The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

COULD YOU DO ME A FAVOR?

It was very bleak and large, dark cumulus clouds overhung the Las Vegas Valley when Gracie and I left for the dog park around six-thirty this morning.  It reminded me a little of a winter day which I spent in the Orkney Islands – but the winds weren’t nearly as blustery and there was no sound of the splashing of the sea against the coastline.

When we returned home I gave Gracie her morning treats and took comfort in a hot cup of coffee, planning what I intended to accomplish.  But then, as I was listing out the tasks I had to do, the phone rang.  It was an elderly friend, David who had called.

David is in his late eighties and asked if I could do him a favor.  He wondered if I could take him to the Social Security office as he needed to get a copy of his Social Security card since he couldn’t find his.  My heart stopped.  There is nothing that I find more depressing than going into a government office building.  They are consistently bleak – as though by design – so that those who have business to attend to will exit as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, David is a good friend and I know his vision makes it difficult for him to drive – and also makes it a bit hard for him to complete forms.  So I agreed to take him.

I picked him up and we arrived at the SSA office at 10:30.  When we walked in, we went to the kiosk and got a ticket and he filled out an application for a replacement social security card.  The waiting room was jam packed and as I listened to the conversation of those patrons who had occupied all the seats I gathered we were one of the few for whom English was a first language.

As David was completing his form I glanced at the number on our ticket to get an idea how long we would be waiting.  We were A 926 – and A 813 had just been called.  I shrugged my shoulders but then looked around and saw that there were 19 numbered windows in the facility and behind each was an employee.  I thought to myself, “Perhaps this won’t be so bad after all.”

Someone’s number was called near where we were standing and I scrambled over to the seat so that David could have it, beating out a twenty-something year old who was staring at it lasciviously.  And as luck would have it, a few minutes later another seat opened up next to David’s and I took it.

We had been in the building for about twenty minutes and they were only just calling A 822.  Perhaps this was going to take longer than I had anticipated.  But as I learned, some of those who had taken a number left in frustration and so that ultimately knocked about twenty people or so out of the queue.

Because I am inquisitive by nature I started looking around the office, giving up my seat to an elderly Hispanic lady who was sporting a foot bandage.  I walked to the end of the building which housed Window 19 and looked at the man behind the glass divider.

He had that dreadful look of ennui which comes from doing the same repetitive thing day after day for an entire career.  There was no emotion whatever on his face, as though his soul had been drained from his body.  And it was the same at Window 18 and Window 17 and with each of the employees down to Window 1.  Not a smile, not a grimace, nothing but a mindless stare.

And I noticed one other thing.  As I walked past each window there were none of the usual office decorations which commemorated the upcoming Holidays, whether that was Hanukah or Christmas or Kwanza.  Not the least bit of personalization of that 8’ x 8’ area that these folks called home during their work day.  I suspect that was more by edict than by choice – but after many years in this environment, I’m pretty sure the joy of the Holidays consisted for them as a day away from their bleak workplace.

A 853.  Only an hour into it  and only 73 more numbers to go. “ Please, God give me patience,” I said to myself.  So having completed my tour of the windows I stepped outside.  There were a number of signs posted on the entranceways but I hadn’t the opportunity to read them on our way in.  So I took a few minutes’ leave of David and sauntered out.

Of course, the signs appeared in two versions – English and Spanish.  As you might expect, one specifically stated that no firearms were to be taken into the building.  Even those who, under state or local law had a permit to carry weapons were prohibited from taking them inside this Federal property.  Of course, exempt from this were police and SSA security personnel.

In light of the Newtown, CT massacre of Friday, I have to admit that I found this almost laughable.  It’s as though posting it would have dissuaded Adam Lanza or anyone else whose goal was to wreak mass havoc from carrying out his mission should his target have been the SSA and not the Sandy Hook School.

The other sign which I saw was one announcing a change in office hours, effective 1/02/13.  This SSA facility will now be open M-F from 9:00 – 3:00 – except that on Wednesdays it will close at noon.  The previous hours were from 9:00 – 3:30 Monday through Friday.  So a massive work week which is currently  thirty-two and one half hours is being cut to twenty-seven.  Is this an effort to avoid having to comply with Obamacare?  I think not.

But I admit to feeling both outraged and envious.  When I was in my own businesses I don’t recall ever working less than sixty and usually eighty hours a week to keep the darn things afloat.  What a dummy I was.  Here I was busting my hump to try to make a go of it and I could have gotten a cushy job with the Feds at the mere cost of losing my personality.  I’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of that a bit longer.

Having completed my canvass of the exterior I wondered if there were anything inside that I might have missed.  Indeed there was a lot.

When I re-entered the building (A 861) I discovered it was lunch time.  Rather than looking at the unsmiling faces of those behind the windows, I saw that fifteen of them had been closed with stainless steel shutters and the two security guards were busily locking them down.  My heart sank as I realized this would greatly slow down the process of calling our number.

A seat was open next to David and I took it.  We were directly in front of a monitor which was broadcasting SSTV.  This included a short video extolling the wisdom of getting answers to all the questions we had regarding life in general and Social Security in particular by going to www.ssa.gov.  The commercial was hosted by George Takei of “Star Trek” fame and Patty Duke whom I best remember for starring in “The Flying Nun.” Oh, wait. That was Sally Field in the role of Sister Bertrille. So I guess I don’t remember Patty Duke’s work that well at all.

Of course, there were other announcements (in English and Spanish) which panned across the screen.  It surprised me that the same informational pieces were not also posted in Tagalog (Filipino).  Recently, the Department of Justice determined that Clark County, NV had a sufficiency of Filipino voters that our voting material also had to be available in their language.  Perhaps the DOJ and SSA don’t communicate with each other as they should.

It was after losing interest in these repetitive announcements on SSTV that I turned my attention to yet another sign which prohibited the use of cameras within the building.  I began to ask myself, “Why”?  Would posting pictures of this drab interior cause someone with suicidal tendencies to take the plunge and do themselves in? 

But as I reviewed this ban on photography, yet another posted item caught my eye.  It was placed at a height that only an NBA player could read – directly above the exit door.  The print was so infinitesimally small that it would have been virtually impossible to read by anyone who had not brought a magnifying glass with them.  It was entitled “GSA (General Services Administration) Rules and Regulations Regarding Conduct on Federal Property.”  For your edification, I have provided a link to this document which was crafted in 2005, here:

 http://www.aphis.usda.gov/mrpbs/asd/downloads/rules.pdf

Incidentally, the type that you see in this government download is exactly the same type that appeared on the wall of the SSA’s facility.  If you can read this at a height that is two feet above your head, posted in an exit way with people constantly leaving the facility, then you are a far better person than I.

A 925.  “Thank you, Lord.  Only one more to go.”  A 928.  What happened?  Where’s our number?  Then I remembered that SSTV had said that there were certain people with special needs who might be accommodated sooner but that we shouldn’t worry because our number would be called.  And it was – the very next time. 

“A 926 – Window 12.”

David and I made haste to the magic window and sat down.  A zombie-like employee addressed us with that warm greeting, “Yes?”  I looked at the man to see if his pulse were sufficient to last while we conducted our business with him.

When David explained that he required a replacement card, the man said, “You know you are only entitled to three replacement cards in a year or ten in a lifetime.  Have you exceeded these limits?”  David, said, “No, sir.  This is my first replacement card.”

To which our friend behind the window said, “Let me see your driver’s license.”  David handed it over together with his application for a new card.

I thought that was interesting.  SSA requires a driver’s license (among other forms of identification) for obtaining a new Social Security card.  But in order to vote in this state you don’t need to have one.  I guess that says something about how we value our priorities.

By the way, the Social Security card clearly states that it is “Not To Be Used For Purposes of Identification.”  Why they exist at all – other than for those who cannot remember their number (or in the case of some of us) their multiple numbers – is beyond me.  But I don’t make the rules.

Five minutes later our automaton friend handed David a piece of paper and asked him to review the information that it contained, to verify that it was accurate, “under penalty of perjury.”  David reviewed it and handed it back, affirming that the information was correct.

I really wanted to say, “Is that the same oath Bill Clinton took in his impeachment trial?”  But I thought that was only going to slow down the process and that the satiric nature of the comment would be lost on our friend behind the window so I held my tongue.

David got his receipt from the man behind the window with the pronouncement that his new Social Security card would arrive in the mail within two weeks.  This was delivered in the same monotone, uninspired way in which he had conducted the rest of his conversation.  And so we left.  It was nearly one o’clock.

I was hungry, as was David so I suggested we have luncheon together.  He thought that was a good idea.  As we were close to one of my favorite restaurants, we went there to dine. 

I ordered the Mongolian Beef luncheon special.  After a considerable amount of hemming and hawing, David went with the Cashew Chicken.  He really doesn’t like Chinese food – which I am sad to admit I knew.

Payback is a horrible thing.

Comments on: "COULD YOU DO ME A FAVOR?" (8)

  1. Great piece. Glad it was you in that office and not me. I react the same as you, only worse!

    • I will admit that one of my personality flaws is that I have a very low threshold for incompetence. But then I ask myself, “Does God want us to be mediocre?” I don’t think that is a vocation assigned to us other than by ourselves.

      • Years ago, I went and heard the great (and recently departed) Zig Ziglar speak. He asked us to make a list of what we’re looking for in prospective new employees. 25 out of the 30 things we listed were related to attitude. Attitude makes the difference. It is a breath of fresh air when we encounter people in government jobs with a good attitude. They’re out there, but outnumbered by the ones you so aptly described as encumbered by ennui. I make it a game when I’m dealing with a habitually zombie-like clerk at the Post Office to try to engage them. Sometimes it takes months, but when I hit pay dirt, it is a great feeling. I find engaging them on their favorite music is the best approach. For guys, football is also good. I’ve embarrassed my kids on many occasions by asking clerks in stores if they accept cash … or “is exact change okay?”

      • My basic credo is to be nice and non-judgmental to everyone I meet. But after wandering this planet for a few years, I also realize that I am not the Messiah and my influence is limited. Trying to “convert” a person is a very draining experience – and if I am to have any success, I need to reserve my energies for those who I am going to encounter regularly. I will most likely never see the man I met today again. I leave to those who will interact with him frequently the job I have left undone.

  2. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown and commented:
    You say ‘fill out’ and we say ‘fill in!

  3. The last time I visited our local SS office, I did have the unavoidable long wait. But when I got to the window, the young man behind it smiled, was quick and helpful, and expressed condolences on the loss of my mother. It was a refreshing change; I just figured he must be new at the job.

    • Wow! Maybe it was the overcast day here. While I do sometimes take poetic license with my descriptions, I did not in this post. Frankly, I got depressed looking at the employees at the SSA office. If they were enjoying their work, it would have been hard to prove from the looks on their faces.

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