Anti-social insecurity

I imagine my attitude on filing for Social Security is a lot like a priest’s attitude on selecting a pope: You know it’s going to happen, sometime, but you don’t believe you’re going to witness it.

If I were a believer in the Metropolitan life expectancy charts, I’d know the odds were on my side when came to numbers alone. While hitting 65 (my planned age to start collecting) wasn’t guaranteed, it looked like a good bet. And obviously it was, since I crossed that Golden Threshold 14 months ago.

But ultimately it was a meaningless numbers game. Yeah, sure, I could’ve gone on SS, but it doesn’t just happen by itself. Uh-uh, I had to actually APPLY for it. And there’s the rub. I loathe bureaucracies, and what, I reasoned, could be a worse bureaucracy to deal with than Social Security?

The birth of a bureaucrophobe

I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a bureaucrophobe. It happened in summer 1973 at Potsdam State. Keep in mind, “phobia” means both fear and hatred – and I have both.

When I graduated from Potsdam in January 1969, no bureaucracy existed. It was a small friendly place; everyone knew everyone else, and if you had a problem you could get it solved quickly and easily.

But when I came back four years later, it was a whole different scene. It’d expanded, both in population and physical plant and of course in bureaucracy. Due to budget cutbacks, the faculty had gotten smaller, but predictably, the administration had blossomed, now occupying their very own building a Babel-like eyesore in the middle of campus.

None of this meant anything to me until I singed up for M.A. courses and had to get my G.I. Bill paperwork approved.

On a bright June morning I drove to Old Siwash and wended my way through the admin building halls till I found myself at the registrar’s office.

The registrar’s office? Boy Howdy, it sure didn’t look like the registrar’s office I knew.

I remembered the old registrar’s office fondly from my idyllic undergrad days in the Ivory Tower. Two wonderful people ran it – an older woman named Mrs. Klein, and her assistant, a gal who was in her 20s, and sharp as a whip. Any time I needed their help, they were both available. And if Mrs. Klein was busy but I needed her help only, they scheduled an appointment for either that day or the next. Beyond that, though I can’t cite any specifics, I remember them as going out of their way to help me.

But this new office was a whole new animal. I stood there, not so much as surprised as gobsmacked. Desks stretched into the distant horizon, with someone sitting at each one. And sitting seemed about it – even to my unschooled eye, the joint looked like a hubbub of Inactivity.

As for the registrar him or herself (I think Mrs. Klein was gone by then)? No idea. He or she was in purdah, somewhere, completely removed physically (and I imagine psychologically) from all the drones in the outer limits.

A while went by and finally one of the desk-sitters tore herself away from The National Enquirer and came over.

“Help you?” she said, looking as if she wanted to do anything but.

“Yeah,” I said. “I have to see the person who handles the G.I. Bill stuff.”

“Sorry,” she said. “She’s not here today.”

And that was that.

She went back to the latest gossip-mongering.

I went into the hall, half-confused, half-infuriated, wondering how with all those people, they couldn’t cross-train one to handle the G.I. Bill paperwork. Was it really that complicated? I didn’t think so, but what did I know? I was so stupid I never called to see if the G.I. Bill person was on duty that day, before I drove 60 miles for nothing.

And while like most people, I’d had a mistrust of bureaucracies before this (I’d spent 39 months in This Man’s Navy, right?), after this, it turned into full-blown enmity.

Bureaucrophobe no more?

Now we fast-forward four decades.

Remember, I planned to start collecting SS at 65? Well, I didn’t. Sixty-five came and wentand so did my plan of collecting. And though it goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: My bureacrophobia had hit its peak. The idea of having to navigate the murky and winding waters of any bureaucracy, let alone a federal one, gave me both chills and homicidal impulses. So I just kept putting it off.

Finally, last week, I decided enough was enough – I was going to get the process underway, come hell, high water or hierarchy.

First I called a number in the phone book. It was some national SS center and the results were predictable. A recording came on and told me how important I was and how much those goniffs really wanted to help me, so all I needed to do was stay on the line.

Then another recording came on, telling me the wait for an operator was at least 10 minutes. At least 10 minutes? Could they see me and that’s why they thought I’m as dumb as I look? It’s a good move, though – “at least 10 minutes” covers their bums for hours, if need be. I hung up.

Then I checked the web and found a number for the Plattsburgh office and called them. A recording came on there too, but only for a wee bit, and the next thing I knew I was talking to an actual person – and an efficient, pleasant person at that.

I told her what I wanted and she asked if I wanted to do it online, by appointment, or over the phone. Was this a put-on? I could do the whole schmeer over the phone, from the comfort of my hovel? I immediately opted for that.

She then checked her calendar and said the only openings for a couple of weeks were on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Given my schedule, that wouldn’t work for me, so I asked for a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Turned out, she didn’t have one of those free within that time, and the new schedule wouldn’t come out for another day.

“Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll call you tomorrow and set up your appointment then, OK?”

“OK”? Hey, it was more than OK – it was perfect if she actually did it. And if she didn’t, it was one more example of government inefficiency in action, something we’ve all seen more than enough of.

The next morning, at 0806, the phone jolted me out of my visions of sugarplums.

It was the lady at the Plattsburgh office telling me the date and time for my telephone appointment, which was only three weeks hence. Then she bade me adieu and hung up, presumably to share her efficiency with other lucky devils.

After the call, I was in shock for a full half hour. Someone from the government who carried out their job quickly, efficiently and pleasantly? And as a result, the government’ll give me money?

It seemed either too good to be true, or the set-up of a joke – a la a priest, a nun, and a my transition from wage slave to ward of the state will be a smooth and painless one.

So does this mean I’m no longer a bureaucrophobe?

Of course not.

But it is a good start. And let’s face it: When dealing with a massive, often incompetent, government monolith, a good start is as good as it gets.