Prologue

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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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?”

“Absolutely.”

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.

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