The people who run the Social Security office here in Terre Haute, Ind., have very wisely located the place so that it will be hard to find by old codgers who are confused by why they want to get there in the first place. I did finally find it, and I had my six-page document of required information that I needed to cash out a very small annuity that I had purchased several years ago for my wife. I was assigned a number and told to wait for the next available representative.
As I waited, I tried to think of a topic for my next newspaper article, but drew a blank for quite a while. Finally, I remembered some advice I had been given when I first got old about 20 years ago. The advice was simple and easy to apply. It gave me a chance to have a little fun and turn the bureaucratic hardball on the bureaucrats themselves. When you find yourself in a confused situation, always play the old card was the advice, and I decided to give it a try.
After a very long wait, my number was finally called and I was met by a sprightly young man who was courteous in a very crisp and business-like sort of way. His first question was, “What can I do for you?” I put on my best confused look (which is no big jump at all for me) and handed him the document in mute supplication. His next question was, “What is your name sir?” I reached for my billfold and started an elaborate search with an assurance that it is in here somewhere. My search for a driver’s license and Social Security card was equally futile. I finally found the little card that I had planted in the billfold saying, “Your name is Toby Hightower” in an even more illegible scrawl than I usually produce. With a look of dismay on his face he admitted that he couldn’t quite make out the writing. I examined it critically and finally read it to him.
His next question was “When is your birthday?” I gave him my high-beam smile and reported gleefully that I was pretty sure it is in November. When he asked for the day and year, I came up with early in November as a possible date and 1975 as a possible year.
“Are you here by yourself?” he inquired after a period of seeming meditation. “No,” I replied, “There are lots of people out there in the waiting room.” With an air of total confusion, I deflected every question that he asked me.
He gave me a confused but suspicious hard stare and I stared right back with all the malice I could muster. Then I found and handed him my driver’s license without a comment. Of course, he immediately found all the answers to the questions he had asked me.
He finally filled out the form and asked me if there was anything else he could do for me. Yes, I said, you can tell me why the government chooses to run 92-year-old people who think, see and hear poorly through a senseless bureaucratic obstacle course by asking the same damned questions over and over when you already have the answers. Then I told him the answer to every question he had asked me and told him that the only refuge from a mindless bureaucracy I could think of was a cell in jail from which I could write my newspaper columns.
I thought he would be angry but he was instead amused. He assured me that working for the government would give me no better understanding of bureaucracy than I now have.
I must concede that most people who work for the government are quite nice.
TOBY HIGHTOWER is a retired educator and former Hopkinsville High School teacher. His email address is email@example.com. Write to him at 222 S. 25th St., Apartment 434, Terre Haute, IN. 47803.