Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Officially Old

Well, it’s official: I’m old.

I went down to the Social Security office and signed up to receive my benefits.

There were warning shots over my bow that I was getting on in years, like the disappearance of my children from the dinner table and the AARP membership card that appeared on my fiftieth birthday.

But going on Social Security nails it down.

For some reason or another, I have managed to hang on to my original Social Security Card. I remember applying for it at the age of 16. In fact, that was my last appearance at a Social Security office.

Having a card, in those days, meant you could work without having “working papers” and parental permission. This was an exciting prospect at the age of 16. It is less so at the age of 63.

The card is signed by Gerald Andersen in a clear, legible hand that still bears the signs of the Palmer Method of penmanship that was ruler smacked into my small muscle memory by the sisters at St. Al’s, a far cry from the palsied scrawl that passes for my signature nowadays.

In reading the back of this withered document, I noted the following peculiar statement: “Tell your family to notify the nearest Social Security Office in the event of your death.”

In the nearly half century since this card was issued we have made enormous technological progress, but apparently we have lost the ability to communicate from beyond the grave.

To get your benefits you need to apply. I chose to do this on line. As I have said before (“The Unemployment Office”) I don’t deal well with forms and questionnaires, and the SS one is a doozy…long and complicated. Each time I would complete a page and hit the “continue” button it would come flying back at me with a half dozen errors flagged in red and with an extravagant number of exclamation marks (I don’t know about you, but I hate to see my tax dollars going toward excess punctuation marks) . They ask a lot of questions one of which is “do you have any outstanding arrest warrants?” I couldn’t help but wonder what criminal mastermind would answer yes to this question.

You can complete the process on line, but they want you to mail them your original birth certificate. I chose not to trust them with this since, after all, this is the federal government……”Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

So I made an appointment to come in to the Parsippany office. They sent me two reminders and left a reminder call. I guess this is necessary when dealing with older citizens. I only got one notice to appear before the draft board.

They also tell you to get there fifteen minutes before your scheduled appointment. At first blush this seems unnecessary since old people are always early. I think that is why they suggest fifteen minutes, because otherwise we geezers would be showing up an hour ahead of time. I, in fact, was 45 minutes early, but waited in my car.

Things got off on the wrong foot. As I entered the office, staring at me from across the room in six rows of chairs are 40 waiting old people, all of whom, I am sure, are an hour early for their appointments. I am ashamed to admit it, but I always feel a certain sense of superiority in these situations: I am young and on the ball, not like these people.

I was quickly disabused of this notion. At the entrance there is a large computer screen and a sign that directs you to register. You are instructed to select the reason for your visit from six or seven options, and enter it on the screen. I assumed it was a touch screen and touched on the reason that best described my visit. Not only did nothing happen, but I discovered that there was a screen over the computer screen. I turned to the guard who was seated at a desk nearby. He told me to just enter the reason for my visit on the screen.
Stupidly, I pressed on the screen again. “Try using the keypad,” he suggested with more than a hint of sarcasm. Sure enough, there was a keypad in plain sight. I entered the code for my visit and was prompted to enter the last 4 digits of my social security number. Now, of course, I am totally flustered and forget my number. I must take my wallet out and refer to my card.

As I turn around I face 40 pairs of elderly eyes who, had they been a Greek chorus, would have chanted You Old Fool in unison.

I slunk to a seat. No one who came, no matter how old, how infirm, or how alien, made the same mistake I did. All went directly to the keypad.

I guess I’m ready for Social Security.

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