To the untrained eye, the Coney Island shore can look like one unbroken stretch of terrycloth and sunburn in the summer. It takes a special kind of city employee—a parks supervisor—to resolve that mass of beached humanity into thousands of individual people. Today's NY Times takes a peek into the daily job of those supervisors, who patrol the sands around the city's beaches keeping a constant census for official records.

No fancy-schmancy tally counters here: many of the supervisors don't even use pen and paper to take census; they just "estimate" mentally and log the numbers later. As Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh explains, "Crowd estimates are notoriously difficult to do well or accurately...Beaches in particular pose a challenge because beaches are pretty dynamic places. People are flowing in and out all the time."

That's probably why the beach counts are made twice daily, at which points the numbers are logged by hand into large ledgers kept at parks headquarters. Record books go back as far as 1985 and are required by the city's health codes, although parks officials admit the counts aren't scientific. They're open to alternatives—Kavanagh says staff are trying to devise better methods—but for now, beach estimates will remain firmly grounded in the time-tested methodologies of "Guess How Many Jellybeans Are In This Jar."