It’s my first time in a US government office. A burly old man in a security outfit keeps watch over the waiting room.
I scramble up to him, breathless, and before I can spit out some frantic words he asks me if I’ve taken a number. Before I can answer him he points to a computer terminal which has three options.
I touch the button labelled “applying for a Social Security Card for the first time”, take my number and sit down.
There are about 15 people in the waiting area.
A Russian woman in high heels and evening wear is the first to be called.
She wants to find out if her mother’s absence from the United States would affect her benefits. “Do you have your mother’s social security number?” asked a voice behind the glass. “Yes, I have photocopy of original card.” The conversation then morphed into Russian. Apparently they have a multilingual staff.
Next, a 90 year old woman named Pearl asked for a print out of all the benefits she received in 2009. “This is the print out you’ll need for your taxes, Pearl!” beamed the bubbly government worker. “Wow, you guys sure are quick and efficient here!” said Pearl before leaving with her 70 year old daughter.
An overweight white girl of perhaps 23 years named Tammi constantly shuffles through her oversized bags only to get interrupted by the regular siren of a new text message. “I’ve been waiting here forever!” she blurts.
4 p.m. comes and the security guard lumbers from his perch to lock up the front doors and close the blinds. Noticing his slight struggle to reach some of the windows, Tammi gets up and carefully closes the rest of them one at a time. For a moment, he breaks his cold composure and darts a warm smile in her direction.
The A category in the line-up are people applying for a Social Security card. I am the only white person in this category.
Eight men, who I assume are Mexican, quietly wait for their numbers to come up. They are all young. Probably between 18 and 22 years old. They are clean shaven, smartly dressed and speak to each other in quiet Spanish.
When their numbers are called they don’t go to the counter alone. One or two of their friends comes with them. When they are asked a question about their name, work history or something complicated their friend helps them find the correct word in English.
The worker who helped Pearl gives them the same kind, almost affectionate consideration.
She asks for one boy’s name, which he slowly spells out. “Do you have a birth certificate?” she asks. He’s wearing a green windbreaker and rain pants, similar to something I would have worn in high school. He turns to his friend and says something in Spanish before slowly telling the worker that he was born in Mexico but does not have a birth certificate on him.
“What is the name of the town?” she asks.
He says the name, but my shitty hearing jumbles the vowels and consonants into something indiscernible.
She types into her system. “If the name of your town and first and last name are all spelled correctly you will receive a Social Security card in approximately two weeks.” She turns the screen so he can see it. “When you get it will look just like this!” I crane my neck to see a card with two pillars on either end.
As they exchange thank yous I notice the worker is looking at me. She flashes a quick, cheeky smile in my direction.
Tammi’s number is called. Three times but she is entranced with her cell phone. “B 172!!”
“Oh! That’s my number!” She clumsily grabs her possessions. Toys fall onto the floor.
“I have a problem with my social security card,” she tells the worker. “When I applied for a job they ran my social security number and they said it came up as a different person,” she said, still catching her breath from the dash across the office.
The worker asks for her Social Security card.
“I don’t have that,” says Tammi after she jumbles through her bag. “ I want to know if you can verify it for me so I can bring it to new employers.”
“Your Social Security card is verification of your number,” says the worker. “Do you have your number?”
“Oh, I think it’s written on the back of this bill,” she says. “Hold on a second, I have to get this text. Sorry. Yeah, oh, I think I might know what happened! My old social security card was under my married name. It’s not the name I use name, so that might be why it’s all mixed up now! My last employer was gonna send some verification that I was still the same person, but that was four days ago and she said she was going to put it in the mail, but I don’t know if she ever got on that.”
They must have sorted something out because Tammi leaves the office in high spirits.
My number is called.
The guy serving me looks about 21 but is probably a few years older. He’s wearing an ironed dress shirt, a blue tie and dress pants held together with a Timberland belt.
Our interaction is brief, efficient and pleasant. He flips open my passport types in my vitals before asking for my birth certificate.
I pull out my three page, legal-sized birth certificate.
“Oh wow! I’ve never seen any birth certificates like that before!”
When he gets me to sign the form I notice that he’s spelled the myriad of odd Southern and British Columbian names, dates and birth places without a single error.
“I guess you’re ready to start your weekend now!” I say.
“We’re getting ever closer now!” He responds.
“Well we get a four day weekend across the line,”
“Dang, that must be awesome!”
“Yeah, I’m going over to the Island and my friends and I are gonna get totally fuckin’… yeah. hehe”
The worker gives me a knowing smile and chuckle before we part ways. I’m on a bus home within half an hour.