I got my job at the Social Security Administration the same day I got caught shoplifting.
It was 1975 and I was working at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston as an X-ray messenger, one in my series of “smartest guy” jobs – as in “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever packed orders at this warehouse” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever parked cars in this outdoor lot” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever ferried patients down to the X-ray department.”
That’s what a Jesuit education will do for you.
Smartest or not, I still had to wear the sky-blue polyester V-neck shirt with patch pockets issued to all the hospital’s X-ray messengers. The patch pockets were what got me in trouble. You could easily palm something (say, a cinnamon donut in the Deaconess cafeteria), stick your hands in the sky-blue polyester pockets, and go your merry way. Ditto for a pack of razor blades in the nearby Harvard Medical Coop.
Except my merry way was blocked that day by a Coop security guard. Busted, I sat in a bare room at the back of the store and calculated the odds. If I just kept quiet and let retail justice take its course, I figured, I could probably minimize the consequences.
Sure enough, the Chief of Security (see our ad in Sunday’s classified section) told me that the incident would go on my Harvard Coop permanent record, and that my trade was no longer welcome there or at any other Coop, of which there was one.
I meandered, bladeless, back to the hospital. There was a phone message waiting: The Social Security Administration wanted me to be a claims representative in its Boston District Office. I called back and said yes.
* * * * * * *
You know the Social Security Administration had a problem if it was hiring the likes of me. And that problem was SSI: Supplemental Security Income.
Introduced in 1974, Supplemental Security Income was a program that took aged, disabled and blind people off the state welfare rolls and put them on the federal dole. SSI was designed to “provide a nationwide floor of income for needs-based assistance.” Floor was right: the monthly payments when I arrived in 1975 were $167.80 for individuals and $251.80 for couples. (Just as a point of reference, I took home $425 a month when I started at the Social Security Administration, and I felt poor myself.)
In addition to establishing the sway-backed income floor, SSI was supposed to “make such payments more efficiently by working through SSA’s existing network of field offices.” The efficiency part didn’t work out so well; when over three million people were converted to the SSI rolls in 1974, almost all of them got top dollar in their classification, just to get them into the system. Of course SSI officials introduced corrective measures with all due haste, which in government time meant about a year later.
And so the Redetermination Unit was born – a sort of pencil-wielding SWAT team dedicated to saving the system from itself. One morning in September of ’75, Boston’s Redetermination Unit assembled in a back room of the downtown District Office, or DO. The Operations Supervisor – an unapologetically large man whose tie hovered several inches north of his belt – stood in front of the room and addressed the group.
“We’re glad you assholes are here,” he said. “You get to clean up the mess we made.”
We looked around, laughing nervously. The OS started pacing back and forth in front of us. You know how novelists sometimes write that So-and-So “was surprisingly light on his feet for a big man”? The OS wasn’t.
“I know some of you came here thinking, ‘Great, I’ll get on the government payroll and never have to work again.’ But that’s not gonna happen at this DO. I’ve seen some world-class malingerers in my time.” He started counting on his fingers. “There was Stockroom Ellis . . . Caffeine Jones . . . and let’s not forget Water Cooler Watts, who refused to take a retirement claim from his own mother.”
We didn’t believe a word of it. But the OS was just getting warmed up.
“And the greatest of all SSA stallers – Harland “What’s My Name” Williamson, who cleared only two cases in five years. We finally had to let him go. From the 12th floor.”
The OS stopped pacing and lit a cigarette.
“Trust me, you’re no Harland Williamsons. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
There were 4.3 million people collecting $6 billion in SSI at the time, and all those benefits needed to be “redetermined,” a four-syllable word for cut. SSI claimants – every one of them – had to come into the DO for an interview. The redetermination letters went out on red stationery and the people came pouring in. But first there were the phone calls.
Red Letter Days
“Hello? Is this the redemption unit? Hold on – I just seen a cock-a-roach.”
There were eight of us in the Boston Redetermination Unit – all recent college graduates who had no better alternative at the time. Civil service tests have long been the last refuge of the liberal arts major, and in this case the reward was a two-year stint at Social Security untangling what was laughingly called the SSI system.
As Claims Representatives (Term), or CRTs, we attended two weeks of training classes, plowed through numerous SSI manuals, and tried to decipher phrases like “obsolete a post-adjudicative action note” or “input a post-eligibility decision.” They never told us the phrase we’d hear most was “rejected because of computer systems limitations.” And they never prepared us for Mrs. McCarthy.
During my first week interviewing claimants (they eventually became “recipients,” presumably to avoid self-esteem issues), Mrs. McCarthy slowly approached my desk and sat down across from me. She wore the look of resignation that marked almost everyone dragged in by a redetermination letter. She also wore a threadbare coat, a ratty scarf and a purse with more miles on it than the Mass. Pike.
“You said I should come in.”
“Yes, ma’am. We just have to fill out some forms.”
For purposes of calculating “current eligibility adjustments to monthly benefits,” the government wanted to know each claimant’s housing arrangement, extra income and total assets. Everything went fine until Mrs. McCarthy mentioned that she had $1900 in a passbook savings account, which made her downright flush by SSI standards. My job at that point was to terminate Mrs. McCarthy’s benefits until her “assets” dropped below the SSI limit of $1500 (excluding a home, a car, or a prepaid burial plot). The deal was, she would dip into her savings for food, rent, etc. until she got below the magic number.
I looked at Mrs. McCarthy. I looked at the redetermination form. And I thought, well, maybe it is my job, but I’m not ready to tell a woman who could be my mother (Mrs. McCarthy raised five kids, after all – what was one more?) that I’m cutting off her $167-a-month check.
So I made a decision – the same decision I’d make in one form or another for the next year and a half.
“Is that your only coat, Mrs. McCarthy?”
“Yes it is.”
“What about a television – do you have a TV set?”
“Yes, but it’s just an old black-and-white.” I could see she was getting nervous about my line of questioning.
“Okay, Mrs. McCarthy, here’s what I need you to do, because the rules say you have too much in your savings account to keep getting a check. Go out and buy yourself a new winter coat and buy yourself a nice color TV and bring me back the receipts and your bankbook. If your balance is under $1500 everything will stay the same and your check will keep coming every month.”
(I could’ve recommended the prepaid burial plot, but I didn’t feel I knew Mrs. McCarthy that well.)
“I have to buy a new coat and a new TV?”
“You don’t have to, Mrs. McCarthy. I’m just saying it would be a good thing if you did.”
“And bring the receipts and my bankbook to you?”
She gathered up her purse and hurried away like I was going to change my mind. As I watched her walk off, I realized I’d just made the transition from petty shoplifting to some form of white-collar crime.
* * * * * * *
“Hello? Is this the redefinition unit?”
“I got this letter, but I can’t come see you. I got no car, and I can’t climb into the bus anymore.”
“Do you know anyone who might be able to drive you here, ma’am?”
“My son has a car.”
“Have your son bring you in.”
“He won’t. He lives across town. He’s a bum.”
“Yes, ma’am. But tell him if he doesn’t bring you down here, your benefits will be cut off and you’ll have to move in with him.”
“That would serve him right, wouldn’t it.”
The Boston DO had the typical bureaucratic layout – waiting room out front, boiler room in back. Row upon row of government-issue desks stretched to the rear of the office, where the glassed-in managers resided. My desk was on the center aisle, three-quarters of the way down on the left – uncomfortably close to the managers for my taste.
The rest of the Redetermination Unit was behind me, as was the computer room.
For reasons entirely unknown to me, from the start I was able to get the computer to do things others couldn’t – especially the coveted “force pay,” a claims rep’s last resort when the computer spat back every other command to issue a check. That happened all the time, without logic or pattern, to everyone in the place.
Except me. So several times a week the Operations Supervisor would walk by my desk and toss a file on it. “You’re an asshole,” he’d say, “but you’re the only one who can fix this. Do so.”
“You’d think they could get some decent computers in here, wouldn’t you? Maybe they could trade in those ARS teletype machines from the Coolidge administration.”
“Good idea – one less pain in the ARS.”
The OS snuffed his cigarette out in the ashtray on my desk. Those days you could smoke anywhere.
When the Boston DO was filled with claimants, the general atmosphere was a cross between Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch. One day a claimant walked down the center aisle stripping off articles of clothing and leaving them in his wake. As he approached my desk he had progressed to stepping out of his trousers, a clear signal that it was time to end the show. Several male employees escorted The Stripper and his hastily bundled wardrobe out the door and into the elevator.
The Boston DO was also host to the legendary Lavatory Launderer, who periodically set up shop in the bathroom down the hall and used the sink to wash all his clothes – including that day’s outfit. No one bothered him much, although on laundry day there was a noticeable lack of paper towels in the men’s room.
Then there was the guy who walked into the office one day, shouted “Heil Hitler! Where’s the Gestapo?” and ran back out the door – never to be seen again.
Mostly, though, the DO was host to an unending succession of interchangeable claimants – day in, day out – redetermination letters in hand. They’d walk up the aisle, plop themselves down, and wait for us to do our damnedest. And we generally obliged them. One day I passed by a claims rep’s desk and heard him tell a female applicant, “You’re not disabled enough. You may be a little disabled, but it’s not enough.”
She got up with a sigh and headed home to wait for things to get worse.
* * * * * * *
“Hello? Is this the redistribution unit?”
Mr. Daly came into the office every day, nicely living up to his name. He was tall and thin, with cropped gray hair and an urgent but formal manner. He lived at the YMCA on Huntington avenue, collected $167 a month, and spent about one-quarter of it Xeroxing hundreds of pages of federal regulations, charts, and graphs. He made copies for me, copies for other government agencies, copies for himself, copies for God knows who else.
“I should be getting more than $167 a month,” Mr. Daly would tell me.
“Yes, sir. SSI benefits are nothing if not minimal.”
“No, I mean, I should be getting veteran’s benefits on top of that.”
“Well, technically, Mr. Daly, they’d be subtracted from your SSI. But the other thing is, you don’t qualify for veteran’s benefits.”
“Look at the papers. The veterans benefits are right there.”
“Yes, sir. But Mr. Daly, you’re not a veteran. You never served in the armed forces.”
“That’s ridiculous. I was in the Army.”
“The Army has no record of you, Mr. Daly. None of the services do. We’ve talked about this before. So you really shouldn’t spend all that money on Xeroxes. I’m sorry.”
At that point he’d start glancing around the office for someone who looked saner than me.
“You’ll file the papers, right?”
“Yes I will, Mr. Daly.” His file was fatter than Martin Luther King’s FBI folder. Sometimes he gave me the same Xeroxes three or four times. I filed them anyway.
“Anything else today, Mr. Daly?”
“No. That’s all.”
He’d walk down the hall shaking his head like maybe that would rearrange the pieces and clear everything up. It went on that way for about six months. Then Mr. Daly stopped coming in every day.
Woodrow Wilson’s League of Notions
There was a union steward at the Boston DO who would end almost every conversation by saying, “Let he who is not without sin cast the first stone.” That semi-Biblical prophecy actually came to pass one day when a nondescript black man strolled to the rear of the office – stopped – turned – and casually lobbed a rock out the window. At first we thought it was a sneak attack on some unsuspecting passerby, but it turned out to be a protest over what the rock-thrower called “fifty years of injustice” – to whom, he never specified.
His name was Woodrow Wilson he said as several of the SSA’s heftier employees hustled him out and introduced his nose to the corridor wall. After a decent interval they turned him over to the relevant authorities, and that seemed to be that. Just another wacky day at the Boston DO.
Until three weeks later, when Woodrow Wilson got even whackier. He once again waltzed through the outer office, this time with a ballpeen hammer tucked inside a folded newspaper. Claims Rep Jim Curran, reading as he walked back to his desk, promptly received several blows to the head with that day’s lead story in the Boston Globe.
Inside the manager’s office Woodrow Wilson asked, “Did I get the right guy? Did I get the HEW?” (That was a reference to the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, which ran Social Security.) When a portly SSA employee responded by whacking him in the head, Wilson replied, “I’ve been clobbered all my life. It doesn’t bother me.”
Once again he was turned over to the relevant authorities. He was never charged with assault. As it turned out, he hadn’t gone before the court in the first incident either.
A couple of days later some claimant’s disgruntled brother took a swing at an SSA employee in the waiting room. Everyone began to think that working at a chicken- processing plant might be safer. It was time to call in the Management Experts.
* * * * * * *
The next morning the Area Director of SSA Region II arrived at the Boston DO to reassure the troops that it was indeed safe to work for the federal government. He surveyed the roomful of anxious paper pushers and smiled quickly at us. “Let me start off by reminding you that we can’t provide total security from cradle to grave,” the AD said. That, of course, went over like the metric system. By way of explanation he added, “I can also tell you this: you get a more obstreperous claimant here because they live in this area.” In other words, geography is destiny.
Amazingly, the AD then proceeded to make the situation even worse. When pressed about safety concerns he responded, “If you don’t like the job, leave it.” So that meeting didn’t go well.
The following day the Area Director returned, this time accompanied by a lawyer from the Regional Attorney’s Office. We were being walked up the ladder – a sure sign that management had started to panic. Halfway through the presentation by the Regional Attorney’s attorney, in walked two Federal Protection Service officers, who said they would be happy to turn guys like Woodrow Wilson over to a Federal Magistrate, if only we would call them, which we didn’t know to do until then. Regardless, we were left with the impression that the whole thing was our fault.
Several days later government-approved workmen installed a gate in the waiting room, and the General Services Administration installed a security guard there. Over the next year the office hosted a number of different guards, all of whom earned nicknames like “Mad Dog” and “Dirty Harry.” The nicknames, of course, were a joke, much like the protection.
The guards and the gate at the DO were two side effects of l’affaire Wilson. Another was the birth of a weekly newspaper.
The Free Nameless News
The Free Nameless News started out as The Nameless News and cost 10¢ per issue.
Vol. 1, No. 1 included a detailed account of Woodrow Wilson’s first foray into the Boston DO; a breathless report of a fire in the building the same week; and miscellaneous items such as this one.
(The redecorating crew’s lasting contribution to the DO was a genuine reproduction 18th century mural in the waiting room, which depicted either the Philadelphia or Boston waterfront. It included, from left to right: a young lad who looked like Tom Sawyer, a building in the Federalist style of architecture, a Greek revival building, an academic complex that vaguely resembled Harvard University, a fleet of ships flying the French tricolor, and what looked like a group of Colonial working girls waiting for the fleet to come in.)
The debut issue of The Nameless News also featured – predictably – a Name That News contest, which drew zero entries.
On top of that the Nameless News editors were firmly advised by management that we could not profit from a publication produced on public-sector time with public-sector resources. So the 10¢ was out. The Free Nameless News, we decided, was a natural for the new name.
The paper itself was less of a natural, since it was published inside what can only be described as a Soviet-style bureaucracy – so much so that the editors sought a nihil obstat from the Assistant District Manager every week.
No surprise, Vol. 1, No. 2. carried the paper’s first – but hardly last – apology.
On Valentine’s Day (Vol.1, No. 4) the News was printed on pink paper. On St. Patrick’s Day (Vol. 1, No. 8) the paper was green. In-season the News carried recaps of the games played by the Boston DO basketball and baseball teams (the SSADISTS and SSERFS, respectively, both of which waged fierce rivalries with the Lynn DO, for reasons largely unknown even at the time). There was also a regular feature called Edits & Rejects, a hodgepodge of gossip and inside jokes that are now largely incomprehensible. A sample:
The undisputed hallmark of The Free Nameless News, though, was its endless procession of contests, most of which were thoroughly ignored by the readers. In addition to the Name That News fiasco, the paper sponsored a Name That Team contest for the DO basketball squad, and, for the softball squad, another Name That Team contest, which included this note: “As your editor, I’m sick of people not leaving their responses on my desk, so this time you are invited not to leave them on Ed Fitzpatrick’s desk.” (Fitzpatrick later earned the Quote of the Week for asking, “Is that why Jesuits don’t eat pork?”)
At one point there was also a Mother of the Month feature, which included the following exhortation: “This is a new feature of the News. If you wish it to continue, you know what you have to do.” The Mother of the Month, needless to say, didn’t last long.
Like a dog walking on its hind legs, the remarkable thing about the paper was not that it was done well, but that it was done at all. Even so, reading The Free Nameless News 45 years later can only be described as a sobering experience. The paper contained a startling amount of god-awful writing, much – although not all – of it contributed by me. Especially egregious was my 10-part series “A Modest Analogy,” which took place at the Ideal DO, featured a large cast of characters whose names were anagrams of the bosses’ (Barfe Nigley was my favorite), and earned first-ballot entry to the Bad Prose Hall of Fame.
Despite all that, The Free Nameless News published 22 editions in three stuttering volumes over the course of a year. And it produced the highest compliment I’ve ever received: One Friday three dozen hardened federal bureaucrats stayed fifteen minutes after work to get that week’s edition of the News.
The following Monday, the Assistant District Manager shut the paper down.
My nom de plume in The Free Nameless News was J. Redmond Tardi, largely because I was late for work all the time. Part of the reason was that I took public (as opposed to rapid) transportation every day – specifically, the MBTA’s Arborway line, whose vehicles were one stop away from the Trolley Museum.
Then again – to be fair – mostly I was late just about every day because just about every night I was out writing jazz reviews for any second-rate music magazine that would have me. I knew virtually nothing about jazz at the time, which is why I concentrated on the second-rate magazines. But I got to see a lot of first-rate music. Being late for work was part of the system I developed in the summer of 1976.
It went like this: After work I’d go across the street to The Great Gatsby’s, wash the day away with three Wild Turkeys, go home, take a nap, then go out to see whoever was in town. I’d return home around one o’clock, do some writing, and eventually go to bed with a double album of Thelonius Monk on the stereo spindle.
And arrive late at work the next morning.
So I started going in on Saturdays, just to get within shouting distance of 40 hours a week. Saturdays were easy – no phones, no claimants, just paperwork and gossip. And there were donuts, except when there weren’t because I got in too late. Either way, I’d put in four or five hours of what had to be the least productive time in SSA history (which is saying a lot), and call it a week.
One Saturday afternoon, walking home with two bags of canned goods from the Hi-Lo, I saw my roommate’s car – The Fireball – headed the wrong way down our street. That didn’t strike me as unusual, since Jamaica Plain has long been famous for its two-way one-way streets (a sort of vigilante urban planning). Here’s what was unusual: it wasn’t my roommate driving the car, and the car had been stolen three days earlier.
The latter occurred despite the best efforts of my roommate, who chained together the steering wheel and the brake pedal every night, theoretically immobilizing the Fireball. That was standard practice on Sheridan street, where the cars sported more chains than Mr. T. The standard practice eventually led car thieves to carry small saws, so they could cut through the steering wheel and slip the chain off.
Which is what they must’ve done to the Fireball. I ran up the hill as best I could with two bags of canned goods, burst into the apartment, breathlessly told my roommate to call the cops, and fell to the floor. He made the call and ran down to the bottom of the hill, where, to his surprise, the thief had parked the car – legally, no less. The police, like Christmas, arrived eventually and asked me for a description of the driver, which I was generally unable to provide.
“It happened so quickly, I really didn’t get a good look at him, officers. I think he was wearing a red plaid jacket, though.”
“Well, let’s take a walk around and look for him, shall we?”
That was the last thing I wanted to do, since poking around with a policeman was no way to endear yourself to the fine patrons of the neighborhood establishments. Nonetheless I ventured several feet into the Hyde Square Bowl (“Nope, I don’t see him here”), Hyde Square Tavern (“Nope, not here”) and, most apprehensively, Los Villalinos (“Nope”). That night, my roommate parked the Fireball at a friend’s house in the suburbs.
The reason I didn’t want to parade around with the cops was simple: I walked through Hyde Square three or four nights a week right after closing time at the local watering holes, and I didn’t want anyone to have a wrong impression of me.
* * * * * * *
It was something to be in Boston that summer. The spirit of ’76 was everywhere, from the massive fireworks displays on the Esplanade to the stately procession of Tall Ships into Boston harbor to the red-white-and-blue redecoration of Li’l Stevie’s House of Pizza on Boylston street.
Bicentennial Fever Grips Hub.
That was the same summer I was supposed to get married to my college girlfriend, who two years earlier had chosen to live in the Midwest with her folks until we tied the knot and settled down in Boston. Six weeks before the wedding I looked up and realized that: a) I still hadn’t found us a place to live; b) I still hadn’t gone for a tuxedo fitting, even though all the ushers (spread out over three states) had; and c) between a and b, it was time to call off the wedding.
That night I did – “postponed” it, actually. I got in just under the wire, since the invitations were sitting on my ex-fiancée’s kitchen table, stamped and ready to go out the next morning. The rest of the details you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say Charles Manson had nothing on me in at least one Midwestern household.
And Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson
The thirty or so hours a week I actually was at work started getting tougher to handle, so I did what any sensible person back then would do: I took to smoking the occasional joint in the alley behind the Boston DO – but only on my morning and afternoon breaks, never at lunch. Unfortunately, it tended to make things worse. One day, for instance, I returned to my desk from a refreshing break bearing a large cup of coffee and a devil-may-care attitude. A few minutes later a claimant, puffing hard on a cigarette, walked up, handed me his redetermination letter, and sat down.
“You called me in?”
“Yes, Mr. Porter, we need to review your file.”
God only knows what was in the file, but the next thing Mr. Porter did was take the cigarette out of his mouth and drop it – snick – into my fresh cup of coffee. Then he really panicked. He lunged toward the coffee and knocked it over, barely missing me but thoroughly caffeinating that day’s paperwork. We rescheduled the meeting.
Another day, also post-break, an especially difficult claimant decided, in the course of our interview, to play what he thought was his trump card.
“You should be takin’ care of me here, man. You should be treatin’ me right. I pay your salary, man.”
That was all I needed to hear.
“You pay my salary? You pay my salary? You’re on welfare, you moron. You’re not a taxpayer. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
He stood up quickly.
“Hey! You can’t call me a moron, man!”
The Operations Supervisor happened to be walking by and quickly came over to my desk. He leaned his considerable bulk toward the claimant and said in a low voice, “Is there a problem here, Mister Moron?”
“Nossir. Nossir. I was just leaving.”
I decided I could use another break.
* * * * * * *
I look up and the Robinsons are at my desk – father, mother, two kids – straight out of some Southern Gothic novel. “We’re here for the welfare,” Mr. Robinson says, his tone indicating that he expects to be turned down.
“No problem. Let’s do the forms.”
It went well until the second question.
“What’s your home address?”
“Ain’t got no home address.”
“Well, Mr. Robinson, I need someplace to send your check, assuming you’re eligible for one. Where does your family stay?”
“Don’t stay anywhere. I’ll come in and pick up the check every month.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Robinson. We don’t write the checks here. They’re mailed out from a payment center.”
“Okay – I’ll go there.”
“There’s no there, Mr. Robinson. It’s all computerized down in Birmingham, Alabama. You need a home address – maybe the Long Island Shelter or the Pine Street Inn. You could get your check mailed to either place.”
“Ain’t goin’ there.”
And with that, the Dismiss Family Robinson got up and left.
A couple of weeks later I walked into the DO about 9:30 and was told to go right to the Assistant District Manager’s office. I was expecting another lecture on punctuality, but instead the ADM said, “Guess who paid a little visit to the Birmingham DO?”
“Take a guess.”
“Vice President Rockefeller?”
“No. Why would you say that? No – it was Mr. Robinson.”
“Mr. Robinson . . . our Mr. Robinson?”
“That’s right. Mr. Robinson went down to Birmingham and demanded his check. And when they said they couldn’t issue him one – “
“Wait – how’d he get there?”
“How the heck would I know?”
“He must’ve hitchhiked. Wonder where he left his family.”
“His family was with him.”
“The whole family hitchhiked to Alabama?”
“How the heck would I know? The point is, when they didn’t give him a check, he – and this is a quote – he destroyed the outer office of the Birmingham DO, which, by the way, had just been renovated.”
“Really? Do they have a mural too – maybe Bull Connor with some German shepherds and fire hoses?”
The ADM glared at me.
“When they finally subdued Mr. Robinson, he said he was told to go there for his check. And he used your name.”
“Of course he did.”
“What do you mean of course he did?”
“Of course he used my name.”
“Because he knows it. Why else? If he knew your name, he’d have used that too.”
The ADM glared some more.
“You should know, they’re holding you personally responsible for the damage he did.”
“What, I’m supposed to pay to fix the place up?”
“Probably not, but they could make you pay for it. One other thing: the Area Director wants you in his office at nine o’clock tomorrow.”
“That’s pretty early.” I got up and headed for the door. “Hey, if they charge me for the repairs, do I get to design a new mural?”
The Area Director’s office was high atop the JFK federal building in Government Center, with views of downtown Boston and the harbor. The AD told me to sit down and leaned back in his government-approved leather chair.
“You’re a troublemaker, son. You know it and I know it.”
“Anyone else know it?”
“Everyone knows it. Why’d you tell that claimant to go to Birmingham?”
“For the hundredth time, I didn’t tell Mr. Robinson to go to Birmingham. I said that he couldn’t pick up a check at the Boston DO, that the checks come from the payment center in Birmingham, and that he needed to have an address so that we could mail him one. It’s not my fault he has an active imagination.”
The AD leaned forward.
“You know why you still have a job? Do you? Not because of your performance, that’s for sure. You’re chronically late, you have an attitude problem, you forced the ADM to shut down that . . . that newsletter of yours – oh yes, I’ve checked your file. Despite all that, you still have a job at SSA. You know why?”
“Sure – ‘cause I’m a term employee and if you let me go, you can’t replace me. You figure it’s better to have 30 hours of me than 40 hours of nobody.”
The AD leaned back.
“You’re lucky, son. If we didn’t have the Overpayment Recovery Program just starting up, you’d be out of here.”
The AD leaned forward.
“Now get out of here.”
Pay It Backward
When the last claimant’s benefits had been redetermined and the government added up its losses, it immediately decided to recoup them by initiating the Overpayment Recovery Program. Letters went out – on green paper this time – telling claimants they had to come in to the DO. And the whole kabuki dance started all over again.
Claimant plunks green letter down on desk. File comes out. Conversation begins.
“Mrs. Patterson, our records show that you were overpaid during the past two years by a total of $2162.”
“I never got no check for $2162.”
Conversation effectively ends.
In essence the Overpayment Recovery Program took people who’d just had their welfare checks cut, and cut them some more. One day my next-desk neighbor, Tricia McDermott, flipped a file across her desk and leaned back in her chair. Tricia was too compassionate for the job but too strait-laced not to do it by the book. She stared toward the windows and said to no one in particular, “What we need here is an overpayment recovery incentive. Do you think they’d ever consider giving us a cut of the take?”
“In this lifetime?”
“No, really – 10% off the top of any money we recover. We could limit it to refunds and exclude adjustments or returned checks.”
That there were three different ways to achieve a single result was pure SSA. Back then the Social Security system was virtually all exceptions and no rules (it may still be – I’ll find out in a few years). SSI wasn’t quite as bad, but it was still a contraption only Rube Goldberg could love. To make matters worse, the CRTs received a steady stream of what were called “claims transmittals” – memos that were supposed to clarify, but more often complicated, SSI’s crazy-quilt regulations.
So nobody read the transmittals. Except me. I figured I needed something on the plus side of the ledger to offset being chronically late and generally out of step. Consequently I read every transmittal, which probably was why I got the computer to do things no one else could.
In the course of my reading I also discovered that two obscure SSI regulations, when combined, essentially allowed a claims rep to waive any overpayment.
So that’s what I did.
A claimant would come in, sit down at my desk and wearily hand over his green letter.
“Yes. Mr. Randolph. Our records show – let’s see here – that during the past two years you were overpaid by $846.”
“I never got no check for $846.”
“That’s right, Mr. Randolph. This is really just a bookkeeping thing. I need you to sign a couple of forms and you’ll be all set.”
I had decided to hand-write the two forms each time; if I had a stack of copies around, they might accuse me of premeditated overpayment waiving. Better to have a sort of eureka element involved. I’d scribble out the forms, turn them toward the claimant, and spend a good five minutes convincing him to sign them. The claimant would walk away looking slightly puzzled. Then someone else would come to my desk with a green letter.
For a while my waive-‘em-all policy stayed under the radar. But I ran into problems when people began asking for me by name. Apparently word had gotten around the claimant community that I was the guy to see with your overpayment letter. So they would come into the DO and – completely disregarding SSI’s sophisticated system of assigning claimants alphabetically – say they wanted to be interviewed by me. Suddenly I was very much on the radar screen.
The Operations Supervisor came by one day and sat on the corner of my desk, an exercise always fraught with peril.
“You’re an asshole, but you know the system better than the bosses do. They hate that. What if everybody did what you’re doing?”
“Then I’d be a fool not to, like Yossarian said in Catch-22.”
“Sometimes it’s not so smart to be so smart. Too bad you won’t be around long enough to appreciate that.”
I started to think he was right, especially when management decided to walk me up the ladder – from OS to ADM to DM to AD. The drill was the same each time: I’d be summoned to the manager’s office, I’d sit down, and he’d say, “You can’t waive overpayments the way you’re doing. This is money that the claimants were not entitled to, and it’s your job to recover it from them.”
Each time my response was the same.
“I’m doing this by the book. It’s all there in the transmittals. You don’t like it, change the system.”
That, of course, was like saying make the Gabor sisters stop getting married.
“There’s nothing wrong with the system – there’s something wrong with you. What are you thinking, writing all these waivers?”
“I’m thinking that these people were overpaid through no fault of their own. They didn’t cheat the government; the government cheated the government. Why should they pay for that?”
“Because that’s what the regulations say.”
“The regulations also say overpayments can be waived under certain conditions, at the discretion of the claims rep. I’m just exercising my discretion.”
“Very poorly, I would say.”
“Yes, a CRT’s pay is nothing if not minimal.”
“Get out of here.”
* * * * * * *
The CRTs started drifting off one by one. In some cases they found better jobs; in others they just couldn’t face another claimant. Either way their caseloads, as the claimants were known collectively, migrated to the regular staffers, who were used to the more “entitled” crowd of retirees collecting Social Security. Those claims reps had little patience, and less sympathy, for the welfare folks, who qualified as the unentitled.
You could see the life slowly drain out of the DO, like batteries in a flashlight someone left on. It got so bad, management asked me to revive The Free Nameless News, and even donated an administrative assistant to help with the typing, copying, stapling, apologizing, etc.
But Vol. 2 of the News – Still 0¢ – turned out to be as lifeless as the DO, both just going through the motions. So I decided to liven things up a bit, compliments of Vol. 2, No. 6. The Sunshine Fund was a charitable organization set up to provide meals and services to housebound claimants.
But . . .
The FNN’s shocking exposé accused Boston Sunshine Fund president Bernard (“Big Daddy”) Pont and treasurer Maureen (“The Hatpin”) Troiano of embezzlement and extortion, respectively.
The next edition of the News trumpeted the establishment of a Sunshine Fund Defense League and featured a full-throated endorsement of the incumbent regime by Tricia McDermott (longtime staff writer for the paper), who tossed in a casual swipe at the editor: “I will not even mention the huge sums Carroll has spent to persuade local periodicals to publish his so-called articles.”
Ouch. Management shut the paper down the following week, right before I was going to press with what turned out to be the Lost Edition of The Free Nameless News.
Vol. 2, No. 8 was almost entirely devoted to my ex-fiancée (who I’d begun to think of as Miss Havisham) and the Wedding That Time Forgot. Odds are, it’s best that edition is lost.
A couple of weeks later the Assistant District Manager called me into his office.
“We’ve got a special assignment for you.”
“Really. What’s that.”
“We’re assigning you to our new Special Assignment Team. You of all people know how many troubled and disturbed claimants we get here at the Boston DO. Oddly enough, you seem to have a way with them. So we’re taking you out of the regular rotation and giving you the Special Assignment Team assignment.”
“Sort of the Loony Squad.”
“We’d never call it that.”
“How many other staffers on this . . . team?”
“Just you, so far. But we’re leaving open the possibility of others.”
“So I won’t be recovering overpayments any more.”
“Not to get technical about it, but you won’t not be recovering overpayments any more.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Thus I became the one-man Loony Squad. Whoever came into the DO and “looked a little off” (as one receptionist put it), got sent to me. The special claimant would walk slowly up the aisle – always with that half-smile that says Danger, Will Robinson! – and sit down in front of me. Sometimes she would absently finger a comb; sometimes he would test the heft of the three-hole punch on my desk. Every interview an adventure.
I did about three months on the Loony Squad and decided to call it a career at the SSA. I’d had it with transmittals and Saturday hours and genuine reproduction 18th century murals and force pays and loony claimants. I didn’t want to be the smartest guy who ever did redeterminations in the Boston DO. I just wanted to be gone.
As a parting gift I published Vol. 3, No. 1 (Only 0¢) of The Free Nameless News. It included the – mercifully – last installment of A Modest Analogy, along with this farewell note.
The final edition also contained a copy of my “Federal Employee’s Notice of Injury or Occupational Disease.”
When I gave my formal notice, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Two weeks later, I kissed the old dump goodbye.
Two weeks later, I was back. I hadn’t received my last paycheck, which I was counting on more than usual since I planned to head for the Midwest to settle unresolved issues with Miss Havisham. I marched into the Boston DO and walked down to the Assistant District Manager’s office.
I closed the door behind me. The ADM smiled.
“I figured you’d come in.”
“What happened to my last paycheck?”
“You’ll want to be sitting down for this. Remember how you used to work 30 hours during the week and four or five on Saturday?
“What of it?”
“Well, it turns out we paid you time-and-a-half for those Saturday hours when it should have been straight time. So you were overpaid – let’s see – by $215.”
“I never got no check for $215.”
“Very funny. Since the check for your last two weeks equals $200.10, we’ve recovered it against your overpayment.”
“Never kid a kidder, my father used to say.”
* * * * * * *
To Whom It May Concern:
I, John Redmond Carroll, authorize Michael Scott (or any reputable Union representative) to represent me in the matter of alleged overpayments to me. In my absence, I authorize him to take whatever action is necessary to reasonably resolve this alleged problem.
There was no one to waive the overpayment for me, so they kept my last paycheck. I went to the Midwest anyway and stayed for six months. I never saw Miss Havisham once.