On Wednesday, I thought I'd stop by the Everett Social Security office on my way into Seattle to straighten out a glitch in my Social Security stuff in person. I hate doing things like that on the phone, because it's so hard to make sure that the person on the other end understands completely. My experience with Big Gov has been that employees assigned to these kinds of jobs have learned to be slow to make sense of what I'm trying to tell them. (Of course, it's not that I am poor at expressing myself on the phone----never!) So it seemed that a good strategy would be to go to the office and talk to a person face to face, show him/her the mysterious letters received, update some missing information, and ask humbly for advice.
The only grim part of that experience was the long wait, not the few minutes spent with a clerk. The young woman who helped me was courteous, well-prepared to answer my questions and allay my concerns. It did take an hour of waiting for my number to be called, as there were very few clerks and each conference with a client seemed to take inordinate amounts of time.
No, the grim part was watching the room fill up with a wide assortment of people: parents there to get a social security number for a child; little kids running around the room; Russian, Asian, Latino immigrants; people on crutches or hobbling painfully; sons and daughters accompanying an aged parent; a homeless man arguing loudly with a clerk about how he had no address and had not gotten his check and had no money to live on.
The atmosphere was so dank and dreary, the people's faces so resigned and wary, the wait so long and tedious and, seemingly, unnecessary. Even though my problem seemed easily solvable, my spirits began to sink as I watched this pool of humanity grow, overhearing the tense conversations at the cubicles, cringing to hear the anger and frustration in the voices raised in protest at some bureaucratic decision, wondering about the lives represented there, dependent on Social Security for livelihood.
For I wondered about the staff as well: two beautiful young women, courteously and yet sternly doling out advice, regulations, "I"m sorry buts": an older woman arguing with a client about how she'd have to repay a good deal of what she'd received; a big blonde male security guard who swaggered around the packed room, gun, cell phone, and club on his belt; and a succession of men and women who'd pop their heads out a door, call out a name, wait for a response, and disappear again. What must it be like to work in that situation every day? What a grim way to make a living----saying no to people who are desperate? feeling beleaguered by the neediness of clients and hemmed in by regulations? finding meaning in---what? (Ms. Theologian, what do you think?)
It was grim, all right, and I only had to experience it for an hour. If my frustration grew and my sense of optimism faded in that short time, what must it have been like for those staff members and, most especially, for those who had to wait and wait and wait for their chance to argue politely (or not so politely) with those whose duty it was to serve them? I can imagine.