I sat in the car dreading to go inside. I was overdue by ten years, so why go in now? Worse yet, I wasn’t any more prepared to be there than I had been a decade earlier. For years I had regularly passed by the neo-classical grey stone building set behind a car dealership on Kingston Pike, often thinking I should stop. Now I was parked in front of it. The two-story structure looked more like the executive offices of a corporation than a government building. Only the block letters attached to the façade gave away its bureaucratic identity: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.
I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled as I glanced at the bulging Pentax folder containing Social Security mailings that was on the passenger seat. Little of it was helpful, but it was all I had. I checked my watch. Almost noon. It was time to go in. I snatched up the file and shouldered my purse. Out of the car I clicked the door lock and started off towards the glass-walled entryway. Reaching into my purse I fingered my birth certificate and passport to reassure myself I could prove who I was if nothing else.
At the door, I glanced back over my shoulder to see if anyone else was coming, but there was no one around. I thought the place would be very busy on a Monday. An hour earlier I had called the agency with the foolish notion I could make an appointment to avoid the crowds. After enduring a long-winded menu of irrelevant options, I was told my wait time to speak to a human being (agent) was 45 minutes. I could make the drive in less time, so I took off. When I first pulled into the lot I cringed to see there weren’t any spaces in the first few rows. Looking more closely, I realized they were all the same two makes of cars and trucks sold by the dealership in front. Chuckling at my stupidity, I drove on and had mhy pick of parking spots.
Now, entering the building, I followed the ceramic-tiled hallway that led to a waiting area where about fifty people sat facing me. The person in charge appeared to be a security guard who was seated behind a counter on one side of the doorway. On the other side stood two machines bearing signs that read, Check In Here. A middle-aged woman was using the first one, so I went around to the second and tentatively pressed the Start button on the glass, worried that I wouldn’t have the right responses. The first screens were straightforward enough: preferred language, name, social security number. The final screen was more challenging: What is the reason for your visit? I wasn’t there to apply for any benefits, or to change my name, or to replace my social security card, or any other listed purpose. The last option was the only one that fit: Other Business. I hit that. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked for any details and the machine spat out a slip of paper with a number printed on it: O366. It seemed depressingly high.
With my ticket in hand, I surveyed the people waiting. Judging by the slumped postures and widespread use of reading materials, it looked like most of them had been there for quite a while. Several young, healthy-looking people interspersed among them had probably come along for company or as drivers. Stepping over to the security guard, I mewed, “What is the typical wait time with this many people?”
He shrugged before answering, “An hour and a half…give or take.” I couldn’t help but jut out my lower lip in response, so he added,. “Could take less, depending what people are here for.”
I nodded and managed a wan smile in appreciation of his effort to be encouraging, then turned and sat down on a chair in the front row that had an empty seat on either side. Setting down my purse and file, I looked around to scope out the room to figure out the setup in case my number was ever called. The two side walls had openings that led to inner passageways fitted with bank teller-type windows about every ten feet. Unfortunately, most of the windows I could see had their shades pulled down. Signs were posted on each side of the room. The sign on the left wall read, Windows 1-11. The sign on the right wall read, Windows 12-22. At the back of the waiting area were five more windows, each with a letter sign, A through E. Twenty-seven windows in all. I brightened. That meant there shouldn’t be more than two claimants waiting for each window.
My cell phone chirped with an incoming email. I pulled up the message: Newsmax wanted to know if I was at risk for Alzheimer’s. Probably. I opened my other emails and answered the few personal ones. After several minutes, a female voice came over the loudspeaker directing number C48 to report to Window 12. C48? I checked my slip again to see if I had misread it. No. Sadly, it was still O366. What kind of numbering system was this? Looking around for some explanation, my attention became drawn to the TV monitor set up in the front of the room. At the bottom of the screen were five sets of letter and number combinations; the first was O354, the second was C48, and three others followed that also appeared to have no rhyme or reason. At least I could see where my number fit into the scheme of things. I was behind O354. Twelve ahead of me. Not great, but not as bad as I thought.
Now that my wait time was measurable I had to mentally nail down my story that would convince an agent that Social Security owed me money going back ten years although I couldn’t prove it. My original Benefits Statement showed zero-taxed earnings for the years 1970 through 1973, the first 4 years I had been employed by the Cook County Department of Public Aid in Chicago. When I received the statement, I had made a couple of phone calls to dispute the record, but hadn’t gotten past the question, “Do you have pay stubs to prove it?” Does anyone keep pay stubs for thirty years? I had given up and regretted that ever since. Recently, it dawned on me that 1973 was probably the year the County Department became a state agency. My Cook County records must not have been transferred. My hope was that the Social Security people could get access to the records of the now-defunct department.
Glumly, I turned my attention back to the monitor that was running a loop of announcements and bits of trivia for entertainment. The list of the current top ten names for babies came on screen. “Olivia” surprised me by coming in at number two for girls, and how could “Liam” be the number one name for boys? Several messages regarding social security policies and procedures for application came up on the slide show. My favorite was, “If you are deaf, call the number below to request sign-language assistance for your next appointment.” Right. Messages were repeated in Spanish, which was understandable, but one version appeared to be in Cyrillic. How many claimants in Knoxville were from Russia or Eastern Europe?
Every few minutes, the same female announcer’s voice called out another number to report to a particular window. I had noticed that few windows were being called: only Windows A and B, 9, 12 and 20 so far. Aha. Five windows corresponded to the five sets of letter and number combinations. Apparently the other 17 windows were unmanned today. Great. However, my number had now crept up to being only two down.
I stretched my neck and shoulders and sat up straight. A few new people were standing in the waiting room doorway. Observing them, I saw they all knew the drill, going directly to the check-in machines, rapidly tapping on the screen and taking their numbers without even glancing at them.
The amplified female voice came back on. “O366 to Window 20.” That was me. I had calculated where Window 20 should be so I jumped out of my chair and headed for the doorway that would be closest to it. I was right. The window screen was up, and I took a seat to face my opponent. He turned out to be a balding, middle-aged bureaucratic type with a pen-protector in his shirt pocket. He greeted me politely and asked for my identification. I dealt out my full hand of social security card, driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate. His head shot back a little. “Just your card and driver’s license are fine.”
After looking them over he glanced at me. Apparently satisfied, he clicked keys on his computer. “What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
“No, her maiden name.”
“Her maiden name and married name are the same,” I responded, wanting to clarify that my parents weren’t related and there are few Swedish surnames, but I refrained.
He made a few more clicks, then leaned back and steepled his fingers. “So, how can I help you today?”
I launched into the facts of my work history, including my exact starting date of March 3, 1969, to give myself credibility. Handing over the Social Security Benefits Statement, I pointed out the “0” amount of contributions shown for the contested years.
He studied the statement with pursed lips for several moments before looking up. “Do you have any pay stubs from this time period?”
I struggled to keep my expression neutral. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “No, of course not. That’s understandable.” He stabbed the statement with an index finger. “I believe you that you worked these years, and I want you to get every dime that’s coming to you. It’s just that we need some proof.”
I nodded solemnly. “I was hoping Social Security could get access to Cook County records,” I said softly.
He sighed and shook his head. “I think you should go to the IRS for that. We base our payments on their records.”
I was sure my lower lip had jutted out again.
He turned back to his computer, his forehead scrunched in thought. After several seconds his face cleared, he swung out of his chair, and stood. “I’ll be right back. There’s another agent who’s had more experience with this.” With what exactly, I wondered.
As promised, my agent soon returned with another 50-something man in tow who introduced himself as Agent Pickens. He told me he had been briefed on my case, but asked a few questions about my work history. After a short discussion he said, “I don’t want you to get your hopes up,” No problem there. “but I’m going to flag your case for a month to scour any records for your social.” (security number)
I was getting my hopes up. “Thanks. Anything that might help.”
Agent Pickens looked off into space. “What I’m afraid of,” he drawled, “is that prior to 1973 many county departments didn’t pay into social security but into a pension fund instead. I think you should call Cook County pensions and see if you can get connected to someone who’s been around for a while who may remember. Maybe they owe you pension money.”
The ball was back in my court, but I wasn’t going to give up this time. I would call the Pension Board. I would also contact an old friend who worked at Public Aid the same years I did and see what social security she was receiving. I would even contact a cousin who's retired from Social Security to see if she has any ideas.
I thanked both of the agents for their time and help. Agent Pickens handed me his personal business card. “Call me if you learn anything and I’ll do the same.” They both smiled and wished me luck.
Making my way back to the waiting room, I checked my watch. It wasn’t yet two o’clock. Passing by the security guard, I held up my wrist and tapped on my watch face. “You were right about the time.”
The guard beamed and I smiled back, heading out the door no richer, but having a plan and feeling better about myself.