Pondering the Census over coffee


The chairs were arranged around a central point at the coffee house. In each of them sat a person more likely to keep their nose in a cup of steaming coffee in a kind of ritualistic way, as if to ward off the late March chill, than anything else. If they knew each other, they’d be more likely to be chatty and bubbly, even this early in the morning, so it was obvious from the whole arrangement that something was up. I couldn’t help but listen in when someone rose to speak.

When materials were handed out and the speechifying started, it became obvious. These were Census workers, learning the details of their new trade.

Meeting in a coffee shop like the Dunn Brothers on West Seventh seemed a little strange to me, but there is no reason why they can’t be so public.  The Census itself is a kind of ancient ritual, one of the few direct mentions of the people of our nation that fits in our Constitution between the ennobling Preamble and the troublesome Tenth Amendment.  The meeting itself covered little more than the mechanics of the operation and what was to be expected from each person and wasn’t very interesting to my voyeur’s ears. That they were there was enough to be a story.

What I heard was that total compliance in this corner of Saint Paul was their goal. One hundred percent, every household, no exceptions. This could seem sinister to someone who wants badly to take it that way. There was no reason to see it like that, however. It’s just as easy to flash forward to when the new green signs on the highway announce, “Saint Paul Population 293,000” or whatever the total winds up being, and know that the process came through our little coffee hut.

Doubts remain about our Census, however, for reasons I can understand. The questions about ethnicity are a bit strange in a nation where constant mixing creates a new people every generation even more than immigration. The detailed breakdown of East Asian identities seems strange next to the lack of a similar breakdown for those whose people came from Arabic speaking lands. For my own pale skin, which I joke that if anyone has a color more white it’s considered a medical condition, there is only one possible choice — despite what I consider as broad a range of culture, philosophy, and identity in “my people” as anyone I have met.

These are only quibbles in the end. Someday, 72 years on, this information will be released to a public that is eager to find their blood in the black and white details of the official forms. I’ve not only traced my own family this way, but the people who built my house as well.

Living with the Spencers in the 1860 Census was a woman listed simply as “Elizabeth Schubert, unmarried, age 18, birthplace Germany.” She must have been the live-in maid.  Who was this woman who came to Saint Paul so young? Did she enjoy concerts at the Athenaeum down the street where the Schubert Club played? Did she meet a nice young German man there and marry him, changing her name to his and raising children who would become a Saint Paul dynasty? Perhaps I meet her people every day and do not know it.  All I can tell you is what is on that form. It’s a mystery that begs ten thousand stories.

That isn’t what the Census is really for, of course. It exists to carve out political boundaries that make sense and fairly divide up representation and money from Washington. The few details added in are there only for the stories to be told far later on, long enough into the future that they are nothing more than legends not yet made. That, and a snapshot of the cross-currents of blood and identity in this one moment of time.

It all came together this morning in the coffee shop. From there, they go out and do the work — one hundred percent, all of it. The stories they collect will be boiled down into little Xs in boxes, filed away, and allowed to sit before they really come back to us. History started this morning with a government worker’s nose in a cup of coffee, warding off the March chill. That’s enough for now.