ENCINITAS — The sun was setting as Ruth Zych climbed the wooden stairs of the dilapidated house near the beach. The porch slats creaked gently under her feet. A drawn curtain at one of the front windows twitched. Someone watching? Clutching her workbooks under one arm, she fished in her purse for her I.D. card and pressed the door bell.
Would the person who answered be welcoming? Cooperative? Rude? Delightful? A psychopath?
"The first time I visit a sample household, I never know what kind of person will open the door," Zych said. "I'm never given names. Only an address. And it has to be that address, not substitutes, because it's been scientifically picked."
Zych (it rhymes with "bike") is a government census taker. A friendly, attractive grandmother in her 50s, she's been asking people such personal questions as how much they earn and what they pay for their rent or mortgage for 22 years. Some are happy to be asked. Some are not.
Her territories have ranged from rural Kansas--where she usually left her interviews with gifts of homemade pies, eggs or fresh vegetables--to the Watts district of Angeles--where a typical parting message was, "Honey, honk when you're safely back in your car. If you get safely back in your car."
She lives, and works, now in San Diego's North County.
"There are 22 of us working here," she said. "Most people think censuses take place every 10 years. They are going on all the time: education, standard of living, employment. When you read in the papers things like 'one-third of California's younger generation is not completing high school,' or 'the number of black-owned businesses has increased 47% since 1980,' those statistics come from our work."
Each census, she said, helps to give the government a clearer picture of what's going on.
Her experiences could make a TV situation comedy--"The Perils of Ruth." She's been bombarded with eggs, screamed at, bitten by a German shepherd and accused of being the front-runner for a gang of thieves.
"But mostly it's fun," she said. "You just have to keep a positive attitude."
Some of her respondents--the ones who keep a record for the Department of Commerce of everything they spend money on--she sees every 3 months for 2 1/2 years.
"You get fond of them. One man paid me a wonderful compliment the other day. He said, 'You're as welcome in our home as our daughter.' And then he added, 'Even the dog cries when you leave.' "
Zych grew up in the small town of Salina, Kan., the only girl among three brothers. She was shy as a child. She didn't like to talk to strangers. She was still shy when, as the 18-year-old "Miss Salina," she went off to modeling school in Kansas City.
"It didn't take me long to discover that you have to speak up or you get passed over for everything," she said.
After three years of modeling for a coat and suit manufacturer, she married Karl Zych, who was in Army intelligence. "Just in time to get pregnant before he left for the Korean War," she recalled.
Her daughter was 13, her son 10, when, in 1963, she passed the census-takers test at the Kansas City Federal Building.
The sample households assigned to her then were in Missouri and Kansas.
"I loved doing interviews in the small towns," she said. "They used to announce on the radio that Ruth Zych would be in the area doing a census--small-town radio stations don't have that much news--and when I turned up I'd often be greeted like a celebrity. I remember one dear old lady opening the door and yelling, 'Poppa! Poppa! It's that Ruth!' "
In the Midwest, particularly in the Bible Belt, she said, she found people very patriotic.
"At least they were then--in the '60s. They seemed glad of the chance to do something for their government. Sometimes, here in California, I'm greeted on the doorstep with 'What does the blankety-blank government want from me now?' "
She was made a supervisor in 1972, with seven interviewers under her. "It was a lot more money," she said. "But not nearly as much fun. I missed having something different happening all the time."
Because of injuries suffered during the Vietnam War, Karl Zych retired from Army intelligence in 1977. He and Ruth moved to Southern California that same year. Her job, of course, was transferable to any part of the country.
"I called the regional office in Los Angeles and told them that I'd rather be an interviewer than a supervisor," she said. "There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Then a voice said, 'We've never had anyone asking to be demoted before!' "
Although she enjoys her job as much as ever, Zych said that changing times have complicated it. In many households now, everyone in the family is at work all day. When she does find people at home, they are often suspicious of her motives.
"I send a letter, in an official envelope, about a week before I show up. But lots of people mistake it for junk mail and toss it out. I hear all the time, 'Letter? What letter?' "