’s inside the new issue of The Ryder magazine? See for yourself: here’s your personal copy. And here is a snapshot of what you’ll find…
Rudy Pozzatti (1925-2021): Rudy Pozzatti embodied the ideal of the artist-teacher. During his lengthy tenure as a distinguished professor at Indiana University, he helped to build the printmaking department into one the best in the country.
Middle Way House Turns 50: “Living in a shelter is tough,” Executive Director Debra Morrow explains. “It’s not your home. The longer people sit in shelter, the harder it is for them to reclaim their lives. “
The Lilly Library from A to Z: From James Bond’s cigars to locks of Edgar Allen Poe’s hair, the Lilly Library boasts an amazing collection of curiosities. And they are all in Darlene J. Sadlier’s book, The Lilly Library from A to Z.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Appalachia: Three films–Hillbilly, Nomadland and Hillbilly Elegy–take on working class white identity in Appalachia.
Die Pest: In pandemic times, we search out pandemic tales. Otto Rippert’s silent 1919 film, Die Pest in Florenz (The Plague in Florenz) is a plague film for a plague year.
This Old House: Jawshing Arthur Liou’s multichannel video work at the Eskenazai Museum of Art, House of the Singing Winds, embraces high resolution video. But art is directly tied to economics and politics. Money and influence have a particularly unique relationship with the film/video artforms due to high equipment costs, studios, “the industry” and many other components. “IU has many T.C. Steele paintings in its collection,” Liou says. “I’m bringing the whole house.”
This issue of The Ryder is funded in part by a Recover Forward grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association. The grant covers some of our expenses, but not all. As you flip through this issue of the magazine (85 pages this month!), if you should see a story that you like, or if you would just want to support local, independent journalism, please consider making a donation.
The Oscar Shorts
The Academy Awards are Sunday night. If you haven’t watched the Oscar Shorts yet this might be a good time. Here’s the link. And if you have already watched them, you might consider gifting the Shorts to your favorite cinephile. The Oscar Shorts are a gift that will be fondly remembered for a long time, or at least until Sunday night.
Also in our Virtual Theater: BILL TRAYLOR CHASING GHOSTS
Bill Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in rural Alabama. After the Civil War, Traylor continued to farm the land as a sharecropper until the late 1920s. Aging and alone, he moved to Montgomery and worked odd jobs in the thriving segregated black neighborhood. A decade later, in his late 80s, Traylor became homeless and started to draw and paint, visualizing memories from plantation days and scenes of a radically changing urban culture. Having witnessed profound social and political change during a life spanning slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and the Great Migration, Traylor devised his own visual language to translate an oral culture into something original, powerful, and culturally rooted. He made well over a thousand drawings and paintings between 1939-1942. This colorful, strikingly modernist work eventually led him to be recognized as one of America’s greatest self-taught artists and the subject of a Smithsonian retrospective. Using historical and cultural context, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts brings the spirit and mystery of Traylor’s incomparable art to life. Making dramatic and surprising use of tap dance and evocative period music, the film balances archival photographs and footage, insightful perspectives from his descendants, and Traylor’s striking drawings and paintings to reveal one of America’s most prominent artists to a wide audience.
You can watch The Oscar Shorts right here, right now!
The Oscar Shorts offer a vision of what the Academy Awards should and could be but very rarely are: eclectic, cosmopolitan, scrappy and surprising. -A.O. Scott, The New York Times
One of the most entertaining categories at the Academy Awards — and one of the least heralded — is for the Best Short Subject. We are featuring the nominees for Best Short Animated, Live-Action and Documentary Film. Below are brief descriptions of each nominee.
The Oscar Shorts open on Friday, April 2nd and will stay on our calendar through April 30th. This is your chance to see all 15 nominated films before the awards ceremony on April 25th.
Tickets: Each program is $12. You can bundle all three into one package for $30. As with all of the films we have been screening for the past year in our virtual theater, 50% of the proceeds will eventually make their way back to us and help keep us going during the pandemic.
All films are unrated; the ratings included here are, basically, our best guess for what they would be rated. You know your kids better than we do. That said, parents should feel free to email us (email@example.com) with questions about the appropriateness of films for younger viewers and children should feel free to email us if they feel their parents have become hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary world.
You will find a link right here on April 2nd to begin watching the Oscar Shorts.
ANIMATED SHORT FILMS, approximately 92 minutesNinety-six films qualified for Best Animated Short. This category includes the five nominees along with three bonus films that were shortlisted for a nomination, but came up short. (Rated PG-13)
BURROW, Madeline Sharafian and Michael Capbarat, USA, 6 minutes. A young rabbit tries to build the burrow of her dreams, becoming embarrassed each time she accidentally digs into a neighbor’s home.
GENIUS LOCI, Adrien Merigeau and Amaury Ovise, France, 16 minutes. One night, Reine, a young loner, sees among the urban chaos a moving oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide. (This film features adult language.)
IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU, Will McCormack and Michael Govier, USA, 12 minutes. Grieving parents struggle with the loss of their daughter after a school shooting. An elegy on grief. (Might not be suitable for children 12 and under)
OPERA, Erick Oh, South Korea/USA, 9 minutes.A stunning, multi-layered pyramidal tour portrait of the cycles, foibles, and wonder of humanity, filled with beauty and absurdity.
YES-PEOPLE, Gisli Darri Halldorsson and Arnar Gunnarson, Iceland, 8 minutes. One morning an eclectic mix of people face the everyday battle, such as work, school and dish-washing. As the day progresses, their relationships are tested and ultimately their capacity to cope.
THE SNAIL AND THE WHALE, Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon UK/Germany, 26 minutes. The heartwarming story of a snail who lives on a rock and wants to see the world so gets a lift from a huge humpback whale. Based on the picture book written by the creators of the lovable Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. Character voices are lovingly provided by stars Diana Riggs, Sally Hawkins, David Cumming and Rob Brydon.
KAPAEMAHU, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, USA, 7 minutes. Long ago, four extraordinary individuals of dual male and female spirit brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii. Beloved by the people for their gentle ways and miraculous cures, they imbued four giant boulders with their powers. The stones still stand on what is now Waikiki Beach, but the true story behind them has been hidden – until now. Narrated in an ancient Hawaiian dialect, Kapaemahu brings this powerful legend back to life in vivid animation, seen through the eyes of a curious child.
TO: GERARD, Taylor Meacham, USA, 8 minutes. A sprightly elderly man, through a little magic, gives a child the ability to dream of possibilities. First shown at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, the retro feel of this story is perfectly set by the French influenced, European styles of animation.
LIVE ACTION SHORT FILMS, approximately 124 minutes One hundred seventy-four films qualified in the category, these are the nominees. (Rated R, Adult Themes and Language)
FEELING THROUGH, Dough Roland and Susan Ruzenski, 19 minutes. A late-night encounter on a New York City street leads to a profound connection between a teen in need and a man who is DeafBlind.
THE LETTER ROOM, Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan, 30 minutes. When a corrections officer is transferred to the letter room, he soon finds himself enmeshed in a prisoner’s deeply private life.
THE PRESENT, Farah Nabulsi, 25 minutes. On his wedding anniversary, Yusef and his young daughter set out in the West Bank to buy his wife a gift. Between soldiers, segregated roads and checkpoints, how easy would it be to go shopping?
TWO DISTANT STRANGERS, Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, 29 minutes. Cartoonist Carter James’ repeated attempts to get home to his dog are thwarted by a recurring deadly encounter that forces him to relive the same awful day over.
WHITE EYE, Tomer Shushan and Shira Hohcman, 21 minutes. A man finds his stolen bicycle, which now belongs to a stranger. While attempting to retrieve it, he struggles to remain human.
DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILMS, approximately 135 minutesOne hundred fourteen films qualified in the category, these are the nominees. (Rated R
A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, 13 minutes. A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
A LOVE SONG FOR LATASHA, Sophia Nahli Allison and Janice Duncan, 19 minutes. An evocative exploreation of 15-year-old Latasha Harlin’s life and dreams. subsequent to her death in 1992.
COLETTE, Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard, 25 minutes. Former French Resistance member Colette Marin-Catherine refused to step foot in Germany for 74 years. This changes when a young history student named Lucie enters her life and convinces her to visit the concentration camp where the Nazis killed her brother.
DO NOT SPLIT, Anders Hammer and Charlotte Cook, 35 minutes. In 2019 a proposed bill allowing the Chinese government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China escalated protests throughout Hong Kong. DO NOT SPLIT captures the determination and sacrifices of the protesters, the government’s backlash, and the passage of the new Beijing-backed national security law.
HUNGER WARD, Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Scheuerman, 40 minutes. Filmed from inside two of the most active therapeutic feeding centers in Yemen, HUNGER WARD documents two female health care workers fighting to thwart the spread of starvation against the backdrop of a forgotten war. The film provides an unflinching portrait of Dr. Aida Alsadeeq and Nurse Mekkia Mahdi as they try to save the lives of hunger-stricken children within a population on the brink of famine.
Women Composers opens this week in our virtual theater. Y
You can watch Women Composers right here, right now
When Leipzig pianist Kyra Steckeweh realized that her repertoire almost exclusively consisted of music composed by men, she began searching for pieces written by female composers. Her research in archives, libraries, and publishing houses quickly brought to light a variety of remarkable piano pieces that have been buried in history and rarely performed. Steckeweh sees a lot of catching up to do, which is why the focus of her piano recitals and recordings has since shifted to the music of women composers, particularly Mel Bonis, Lili Boulanger and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.
With these releases she has brought to our attention and delight three very different composers, all of whom left a diverse body of work. In addition to the in-depth examination of the music, Steckeweh, as a pianist and historian, seeks to look “behind the notes”: How did these women live? What barriers did they have to overcome and how did they manage to cope with the obstacles of their time? “Women Composers” highlights the historical and personal circumstances under which these three remarkable women created their works in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland toured an anti-war comedy show across Southeast Asia. It was directly engaged with and inspired by veterans against the war and, naturally, it upset U.S. military higher-ups. The F.T.A. tour was highly controversial and was a huge success among stationed soldiers. In spite of enthusiastic reviews and box office buzz, the film version was quickly taken out of circulation due to political pressures and has been difficult to see for decades. (Officially, “FTA” stood for “Free the Army.” Unofficially . . . well, we think you can figure out what it stood for unofficially.
A present-day interview with Jane Fonda precedes the film.
“A genuine, powerful and even stirring expression of the antipathy engendered by war…and scarred the psyches of those who lived through it.” – J. Hoberman, The New York Times
“F.T.A. has enormous contemporary resonance.” – AV Club
“Sounding out a once-elusive call of defiance for all to hear…[Fonda] and her comrades loved the country that they devoted their energies and risked their reputations to better it, their criticisms the ultimate act of patriotism.” – Charles Bramesco, The Guardian
“Holds up as a terrifically funny movie. Nixon might be long dead, but if you want to sock it to him regardless, be sure to check this out.” – Dan Schindel, Hyperallergic
There’s a new Bob Ross museum in Muncie. Mason Cassady writes about the iconic painter and television star in Bob Ross: Person, Painter and Perm.
Legendary arthouse filmmaker Werner Herzog visited IU in 2012 and Dennis J. Reardon, Head of the Playwriting Program at IU, unashamedly glommed on to him. It would be a stretch to say that they were inseparable, but they spent a lot of time together. Dennis J. Reardon looks back at a defining week in his life in Stalking Werner.
Many people have time on their hands during the pandemic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sally Harvey has put her time to productive use by breaking into the homes of her neighbors and she writes about it in My Preferred Pandemic Life.
Ether Game turns 50 (!) and more in this month’s issue
Black Lives, Black Voices, a micro-festival of four current films by Black filmmakers exploring issues of racial justice and Black identity. The films in the series include The Inheritance, Test Pattern, Our Right To Gaze and The Lady Who Swings the Band.We hope to add one or two additional films as they become available. Three of the films are playing this week; the fourth, The Inheritance, opens on March 12th.The festival is underwritten in part by a grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Zone.
TEST PATTERN: Part psychological thriller, part realist drama, this exhilarating debut feature from Shatara Michelle Ford, offers a Black woman’s perspective on institutional racism and misogyny, inequitable healthcare, and issues of sex and consent. You can watch Test Pattern and read more about it right here
OUR RIGHT TO GAZE: In this collection of six shorts, filmmakers gaze at themselves and their world, attempting to make sense of what they see reflected back. From gripping drama to heart-warming comedy, Our Right to Gaze: Black Film Identities features timely stories from Black artists that take us outside of the ordinary. You can watch Our Right to Gaze right here, right now
MARY LOU WILLIAMS: THE LADY WHO SWINGS THE BAND: Mary Lou Williams was ahead of her time, a genius. Her musical career began in the 1920s; in an era when jazz was the nation’s popular music, she was one of its greatest innovators. As both a pianist and composer, she was a wellspring of daring and creativity who helped shape the sound of 20th century America. And like the dynamic, turbulent nation in which she lived, Williams seemed to re-define herself with every passing decade. From child prodigy to “Boogie-Woogie Queen” to groundbreaking composer to mentoring some of the greatest musicians of all time, Mary Lou Williams never ceased to astound those who heard her play. You can watch “Mary Lou Williams” or read more about it right here
THE INHERITANCE: After nearly a decade exploring different facets of the African diaspora — and his own place within it — Ephraim Asili makes his feature-length debut with The Inheritance, an astonishing ensemble work set almost entirely within a West Philadelphia house where a community of young, Black artists and activists form a collective. A scripted drama of characters attempting to work towards political consensus — based partly on Asili’s own experiences in a Black liberationist group — weaves with a documentary recollection of the Philadelphia liberation group MOVE, the victim of a notorious police bombing in 1985. Ceaselessly finding commonalties between politics, humor, and philosophy, with Black authors and radicals at its edges, The Inheritance is a remarkable film about the world as we know it. The Inheritance opens March 12th. Read more
You can watch this film right here, right now, until February 25th
Mary Lou Williams was ahead of her time, a genius. Her musical career began in the 1920s; in an era when jazz was the nation’s popular music, she was one of its greatest innovators. As both a pianist and composer, she was a wellspring of daring and creativity who helped shape the sound of 20th century America. And like the dynamic, turbulent nation in which she lived, Williams seemed to re-define herself with every passing decade. From child prodigy to “Boogie-Woogie Queen” to groundbreaking composer to mentoring some of the greatest musicians of all time, Mary Lou Williams never ceased to astound those who heard her play.
In the 1950s, jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell regularly visited Mary Lou Williams at her Harlem apartment to gain knowledge and inspiration. And in the 1970s, after her conversion, Mary Lou Williams took jazz in whole new direction—inside the Catholic Church.
But away from the piano, Williams was a woman in a “man’s world,” a black person in a “whites only” society, an ambitious artist who dared to be different and struggled against the imperatives of being a “star.” Above all, she did not fit the (still) prevailing notions of where genius comes from or what it looks like. Time and again, she pushed back against a world that said, “You can’t” and said, “I can.”
Prior to her career as an independent filmmaker, Carol Bash worked in broadcast television at CBS News and the BBC. Currently, she is developing Clean Justice, a feature documentary on the environmental justice movement; Coming To A School Near You, a short documentary on the impact of Betsy DeVos’ educational policies on the Detroit public school system; and Blueprint For My People, an experimental film exploring the history of African Americans through poetry and rare archival images.
You can watch “Preparations” right here, right now
Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old Hungarian neurosurgeon. After 20 years in the United States, she returns to Budapest for a romantic rendezvous at the Liberty Bridge with János (Viktor Bodó), a fellow doctor she met at a conference in New Jersey. Márta waits in vain, while the love of her life is nowhere to be seen. When she finally tracks him down, the bewildered man claims the two have never met.
Like Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Adèle H. in Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H., or the women of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, Márta is a strong yet vulnerable force who anchors herself in her feelings when faced with uncertainty.
For her second feature, following 2015’s The Wednesday Child, writer-director Lili Horvát spins a delicate web of contrasts and silent explosions that shift the viewer’s understanding. Shot with impeccable symmetry on entrancing 35mm, it is an Orphic tale reminding us that, while the heart is an abstruse trickster, the human brain — ruling us with over 80 billion interconnected neurons — is our most complex organ. (Hungary / subtitles / 95 min )
A neurosurgeon pursues the man of her dreams in this simmering portrait of obsession by the Hungarian filmmaker Lili Horvat. Critic’s Pick! -The New York Times
You Will Die at Twenty opens on Friday, Feb 12th in our virtual cinema.
Winner of the Lion of the Future Award for best Debut Feature at the Venice Film Festival, You Will Die at Twenty is a visually sumptuous “coming-of-death” fable. During her son’s naming ceremony, a Sheikh predicts that Sakina’s child will die at the age of 20. Haunted by this prophecy, Sakina becomes overly protective of her son Muzamil, who grows up knowing about his fate. As Muzamil escapes Sakina’s ever-watchful eye, he encounters friends, ideas and challenges that make him question his destiny. Sudan’s first Oscar submission, You Will Die at Twenty is an auspicious debut and a moving meditation on what it means to live in the present. Directed by Amjad Abu Alala (Sudan / 102 mins / Arabic with English subtitles)
“A rapturous debut feature… finds boundless enchantment in every frame.”– The New York Times
While perusing the stacks at the Monroe County Public Library on a brisk winter day in 2019, my eye couldn’t help but be drawn to a man in a makeshift booth, adorned with a sign indicating he was hiring for jobs that paid a $20-$25 hourly wage, courtesy the US Department of Commerce. He fit the bill for what I’ve always imagined a U.S. Government employee to be — age somewhere in his sixth decade, dressed casually in a plaid button-up shirt and khaki trousers, and possibly the whitest shade of pale a white man can be. I decided to investigate further, and the man — The Man? — peaked my interest by enthusing about a flexible schedule, low on-the-job oversight, reimbursement of gas mileage, a higher hourly wage than ever offered before (underscored with a hand motion toward the large sign)… and a chance to help the country.
Unlike the military, the job didn’t come with combat pay, but for anyone who’s volunteered to go join up in the once-every-decade Army of the Census, after you’re done, you surely feel like you’re due some kind of special bonus.
Every ten years, the US Census Bureau hires hundreds of thousands of citizens as enumerators, a short-term position whose tasking is to collect household and demographic information from area residents. While much of the census data is collected by mail, enumerators are inevitably deployed to reach out to citizens who, for whatever reason, didn’t get their questionnaires back to Uncle Sam. This year’s census was especially problematic for various reasons: Due to Covid-19, the 2020 count started months late, and due to particularly contentious political disagreements and funding issues, it ended early. Though I remembered hearing tales during the last census about all manner of craziness enumerators were forced to deal with — usually reports of rifle-brandishing homeowners or extremely defensive animals (in 2010, an enumerator’s encounter with a vicious duck left her with fifteen bite marks and a battery of tetanus shots) — as the alabaster bureaucrat made no mention of itchy-trigger-finger residents or surly waterfowl, I left the consultation feeling optimistic about my prospective Covid temp job. Later that day, I completed an online application to become an enumerator for the 2020 U.S. Census. Some weeks later, I was hired, thus becoming the latest in a long and distinguished line of citizen-workers without whose work America couldn’t exist.
In 1790, George Washington’s administration presided over the first national census, with Washington assigning then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to marshal a small cavalry of equestrian enumerators to saddle up and tally America’s citizenry in the name of establishing our first Congressional districts. While Jefferson’s mounted tabulators had recorded a total of 3.9 million people in the young nation, the numbers were disingenuous: In addition to excluding Native Americans, the enumerators also hewed to the letter of the Constitution, which then included a sop to the South: Designed to placate white racist sensibilities and ensure political power through numbers, Virginia and North Carolina, with their large slave populations and by way of example, accounted for just over 20% of the entire US population. The Three-Fifths Compromise, though eliminated in letter by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, has hung around in spirit ever since, in some places more than others.
Fast forward to 2020. This year’s census estimates a population of 330 million residents (up 22 million since 2010) in the United States, with census-related issues such as district-packing and citizenship questions as contentious as others that have come before and maintain. The changes that have occurred since that initial census are mind-boggling; our world would be unrecognizable to those horsemen conducting the census in the 18th century. (We can but imagine how those temporally closer to the Second Amendment and deadly epidemics circa 1790 might consider their ostensible latter-day Tea Party-cum-Trumpist inheritors in covid-defined 2020.) I wondered if the census was more efficient in Jefferson’s day of horseback riders on dirt roads with old maps and landmarks, in contrast to our efforts today, fueled by big data, smartphones, and 5G connectivity. But that’s like comparing the visuals of Atari’s Pong to the virtual reality of Star Trek on the Oculus Rift.
The experience of Census workers can be wildly different based on a number of variables, geographic location chief among them. Employees in metropolitan areas walk city streets and dodge traffic, while census takers in rural regions traverse backroads with their heads on a permanent swivel, alert to potential sneak attacks from dogs and other hidden dangers. The bulk of my cases were found in rural areas, with the occasional visit to addresses in medium and small towns of southern Indiana — a mix that gave me a glimpse into different and diverging demographics of modern America. What I saw is a divide that looks a bit like two icebergs drifting farther and farther apart — a reflection of political climate change that, like it’s environmental cousin, seems only to be accelerating.
In an era of information confusion, flooded with phone scams and social media misinformation and foreign disinformation on the Internet — which can sometimes feel like a Wild Wild West of Trolls — upon seeing my approaching figure, many of my fellow citizens looked at me skeptically, sometimes even with hostility, as if I were some sort of government operative actively working to take away their freedoms. Even with a badge, a bag tagged with “U.S. Census Bureau,” and a damn good elevator speech about the purpose of the census, I nonetheless sometimes found myself on the receiving end of the hairy eyeball. In such cases, I reminded residents that the primary reasons for the census is to reapportion the House of Representatives and allocate federal funding to communities for things like infrastructure, transportation planning, and educational or community facilities. Yet such words did little to soothe the generic seething Census cynic. When the questionnaire prompted me to ask a woman about home ownership, she all but hollered, “THIS INTERVIEW IS OVER!” and proceeded, successfully, to slam the door in my face.
Apparently I had found the limits of Hoosier Hospitality.
Stories from the Road
Prior to beginning the fieldwork, I was required to complete 15 hours of online training on how to do the job of an enumerator — about 12 hours too many, but at $20 an hour, who was I to complain? After I finished training, I moved onto the next stage: conducting the first handful of field assignments under the supervision of my manager.
My supervisor and I set out one morning in her Toyota Prius to fight the good fight of counting people in the name of democracy. On our first home visit, the respondent opened the door with a beer in hand at about 1pm on a Tuesday. He was a middle-aged man, balding head with a five o’clock shadow and bags beneath his eyes. Rather energetically, he invited us into his home to complete the survey, but we courteously declined the offer due to restrictions of the job (among other concerns — is he just a guy with a beer or a Hoosier version of Leatherface?). The man was in a hurry and said he only had about 5 minutes. I thought to myself, But you’re drinking a beer… chill, bro, and we told him a white lie and said we could complete the survey within five minutes (it really takes ten minutes or more) and so I began firing questions from the questionnaire his way.
About two minutes in, he said, “You are not gonna complete this in 180 more seconds, bud. Come on back another time.” I agreed without hesitation. Demoralized, my supervisor and I walked away, started up the car and drove onward towards new horizons, to new addresses, and with determination not unlike Ash Ketchum in the theme song to Pokémon. “Gotta catch em all!” indeed.
Next up: I ascended a rotting wooden staircase to attempt an interview at a house. Knock knock. (Who’s there? I thought to myself). No answer. Knock knock. Nobody. Dejected again, I placed a Notice of Visit (NOV) slip in the door and began to walk down the wooden staircase. About nine steps down my right foot, along with the whole step, slid out beneath me. My clipboard and all my papers took flight as I fell backwards. My arms flailed, along with my pride, as my supervisor witnessed the whole shebang from the comfortable seat of her environmentally-conscious automobile. I instinctively hollered out, “I’m okay!” in an act far too common among those with XY chromosomes (hiding pain and acting tough, this would be). There I was, on the ground on my first day of fieldwork, a fresh bruise forming on my arm. Morale was low, and I was losing my optimism for my U.S. Census stint.
Whether it was pity, delusion, or a desperate need for census workers, my supervisor certified me as competent, and gave me the go ahead for solo census expeditions.
Whenever I checked my smartphone for caseloads at the beginning of each day, I never knew what to expect. As I drove and walked along rural roads eerily resembling those in Deliverance, I was frequently reminded by locals of the death of a census worker in the year 2000. Outside a rural cabin in Brown County, a woman was killed by a pack of dogs while on the job. Each time someone brought that incident up, I cringed and carried on to the next address, hoping I wouldn’t fall victim to a similar fate. I enjoyed both the adventure and the novelty, which made the job interesting to me; but the chance, however slim, of getting shot, or attacked by a canine while on the clock, gave my adrenal glands permission to flood my system with stress hormones.
One day, I pulled up to a house that had a sign that said, DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE GUARD DOG. WORRY ABOUT THE HOMEOWNER WITH A GUN.Not much to leave to the imagination there! Three dogs in the area were barking in my direction; humans were nowhere to be seen. The dog-loving side of me thought, “How cute, these dogs are saying hello!”. But just in case I was wrong — and remembering the great admonition that discretion is the better part of valor — I did a cost-benefit analysis of the situation: multiple canines and an uninviting sign vs. Helping the Nation.
Concluding that neither man, beast, nor nation would ultimately be well-served by any number of accidents that might follow cracking my car door to say “Good doggies,” I fired up the engine and got back onto a gravel road sandwiched between deciduous hardwood trees in an Indiana forest. About one hour later, my caseload app led me to an address on a road I had lived on in my diaper days. I skimmed over the case notes (prior enumerators can leave comments on addresses that they have visited) which said something about cats; I’m cool with cats, I thought to myself, and so I proceeded down a long driveway through the understory of forest foliage.
At the end of the drive there was a house. The yard was totally fenced in. Within that fence, I saw about 25 cats lounging around. I opened my car door and immediately the cabin was permeated only to be nearly overtaken by the overwhelming odor of feline waste. As particles in the air shot up my nostrils, I thought about toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease found in the cat family, that can cause numerous unwanted symptoms, including crazy cat lady syndrome (well, the verdict is still out on that). With no car in the parking lot, and a fence that basically said “don’t even bother,” I closed my car door, turned the key, put the pedal to the metal and that banjo tune from Deliverance just randomly popped into my head.
Down the road, I turned into a parking lot of an address on my list. A woman stood sternly by her house with a darting gaze in my direction and her hands tight to her hips. I parked and was momentarily frozen — not unlike a deer in the headlights — as I wondered how this woman would receive me. I opened my door, stood up and, lest I be taken for an armed, jackbooted, freedom-hating thug, hollered, “I’m with the Census!”
The woman took a few steps in my direction, lifted up her right arm with her pointer finger sharply pointed to the sky and yelled at the top of her lungs, “GET OUT!!”
“But this is my job!” I yelped, my voice suddenly cracking in a way it hasn’t since puberty.
She advanced slowly but deliberately, flames in her eyes. “You’re the sixth census person to come to my house,” she fumed. “I done did the interview!!”
I peered down at my government-issued iPhone 8, asked for clarification on the address, and then realized I was at the wrong address. I apologized for the blunder and, much to my pleasant surprise, with that, she warmed up. She told me her name, and I asked if it was Italian. “It sure is…” she replied, as I informed her of my own Italian heritage. She said with a smile, and maybe a wink, “I can tell, we can pick each other out from a crowd.” Then she went on, sans prompting and in a quite Midwesternly way, to unload the gossip on all the residents of the entire block.
I decided she would be a good “proxy,” enumerator lingo for utilizing a neighbor to retrieve information on a resident that is not home. Using the proxy always felt a bit like I was speaking to a snitch or interrogating someone to catch the ringleader of some nefarious group, which is of course ridiculous; but for some people, the combination of disconnect from and distrust of society is so great I didn’t envy the US Postal Service mail carriers working these rural routes.
Not all interviews were tense, though. One of the more benign, if not charming, interviews occurred with a woman in her eighties. As we went through the questionnaire at a leisurely pace, she answered each question without concern, in an accent as sweet as apple pie, and then began to inquire about my life outside of the Census. I shared a few stories from my traveling life, and then she asked, “Do you have any experience with house painting?” This was more than a bit out of left field. “Very little,” I replied, “but yes, I do” She then asked if I would be interested in painting the exterior of her home because, “I got a few estimates, and golly, they are high!” I thought about the offer for a moment, kindly declined, and carried on with my day surveying Hoosiers.
Another day, I’d glimpsed a woman wearing a pink gown with a floral pattern watching me park nearby her home. She began walking toward my car. She moved at the speed of an Eastern Box Turtle. When she got to my car she said, “Do I know you?” I replied, “I don’t believe so,” and then I informed her of my official enumerating duties. She too, went on to tell me all about the area, and eventually told me, with a giggle, that she was 92 years old; or, as I thought, just over nine census’ old, with her first being the 1930.
While conducting fieldwork, I was impressed and frightened by the creativity of No Trespassing signs. Two of my favorites were: Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again;Due to High Cost of Ammo, There Will Be NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED. Signs containing such contemptuous gun messaging toward other humans seems to be unique to the American experience, and one more thing to keep us — some of us, anyways — up at night.
When I saw signs of that sort, I imagined the contrast in experience of a census worker in a place like Finland, where they have jokamiehenoikeus, which translates roughly as Everyman’s Right, written into the law: it allows anyone to walk, forage or camp, at a certain distance from a house, on anyone else’s land. The only restrictions are on hunting and cutting timber. Finland is not unique in such right-to-roam laws; other nations like Denmark, Norway and Scotland have similar laws (with a few more limitations compared to Finland). Conversely, in the United States, we have castle doctrines, or defense of habitation laws, which in certain states gives homeowners the protected right to shoot trespassers dead.
Each employee of the 2020 census was issued an iPhone 8, which clearly indicates addresses where there have been dangerous encounters in the past: a yellow symbol indicates the need to yield caution while a red symbol signifies danger, do not attempt. The implementation of iPhone’s among census workers might be the most effective way to decrease incidents of violence while on the job. And while conducting the census in the year of a heated presidential election, where one side is fuel for gun-toting, “get off my land,” Americans, I was sure to give no trespassing signs full attention and respect as I marked the address as un-attemptable, and left the property swiftly with all my faculties, limbs and organs intact and in working order.
Counting the number of residents in a country of 330 million people is extremely complex. As noted previously, and without shame, I repeat: the census is vitally important for the allocation of funding to communities across the country. But that doesn’t stop conspiracy theories. Some respondents, skeptical toward any and all things governmental, looked at me as if I were a wolf in government-issued sheep’s wool, preparing to use their information for diabolical means. Contrary to what some residents may think, answering the census is mandated by the Constitution and is imperative for any nation that considers itself a democracy.
Working as a census enumerator can feel like a thankless job due to unpleasant interactions with some residents. It had similar tones to working in the service industry, but with the potential for more guns and unwanted interactions with furry-and-not-always-friendly animals. But there was one moment, when I was walking down the street, and a woman across the road cheered, “Yay! Go Census!” That made my steps a bit lighter that day, and reminded me of the value of the job. If you meet a Census worker, now or ten years down the road, give them a nod; the work they do ripples out and affects us all in innumerable ways. Counting the population equates to fair representation in the House and more equilibrium to the allocation of funding for things like schools, roads and health facilities centers in communities. Which, to challenge a slogan I hope I never hear again, are the things that actually make America great.