The Suitland Files: Inside The Census Bureau (Part 1)
This post is dedicated to the memory Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The other night, I caught Alex Gibney’s biographical documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, and I was once again reminded how exciting political journalism can be, especially when it’s written in the first person. So, here is the first of two installments detailing my trip to the U.S. Census Bureau Headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, written in a style that I hope would make Dr. Thompson smile:
President Obama must have sensed that I had a whole lot of questions for him, because just as soon as I arrived for my tour of the White House, Marine One arrived to whisk him off to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip to Boston. Nonetheless, after five months in other parts of the world, it was good to be back in the District, which was just as vibrant as when I left it in May.
After a post-White House pit stop at Potbelly Sandwich Works, I jumped on the red line at Metro Center for a minute before changing at Chinatown to the green line that would coast me all the way out to Suitland, Maryland, home of the U.S. Census Bureau’s HQ. It’s a long and lonely ride out to Suitland, as it’s just about as far as the Metro can take you from any of DC’s attractions. Once the Metro stopped at Anacostia I couldn’t help but be wary, knowing that I was in the highest-crime district in an already high-crime city.
When I exited the Metro at Suitland, I noticed that my fellow riders (no less than three individuals walking with painful limps, a pair of girls who looked to be no more than seventeen –each with a baby in their arms, and a blind man who lacked a cane and got from point A to point B by only by sticking his hands out to guide him –which seems to be a death wish in the vicinity of active train tracks) all seemed depressed. And watching them made me depressed, so I scrambled onward. I walked through an endless parking garage, the whole time during which I was convinced that Deep Throat would sneak up on me from behind. When I finally made my way to its entrance, there she stood, looking completely out of place, like a princess at a soup kitchen, the glass-paneled behemoth that was completed in 2006 and holds unquantifiable amounts of data. When Census employees click their heels together three times and say “There’s no place like home,” this is where they land.
I’d been told to arrive early for my meeting, because after all, I was meeting with some very high-level bureaucrats, and they had, you know, things to do. But I still had forty minutes, which was too early, so I figured I’d take a lap around the building to kill some time. Just as I walked to the edge of the building’s iron-gated perimeter, I peered through the main entrance and saw a familiar face, or should I say a familiar pair of spectacles and a familiar gray mustache. “No way, it can’t be,” I thought to myself. But it was. I knew it in an instant. My heart started to pound. I could feel the sweat dripping down my neck. I wanted to loosen my tie but I suddenly was no longer in control of my hands, which were now involuntarily shaking. Of the thousands upon thousands of employees of the U.S. Census Bureau who are based at headquarters in Suitland, here I was, standing beside the top dog, the king of the castle, the questionnaire czar, the big kahuna, el estadistico grande, the Don Juan of Censusland…it was none other than Dr. Robert M. Groves himself.
Still in a trance, I strode right past the security guards (who were obviously doing a great job keeping the place safe and secure) and shouted “Dr. Groves!” with the enthusiasm of a kid who was about to get his baseball signed by Babe Ruth. (I mean, Census bloggers need heroes too.) Groves stopped dead in his tracks and stared me down. He had the look of a man who’d just been caught by TMZ with his pants down, but it was really just the inquisitive ambivalence of responding to someone who shouts your name as if you’re old friends when in reality you’re hardly even acquaintances.
Surely he didn’t recognize me, as I was sporting a mustache and glasses myself, two accessories I lacked during our only other encounter, which was at his confirmation hearing back in May (The ‘stache and specs were just a coincidence, not an elaborate homage, I swear!). During my first brush with Census royalty, Groves, all but assured of his Senate confirmation said to me, “You should come by Suitland some time soon and I’ll give you a personal tour.” I told him right then and there that I would take him up on his offer and hold him to his word.
As i was still crippled with fear and verbally paralyzed, Groves said to me, “Ah, I wanted to come to your meeting, but I was called to go somewhere at the last second.” You would think that I would be utterly dejected by this, but this wasn’t the case at all, as I had no idea that Dr. Groves was even considering a meeting with me, so this was much more than I’d bargained for. Still overjoyed, all I could think was, ”Damnit, why didn’t I bring my camera?”
Not knowing what to do as the power of speech suddenly returned to my body, I asked him for his business card. He fumbled around his wallet for a few seconds and told me he was out. Ostensibly he doesn’t want to be on my speed dial, so he played it safe with a solid excuse. That, I can totally understand. (I wouldn’t want me on speed dial either.) Clearly in a rush (his driver was waiting for him), Groves parted with me by saying, “You’re doing a good job.” As I blurted out a terse “thank you, ” he was already on his way.
Still in a relative daze, I only floated back to the real world only when I felt the heavy hand of a security guard on my shoulder. Even if the rest of my Census Bureau HQ experience went to shit, at least I had the approval of the one person who mattered most in Suitland’s Glassy-Glowing-God-like Monolith.