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Chasing paper

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After establishing my computer bona fides to my supervisor's satisfaction, I was deemed to be somewhere between incompetent and dangerous with technology. I was summarily sent over to the file cabinets, where I was to spend the next four weeks putting papers in the WPPF folders of the 1,200 or so census workers.

Before filing the papers, I alphabetized them. After alphabetizing them, I had to put them in chronological order—only after, of course, I had done quality control inspections on each one, meaning I had to ensure every box was checked, every blank filled, every indiscretion (an arrest, a delinquent federal debt, a firing from a previous job) explained on page three. And I was tasked with not only the WPPFs, which were kept in the enormous file cabinets at LCO Durham, but with OPFs as well, the latter sent via FedEx—after I'd alphabetized them, of course—to RCC Charlotte, next up in the organizational structure. Above Charlotte was Washington, D.C., the end of the person-counting line.

Yes, this year, I was a government worker in a government office filing government paperwork, my temporary job as part of the 2010 Census. I was awash in acronyms: OPFs are official personal files, though I'm not even sure what WPPFs are. LCO and RCC stand for, respectively, Local Census Office and Regional Census Center, and suburban D.C.—appropriately, Suitland, Md.—is home to the U.S. Census, a decennial task of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

What's more, I was swimming in paperwork: To say I was up to my eyeballs would be hyperbole. To say I was up to my elbows, though, seems pretty accurate, as the papers came to me in boxes about as deep as my forearms are long. I worked for five hours on my paper-shuffle, stopping for lunch and returning for three more hours of sorting.

Occasionally, I'd lean back, take a drink from my coffee cup and turn around to look at my half-dozen co-workers. They sat quietly at their desks, heads cocked back slightly in that middle-aged tilt needed to align bifocals with computer screens. Unlike me, they were computer literate. They transferred data from paper to machine, then sent the data—"batching," they called it—from LCO to RCC. Their discarded papers came to my table, where I'd consume a Thermos of coffee each day as I worked my magic. I kept up a steady pace, though the odds were six-plus to one. The papers must have totaled somewhere near the terminus of our numeric system. Still, I sorted.

I left LCO Durham knowing that the future does not arrive simultaneously for everyone. The Census Bureau supplied us—no, them, my office mates—with sleek black Dell desktops with flat-screen monitors. Each had his own 21st-century office. Alone at the far wall, though, drinking coffee, shuffling papers, sat a relic from an attenuated but tenacious past, up to his metaphorical eyeballs in the best office practices of the Eisenhower era.

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