A few months ago I accompanied my friend Brian, who'd recently lost his wallet, as he dropped into the DMV's "License X-Press" and walked out with a new driver's license in no more than ten minutes.
Seeking to emulate him, I'd turned up with my own paperwork: a California license to be turned in for a New York one, a passport to buttress claims to my identity, and my Social Security card. Well, half my Social Security card, actually; when I got it in 1963 it came stapled to a government pamphlet extolling the wonders of Social Security, and the idea was that you could detach one half the card to show to prospective employers and keep the other half in a safe place so you'd always have a record of your number.
Well, apparently it's the wrong half when it comes to the DMV: although it clearly displays my number and my signature (albeit in the painful chickenscratchings of 16 year old me), which are the two items the DMV claims it needs, they insisted on having the other half. Which, evidently, disappeared from my possession along with almost everything else I owned at one time or another in the 60s or 70s.
No problem, the cheery examiner assured me: you can simply nip up to 48th Street and get yourself a new Social Security card and probably be back here before we close at 4 pm (it was now about 1:30). Fine, I said; I'd already earmarked the day for dealing with bureaucracy, so might as well take a tour of the federal as well as the state branch thereof.
The entrance to the building on 48th Street was unremarkable, as was the elevator trip to the designated floor. It was only when I exited the elevator and strolled down the corridor that I realized I had blithely wandered into the anteroom of hell.
About 100 people sat disconsolately, some much more so than others, on rows of seats that all faced forward, much like the economy section of a jumbo airliner, only far less comfortable. I figured I'd stand instead, at least for a while, but quickly found that wasn't allowed. The guards were especially insistent that no one loiter near a window, possibly because they were concerned about people throwing themselves out in despair.
Although we were in midtown Manhattan, less than a block from the glitz, glamor, bustle and squalor of Times Square, I wouldn't say my fellow sufferers represented a cross section of New Yorkers. About 90% of the people present were black and/or foreign born, which led me to ponder whether there was some parallel Social Security system located elsewhere for white middle-class people, or whether the aforementioned WMC people are just so together that they never lose their Social Security cards or have a question about their benefits or are simply so rich and carefree that they don't even bother with Social Security.
Such was not the case with the people in attendance today. A few of them, like me, merely needed to replace their cards, usually for the same reason, i.e., the DMV, but almost everyone else had some Major Problem which needed to be talked about at great length, often at considerable volume as well. Bulletproof glass separated all the clerks from the clients, and I can't say that I blame anyone for thinking that necessary. In the two and a half hours or so that I waited, I'm sure at least a couple of clerks would have been strangled, bludgeoned, or otherwise damaged if anybody had been able to get their hands on them.
Not that they deserved it; in fact, considering what they had to deal with, the clerks were remarkably patient and obliging, putting up, for example, with one apparently retarded woman who repeated, "Can I ax you a question?" at least 100 times in the space of a half hour, every question being some variation of, "Can you give me some money right now?""
She was far from the only one trying, against all odds, for a quick loan or advance against their disability checks. It was kind of like watching a horde of dysfunctional children hitting their not especially sympathetic dad up for a boost in their allowances. The other main theme was people trying to get Social Security cards or benefits for their immigrant or convict husbands. It was, as the alternatively tearful and angry women insisted, tremendously important that this be done, but this begged the question of why the husbands themselves couldn't be bothered to come in. One woman, asked to explain this anomaly, indignantly responded, "He's with our dog."
At about hour two, I overheard some bad news: the guy who'd been sitting nearby and was, like me, there for a replacement card, was told that he'd be receiving it in the mail in "about two weeks." So much for rushing back to the DMV today, which by now was about to close anyway. Oh well, I'd waited this long; might as well at least get what I came for. Right about then, a pretty blonde Eastern European girl managed to miss her number being called while she was outside smoking or eating or something, which led to a screaming, crying, cursing contretemps with both security guards as she demanded to be let back into line. All to no avail, to the quiet satisfaction of the 50 or so clients still waiting to be seen, and at least she didn't get tasered, though it looked touch and go there for a bit.
That drama occupied most of the final half hour before I was finally called for my turn. "ID please," I was told, and handed it over; she typed a few vigorous keystrokes before saying, "Oh, you're from Brooklyn. You can't get a card at this office. You've got to go to the Brooklyn office."
I'd seen a sign downstairs cheerily advising, "Hey, Brooklyn, we've opened a brand new Social Security office just for YOU!" But nowhere on it had it said that we had to go to that office, just letting us know in the most friendly of ways, that we could if we wanted to. It wasn't until I was getting on the elevator to leave that I noticed some new signs on this floor that did in fact say, "You MUST go to Brooklyn." Hmm.
Oh well, one day shot; tomorrow I'd go to the Brooklyn office and that would be that. I went to the Social Security website, clicked on "Find your local office," and was directed to a relatively nearby facility not far off Bedford Avenue in the heart of Hipsterville.
Marched in, showed my paperwork and said what I wanted, only to be told, "Oh, for a new card, you've got to go to downtown Brooklyn." Resisting any temptations to ask just what they did do at this office apart from filing their nails while the usual clients sat in mute awful despair, I headed for downtown, only to find that I couldn't get there in time, bringing me to Day Three of my Big Social Security Adventure, today.
I showed up early this time, with not one but two books, prepared to wait as long as it took, only to discover that downtown Brooklyn had a different setup. No chairs, comfortable or uncomfortable, to sit and read while I waited my turn; here I was greeted by a long line of very unhappy people standing behind a metal detector and X-ray machine. Bad enough that it was a long line; it was also a line that wasn't moving. At all. Two guards stood there, apparently waiting for someone or several someones to exit before anyone else would be allowed in.
Assuming that once we got in, we'd then have several hours to wait, just as in Manhattan, I very nearly left, with the intention of coming back even earlier the next day, but before I could, a young man borrowed my pen to fill out his application, which was taking him a very long time, since he showed every sign of being unable to read. I didn't want to leave without my pen, so I stuck around while he got into a lengthy conversation with the guy behind me, who he'd recognized from their recent stay in the Brooklyn House of Detention.
Their chat about charges, outstanding warrants, and "those two crazy niggas" who'd apparently almost killed each other and/or some guards dragged on for so long that our group actually got called to go through the X-ray machine. "Get your belts off, jackets off, everything out of your pockets," the guards barked, leading someone else in line to comment, "Man, this is just like prison." A number of heads nodded in agreement. This was clearly a crowd who knew whereof he spoke.
After that ordeal, it was quite a shock to arrive on the sixth floor to find a nicely carpeted, clean and brightly lighted room where far fewer people waited to be seen than had been lined up behind the security checkpoint downstairs. We still had to wait in line for a while longer, but the man next to me helped the time pass quickly with a lively discussion about which types of weapons would be most effective in shattering the bulletproof glass in the event a guy wanted to take out a few of the clerks.
Bottom line: I've got a piece of paper that says I "should" be getting my new Social Security card in about two weeks, which means I can then go through the whole driver's license rigamarole again, and maybe, just maybe, I'll have a new driver's license in time for my planned trip to Florida at the end of the month. No driver's license, no trip, as my old one expires halfway through the trip, and unfortunately, the subway doesn't go to Gainesville. However, it's out of my hands now, and into the hands of those who may or may not make the right things happen. At least I've got a more comfortable chair to do the rest of my waiting in.
And I don't have to go through a metal detector to get to it.