Madge C. Crandall did not want to talk about her radio. Among other things. But Mollie Levi’s job was to ask her about it. And many other things.

Levi knocked on Madge C. Crandall’s door in New York’s upper West side on 8 April 1930. The encounter irked Crandall, a free-lance writer, who two days later pounded out a short poem on her typewriter and sent it to, who else, the President of the United States: Herbert Hoover.

It began:

Today I had my census took!
I am recorded in the book-
What I do, how old I am.
All my secrets for Uncle Sam.

Crandall told Hoover: “Inclosed versified lines record my impression of this expensive census.” Hoover, once the nation’s most celebrated engineer, might have taken comfort that the criticism was not worse—after all, the nation was enduring an economic depression. Probably before Hoover saw the letter, his secretary sloughed it off onto a clerk in the Census Bureau and it now persists in a file folder inscribed in part “Criticisms of Census, etc.” in Washington D.C.’s National Archives Building.

In the poem, Crandall objected specifically to a question asking about radio ownership. Why did the government need to know if she had a radio? It seemed to her a sneaky way to snoop on her finances or class status. (She also complained about a question concerning citizenship status, not so much because it was invasive, it seems. Rather, because it insulted the native-born Crandall.)

Mollie Levi appears nowhere in Crandall’s poem. She’s erased: a mere functionary who carried the book, did the recording. It’s Uncle Sam who’s really doing the asking, who’s ultimately listening.

But Levi was there: she signed the enumeration sheet (on which one finds a more informative, but less poetic account of the interview with Crandall). It might even have bothered Crandall more that Levi was listening than Uncle Sam.

Crandall and Levi were both widows. Crandall was the elder, at 56 to Levi’s 44. Crandall lived alone in an apartment rented for $75 a month, while Levi lived with four nearly adult children in a $40 apartment. Crandall likely viewed Levi as a social inferior. Was she embarrassed to admit that she owned a radio, when she could readily infer (correctly) that Levi did not?