The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘rules’ Category

A LONG TIME AGO

The signs which jutted from the sidewalk used to say, “’No Spitting; No Littering’” and those that appeared on blank brick walls read, “Post No Bills.”  Those were the evils that used to concern society fifty or sixty years ago.  Most people, even kids, carried pocket handkerchiefs to avoid breaking the admonition of that first sign, and graffiti had not yet been elevated as a form of self-expression, anger and creativity.

We had a “Walk Into” rather than a “Drive Thru” mentality in those days.  If we wanted to make a deposit at our bank or credit union or order food on the run, we had to deal with a person inside a business establishment.  Perhaps that constant interaction made us a little more civil than we might have been or have become.

When our mothers called us in from play, we might have stalled to finish our game of hopscotch or jacks, but we generally heeded the second summons, “Come in here now.”  We knew that if there were a third call it would contain the words, “Wait until your father comes home.”  There was a dad in most of our houses whom we loved, respected and understood was the supreme commander – able and willing to mete out punishment if we broke the rules.

Although few of us eagerly embraced the idea of going to school, almost all of us graduated from high school.  And we knew how to find Australia and South America on the map; we could write a coherent sentence; and we had learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide.  Almost everyone knew what the three branches of government were and could recite the presidents who had served the country in the order of their terms in office.

You had to do a little planning in those days.  If you needed ingredients for a family Sunday dinner, you couldn’t make a dash to the grocer at the last minute because the grocer was closed.  Almost all businesses were closed.  Sunday was a day that was set aside for God and family.  Perhaps all of us did not “Honor the Sabbath” but we certainly recognized it when it came around.

We knew those who had served in our military because they were just about the only ones who sported tattoos.  These were normally etched in a dark, drab color and a heart which bore the word “Mom” seemed to be a predominant theme.  The only other time we ran into body ink was when Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town and we would gawk at “The Tattooed Lady” and wonder why she had done that to herself.  But we understood that it was a job requirement.

Our parents and teachers used to ask us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  That was in an age when children had every expectation of growing up rather than being the victim of either parental abuse or a drive by shooting.  The death of a child was indeed a tragedy that everyone mourned and not just another statistic that we would soon forget.

And when we did grow up we were pretty well equipped by our families and our schools to be productive members of society.  Whether we followed a path that led us to being prelates or stock brokers; doctors or bus drivers; proprietors of small stores which made cookies and fudge or sold hammers and chisels, we all did our best to make our lives and our children’s lives a little better than what we had received from our parents and grandparents.  And at the end of the day, most of us could be proud of our modest accomplishments.

It was a time in America when “Sir” and “Ma’am” and “Please” and “Thank You” were an integral part of our conversation.  And when Aunt Nellie in Iowa remembered our birthday with a card and enclosed a five dollar bill, we would immediately sit down to write a note expressing our appreciation for her thoughtfulness and affix a five cent stamp to send it on its way.

It was a simpler time in America and throughout the world.  We were fortunate if, during our lives, we had earned the respect of a few people who became real friends.  But the number of those could often be counted on one hand, not in the hundreds of thousands.  The only social media we had was ourselves and the way that we dealt with our fellow men and women.  Our lives were the medium and our actions were the message.

The America that I described had its problems – no doubt.  But there seemed to be an innate camaraderie which we all somehow understood.  There were political, religious, racial differences on which we often focused.  But underlying it all, most of us recognized that whatever our differences, our strength came from the fact that we were all on the same team.  And that gave us the ability to dream dreams and make them come true.

But that was a different, a kinder, gentler America.  And that was a long time ago.

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.

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