Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How To Raise a Zombie Army.

Zombie Venn Diagram
Working for a large government agency is fascinating. Not fascinating in the way that a large green caterpillar is, or observing what obese people put in their shopping carts at the supermarket, or the combination of hairspray and a butane lighter. Maybe just interesting.

Sometime in 2009, I applied for the position of Field Operations Supervisor (or FOS, for any acronym addicts out there) for the Decennial Census. I figured I had a shot based on my experience managing people, and more importantly, my ability to stay within the lines while X-ing the little boxes on the application. I didn't hear anything for nine months, and forgot all about it. One fine day in March, 2010, I got calls from four different people within a three hour timeframe, asking for an interview the following morning. When I drove to the building on Bruckner Boulevard the next day, it still had a gigantic OFFICE SPACE FOR RENT banner on the side.

Once inside, stacks of unopened boxes were everywhere; they lined the hallways, were piled on desks and occupied every corner. A sixty-ish, amiable bald man named John came to the reception area and met me, leading me past a door that said WAR ROOM on it.

He invited me to sit at a folding table; after that he barely looked at me. He commenced to read a series of questions out of a printed pamphlet, none of which had anything to do with my qualifications or previous experience. The first few had to do with basic aptitudes, like whether I had the ability to communicate with other humans (any method seemed acceptable), use complex tools that had been invented since the Age of Fire, or knew how to properly use a toilet (or would be willing to learn). The latter questions were security-based: whether I had ever been arrested, was intent on being arrested, or had even speculated that an arrest might be kind of fun. Another asked whether I would cause harm to my country. It was such a strangely worded question that I hesitated for a few seconds, causing John to momentarily raise his eyes from his script. To the best of my knowledge, the United States of America is an inanimate, hemispheric land mass. It would be a major feat to cause it physical harm; I doubted driving even a super-gigantic backhoe or steamroller could inflict much damage. Really though, harm is in the eye of the beholder. For me, littering is harmful, while fomenting a wide-scale insurrection against a corrupt political system is not. Eventually I mumbled something about the dangers of hairspray, butane lighters and the American flag in close proximity, which seemed to satisfy my interrogator. Within two weeks, I reported for training.

There were nine other FOS trainees for our area of the Bronx.  We were put in the War Room; there was a large box in front of every chair. John was our trainer, standing at a portable podium. Instead of a pamphlet, he had what looked like a Yellow Pages, but the book's color was a vomity shade of green. He started reading the introduction, which included his name, title and why we were there, then continued reading for a half-hour straight without stopping, looking up or breathing. There was no ad-libbing whatsoever, hence the moniker for the hefty tome: Verbatim. Like the word of God in the Bible, nothing could be changed, deleted or deviated from. Unlike the Bible though, there were no cool chapters about wicked plagues or man-eating whales. No one turned into pillars of salt; there was ne'er a word about fornicating with concubines, no apocalyptic predictions. It was ten times more boring than any reading I'd heard in church when I was young.

I tried to imagine who wrote this monotonous drivel; I was positive it was some nondescript, lifer employee, with a name like Stan Dribbley. Stan has heavily gelled black hair, thick black glasses and wears a white shirt, plaid tie and cheap trousers to work every day. Living in a small but comfortable tract home somewhere near Tempe, Arizona, he drives a Saturn and watches Entertainment Tonight when he gets home every day. His wife Minerva wears scratchy pantsuits, gets her hair done weekly, lavishes attention on their Lhasa Apso, and bakes a lot of glazed hams. Stan enjoys spending time grooming his impeccable lawn; the whirly-head sprinkler system always misses that corner out back, but he makes sure that--

I woke up to everyone busily opening the box that sat in front of them. We were instructed to take out bag AB-105, which contained stationery supplies. The first thing I noticed was a package of black stick pens. Notice the lack of the adjective "ballpoint" here, since that would indicate an orbitally gliding tip that precisely dispenses it's inky elixir. Nay...stick pens are thin enough to elicit a vicious hand cramp after five minutes, with a useless, ill-fitting cap to be instantly lost or choked on by the nearest perambulating tot. They tend to scrape across the paper, releasing feint scratches of ink. Shaking them violently to bring forth more ink is invariably futile.

writing suppliesA small box of pencils proved to be of a sturdier variety: the old  #2 workhorse. The illustrious pencil provides one of the rare cases in history where #1 failed to prevail. Perhaps  #1 couldn't handle the pressures of filling in a composition notebook--merely a calligraphal comet that temporarily blazed across the stationery spectrum, reached its amanuensinal nadir and fizzled out. Exiled to some far-flung graphitical limbo, #2 stepped in and never looked back.

Your basic white notepad was also included, for dutiful note taking. Very unpredictable: if that gummy-edged binding is too hard, the page rips in the middle when tearing out leaves. Countless evocative sketches of kitchen cabinets have been ruined in this manner. Too little binding, and the leaves shed faster than a sycamore, maple, ash or other deciduously loose tree in November. Since I've never taken notes on anything in my entire life, these were moot considerations.

They even gave us a nice big pink eraser; a thoughtful addition, considering that if you rode a pencil down to the nub, there was no way that tiny rubber on the other end was going to keep pace. In grammar school I'd wear the eraser edge down flat to the metal cap, push my luck and gash the hell out of the paper, usually just as I was going to show Sister Mary Angela my wonderfully ovular O's during Penmanship class (a sexist name for a course if ever there was one). There did exist the equivalent of pencil condoms: little eraserheads that slipped over the spent end. Rubbing too hard made them crack and fall off, a valuable warning for upcoming puberty.

Pink erasers were fun. I'd write all over them, take my freshly sharpened pencil and drill into the soft core, with an intensity similar to the evil oilman in There Will Be Blood. The only drawback were the crumbs, which congealed with the ink from my fountain pen, sticking to the meaty underside of my hand. Fountain pens served as a pleasant diversion, and one more excuse not to pay attention. Schaeffer was the economic Ford Pinto brand, while Parker was the Cadillac. Replaceable ink cartridges pierced a syringe-like holder; a plastic trunk screwed on and provided the grip. The ink was a wondrously fluid, beautifully colored liquid; squeezing the cartridge would produce a large drop at the tip of the pen. Unclenching would absorb the ink back into the cartridge, no harm done. Of course, my squeezing talents at ten-years-old were less than perfect, resulting in huge blotches on my Christopher Columbus essay.  Even without the Rorschachs, the ink smeared. Being a lefty, my hand followed the line of the pen as it wrote left to right, smudging whatever fresh ink I had just applied. No doubt the first Chinese calligraphers were left-handed, compelling them to write top to bottom, to avoid the same smutzy predicament.

We were also given a Census briefcase-bag, constructed of predictably cheap nylon, specifically designed to fall apart after 60 days, when our temp employment would end. Considering that 635,000 Census enumerators were hired, I wondered if any special provision had been made for their disposal; maybe something similar to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada.

It took three and a half hours to fill out the formal application, job agreement and acceptance papers. A portly gentleman at the table in front of me caused quite the kerfuffle when it was time to sign the last paper. Declaring himself an atheist, he refused to swear to God that all his prior answers were true. Although our instructor told him there was an option to simply sign and write, "I affirm," he wasn't having it. The very presence of the word "God" on a government document was a diabolical marriage of church and state, a mocking affront to his non-belief.

oathOne part of me respects people like this; society needs individuals that are willing to stand on principle and clog up our court system in the name of semantic bullshit. My own apathetic, myopic psyche would never allow such rebellion. After enduring 15 minutes of self-righteous, pointless blather, I leaned over and whispered, "Look guy, we all want to go to lunch. Just sign the friggin' paper." He was unmoved. "There's a church right around the corner. You can go spit on it afterwards." Nothing. When another woman threatened to stab him in the eye with her stick pen, he relented. On the last day of training, after collecting 80 hours of government largess, he abruptly quit, saying he had accepted a job offer in Ohio. The position involved some kind of niche sales, like selling plastic-wrapped toothpicks to restaurants. So much for storied principles.

My last day of training contained the usual distractions: watching the ambient glow from the fluorescent lights reflect off John's bald head; trying to decide whether the Latina with cute face, bad skin, great breasts and a bit of a tummy was attractive or not; already wondering at 9:10 am where I'd go for lunch. I sensed a foreboding in the air, though...John said the next step was to split us up into teams of two, to train groups of twenty to be Crew Leaders. These crew leaders would then train classes of 20-40 zombies--err, people--to become enumerators. The computational, exponential ramifications of boring thousands of people into oblivion across the country were horrifying to consider. Every single temp employee would hear the same exact drivel. An entire army of non-thinking automatons was being raised for a tactical mission, code name NRFU (Non Response Follow-Up). Soon to be unleashed on an unrepentant, hitherto uncounted public, we knew better than to question our orders, react abruptly to an unfriendly dog, or wear uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes. We were ready.

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