Standing In Line

I have a bad feeling as soon as I walk through the door.

To my right, a guy in a chair is trying to keep hold of a squirming, screaming pre-schooler. To my left, a young mother bounces a yelling toddler on one knee while rocking a baby in a car seat with her foot. In front of me, a long zig-zag of people with weary, exasperated expressions. They face the same direction like cattle in a storm, all focusing on the service window.

Sitting in the seat we all want to be in, is a lady…leisurely reading a book.

When I ask the security officer if this is normal, he looks at his watch and yawns. I guess it’s a good thing I’m here at the Social Security office. By the time I get waited on, I’ll look old enough to collect.

When waiting in a line, one looks for any encouraging sign of forward movement. If it’s the grocery store you peek over the shoulder of the customer in front of you and say to yourself, “What’s he got? Milk, Doritos, green beans, bananas, yogurt, pork chops…great! Only six items. I might get home before my Rocky Road melts to slush.” If it’s the line at the bank, you look for the ratio of teller windows to occupied teller windows. Eight windows with only two “closed” signs means you have a good chance of being back in your car before your savings bond matures.

If it’s the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, there is no encouragement to be found. You just pray your dog will still remember you by the time you get home.

I’m looking for something, anything that will encourage me while standing in this line of frustrated taxpayers. There are several signs prominently displayed on the walls. None offer hope. “No Smoking”. “No Firearms Allowed In This Building”. And “Abusive Language May Be Cause For The Refusal Of Service.” If you see a sign forbidding something, you can be sure it’s not to prevent a hypothetical scenario. I wonder who’d be foolish enough to stand in a line that stretches all the way to Tucson only to mouth off to a customer service rep behind the counter.

I didn’t have to wonder long.

“I’m not leaving here until I get an answer to my question!” The book lady put aside her novel, yelling at the man behind the counter. “Tell me what I have to do!”

“I’ve told you already several times. You need to find out if the hospital has already filed for a Social Security number. If not, the parents have to provide identification and file for the child’s number. It’s right here in the instructions.” The manager, wearing a button-down shirt and tie that matched his gray hair, was quickly losing patience.

“The person I spoke to on your 800 number told me to come here. Now I’m here and you’re telling me I can’t get what I came for. I’ve been here for two hours and I’m not leaving until I get what I came for.” A sit-in at the Social Security office? Could you please move over one chair and continue your protest while the rest of us get on with our lives?

“I’ve told you what you need to do. Multiple times. We have other customers that we need to take care of, so please take your information and go.”

“You’ll have to get a cop to throw me out because I’m not leaving.”

If there’s going to be a floor show, I can stand here a little longer.

The manager nodded to someone in the back and the security officer made his way to the front. Regretting her threat but too stubborn to admit it, she hissed at the manager, “Anyone touches me and I’ll sue!”

As the security guard stood next to her chair, she filibustered for another ten minutes. Alternating between rude and ridiculous, her behavior was embarrassing. Even the screaming pre-schooler stopped to watch. He seemed surprised that his tantrum was one-upped by a grown-up.

When she finally left, escorted by the now wide awake security officer, everyone in line breathed deep and smiled at each other. We were all thinking the same thing and I waited for someone to say it out loud. For someone to say how much of our time this woman had wasted with her stubborn attitude and refusal to listen to the person trying to help her. To say how rude she was to the manager. But no one did.

The retired man behind me felt the need to break the tension by changing the subject. “Ya know, It wasn’t so hard to get my first Social Security card. Back then it was against the rules to laminate it. But I did anyway. Wanna see?” He pulled out his original Social Security card issued in 1948 and held it out for us to look at. We gathered around, strangers all, and looked at his card as if it were an ancient artifact.

Standing in line at the Social Security office I was reminded of four truths:

Few sights are more pathetic than adults behaving like children.

When we don’t hold our tongue and choose to be rude, we hurt people.

When we do hold our tongue and choose to be silently kind, we bring dignity to awkward moments.

When we offer a kind word in the wake of an awkward moment, we draw people together.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” – Proverbs 15:1-2

Todd A. Thompson – June 3, 2002

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