One day, our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender, instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.
— Franklin Thomas, in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion, by Gloria Steinem
I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (that would be Vegas in Four Parts) to bring you this dispatch from my local Social Security office.
It is not often that I’m a noticeable minority. While I have plenty of accquaintances and casual friends of other races and ethnicities, my closest friends are all pretty much like me. I don’t know what that says about me – do I need to get out more? Do I need to make a more concerted effort with the people I do know who aren’t like me? Probably both.
In any event, because I spend most of my time with – let’s be blunt – white people, I found it sociologically interesting today when I had to spend my morning at the Social Security office. I don’t mind telling you that when I lost my hearing and went out of work on disability, my then-employer required me to apply for Social Security benefits. I didn’t want to; I thought I was perfectly capable of working (though I’d soon come to find out that no one wanted to hire me), but it was policy since I was receiving disability payments from my employer. So I did.
Fast forward five-and-a-half years. I’ve finished law school and I’m working. The way Social Security works, you get to keep your benefits for a specified period of time if you start working, no matter how much money you make, to be sure that you can maintain what they call “substantially gainful” employment. I called them when I started working and gave them all of my employment information and was assured they’d get my salary info directly from my employer and notify me about when my benefits would cease. I accepted that and went on my merry way.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed and I probably should have expected, they never actually did get the information from my employer, so my benefits never stopped. When I called again earlier this month, the woman told me they have no record of my prior call or of the fact that I’m working (which boggles my mind, because I work for the federal government – seems like it’d be really easy for them to check up on that, but I guess one hand doesn’t talk to the other in big bureaucracies) and that I would have to bring my W-2 to the Social Security office for them to determine when my benefits should have stopped and “how much [I] have to pay back.” Awesome.
Ok, so on to the point of all of this. I arrived at the office at 8:55 this morning. It opens at 9. The lobby was already open and there were already about 30 people in the waiting room. So much for thinking if I got there right when they opened I wouldn’t have to wait so long. I had forgotten to bring a book, or anything else to occupy me, so I took the opportunity to people watch. And the people watching at an agency like this is good, let me tell you. This was how I came to realize that I was:
a. one of the youngest people there (there were plenty of kids with their parents, but I mean of the grown ups);
b. one of fewer than 10 white people over the course of the two-and-a-half hours I was there (and the turnover was pretty high while I was there); and
c. one of the few native-English speakers.
The other thing I noticed was that nearly all of the interviewers and people who worked in the office were white; I saw two black workers and one Hispanic worker.
I don’t know. I must be out of practice at writing, because this is not the post intended to write when I was mulling over this experience in my head today. I wanted to talk about what it felt like to see all of these people there and not see my face reflected in any of them. That doesn’t happen to me. But I bet it happens to them a lot, and I wonder what that’s like for them. It didn’t bother me, but that’s probably because I knew on some level that as soon as I left that office, the status quo would be restored.
I wanted to talk about watching two Asian men for whom English was obviously not a first, or even second, language try to explain to the greeter what they needed, and how touched I was at her patience with them and how impressed at her refusal to speak to them the way Americans often speak to people who don’t understand them – loudly, slowly, over-enunciatingly (this is, perhaps not coincidentally, the way people often try to talk to me when they discover I’m hearing impaired).
I wanted to talk about the beautiful, 8-month-old Hispanic baby who was next to me for much of my time in the waiting room, and how I distracted him so his mother could fill out her forms. He had these giant brown eyes and big, goofy, toothless smile, but his face was more like that of a little boy, not a baby. He was so happy the whole time, hardly fussed at all.
I wanted to talk about the couples – so many couples. I like to watch couples to see if I can discover their dynamic. Many of them today were elderly, and the way they gingerly held each other’s arms, or shuffled slowly behind one another as they made their way through the waiting room, or huddled together talking quietly, moved me in a way I hadn’t expected.
I wanted to talk about my sadness, too, at not being able to hear normally. That is, after all, the reason I was there in the first place. But today wasn’t the general sadness that I always feel on some level; it was more acute. There were so many people there, and many of them were not speaking English, and I was sad that I couldn’t hear the cacophony of languages that was surely floating through the air. I love languages – I’m good at them, and other people’s accents never gave me any trouble – and I wished so much that I could hear everything and try to pick out the different ones being spoken today. I can remember feeling this exact sadness one other time since I lost my hearing: walking up the steps at Sacré Coeur in Paris. It was April 2003, and there were probably hundreds of people there, sitting in clusters all up and down the steps, or climbing to the top. I just knew they were from all over the world, and I longed to be able to wander among them, secretly taking in their unfamiliar accents and strange words.
Today also reminded me of something that often occurs to me, but still amazes me every time. I look at all of these people, many of them quite old, some of them disabled in ways I can’t comprehend, all of them different from me, and I realize that at one time, they were all babies, and then toddlers. For some reason, this thought takes my breath away. I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it’s that, by the time I come in contact with most people, they’re already grown-ups, and I interact with them having never known them any other way, and so my mind basically assumes they’ve never been any other way. Maybe it’s the idea that there are so many stories out there in the world, and no two are exactly the same. I suspect, though, that it’s the idea that we all start the same way, like Mark Twain said: “We haven’t all had the good fortune to be ladies; we have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.”
Hmm. Maybe I did ok, after all.