A Cape Cod Notebook 6/03/08

ListenIn the Social Security Building

By Robert Finch

This is an indoor Notebook. One day last month I went to the Social Security Administration building in Hyannis in order to resolve a small discrepancy in the information on my social security card. When I entered the building the security guard by the door instructed me to take a printed number from a machine, just as one does at the deli in a supermarket. I sat down in one of the chairs to wait my turn and was just starting a theatre review in The New Yorker when an apparition sat down beside me. He was a man, I would guess, in his early 40s, though it was difficult to tell. He wore a purple jumpsuit, a pair of heavy black brogues, and a purple watch cap. His hair was dyed red and cut in a clown cut. He wore heavy makeup and oversized, cheap rhinestone rings, and his breath smelled of alcohol covered up with some sickly sweet mouthwash.

He was clearly agitated and began to talk, rather loudly. It was clear he wanted an audience. The other people waiting, at a safe distance, began rolling their eyes and offering me discreet sympathetic looks. In a rambling way he told me his life story, an unconnected string of mostly sad, sometimes tragic, occasionally blackly humorous anecdotes: of lost boyfriends, lost jobs, lost homes. He had worked most often as a bartender. One rainy night, he told me, he had been struck by a hit-and-run driver near the Mill Hill Club, which broke his leg in three places. He was alone, and sat in the highway in the rain until a limo stopped with Joan Kennedy in it and several large men, probably her security agents. "Oh, I knew it was Joan," he said. "I served her at a bar in Gloucester once." They picked him up and took him to the hospital, where they set his leg and put in a large metal brace. He rolled up his right leg to show me where the brace made a large bump under his skin.

"Here, see? It's hard - touch it."
"That's all right," I said. "I believe you."

He had lived in Hyannis for thirty years, but he was unemployed now and recently became homeless, and that's why he was here, to see if Social Security could do anything about upping his benefits. At that point his number was called and he went up to a window to speak with a young Hispanic woman. He repeated to her the long list of injustices, and misfortunes life had inflicted on him, his language liberally spiced with obscenities, not in an angry way, but still, I wondered if the woman would be offended, dismiss him, or perhaps even call for the security guard to remove him.

Instead, she listened attentively, politely, patiently, letting him fulminate until he quieted down. Then she asked him a series of questions and, again politely and professionally, gave him some numbers and addresses for him to follow up. She wished him good luck and he left. I don't know if anything she gave him will help, but he left more calm than he had arrived.

Like most people, I don't usually think of large government bureaucracies like the Social Security Administration as places where one expects personal, compassionate responses to life's grievances. I also don't know who the young woman employee was, but I left with a different impression of the place, one that will make it more palatable the next time I figure out my Social Security tax payments.