I've been writing this column and answering people's questions about Social Security for more than 20 years. And more often than not, I've been answering the same questions over and over again. And I really don't mind that because I understand there are always new people reading this column who haven't seen the answers before. Other people have been reading the column for a long time, but finally, their Social Security times has come, and they can't remember how I answered a certain question in the past.
So, I get it. My role is to go over this stuff again and again so that, eventually, everyone who needs to know about Social Security understands how the program affects them. But every once in a while, I like to take a break from that routine and instead share a few stories from my long career as a Social Security Administration employee. And today, here is one of those stories.
In 1973, I was a brand-new SSA employee assigned to my very first Social Security office. It was a recently opened branch office in the tiny farming community of Litchfield, Illinois. At the time, the office had all of five employees. I would be number six. There was a manager, two claims-taking personnel (I would be one of those), a teletype operator (does anyone remember teletype machines?) and two clerical employees.
Trying to impress my new boss, I showed up early on my first day. Just before the office was scheduled to open, the senior claims representative and the branch manager were walking in the employee entrance. It was a heavy metal door — and a gust of wind came up and slammed the door onto the hand of the claims rep. There were screams! There was blood! There was pandemonium!
The manager turned to me and said, "Are you Tom — the new guy?" I nodded rather sheepishly. And then he said, "Well, you're in charge. I've got to get Wanda to the hospital!" As they were heading back out the door, he saw the frightened look on my face. "Don't worry," he said, "this is a small office. Nothing unusual ever happens here."
Five minutes later, one of the clericals unlocked the front door to the office. About a half-dozen people filed in, including a very demonstrative old man who marched right up to the front desk and barked out, "I demand to see the manager!" The receptionist explained that the manager was called away on an emergency. But this didn't deter the very determined old goat. He said, "Well, someone must be in charge, and I demand to talk to that person." The receptionist looked back at me and said, "Mr. Margenau, can you help?"
I was still shaking from the door-slamming injury incident and was nervously setting up my desk — unpacking a little box of personal effects I had brought into the office. But I mustered up what little courage I could and walked up to the front desk. "Hi, I'm Tom Margenau," I stammered. I was about to explain to him that not only was this my very first day in this office but it was also my very first day working for the Social Security Administration (not counting the four-month training class from which I had just graduated). But before I could do that, he jabbed an angry finger in my chest and blurted out, "If you're the guy in charge, I've got a bone to pick with you!"
The teletypist came up to me and whispered in my ear: "Why don't you take him back to the boss's office." And away we went. So, there I was, all of 10 minutes into my first day on the job, and I was sitting in the manager's office about to get an earful from a very irate customer!
It turns out the guy was upset because he got a letter from the office — and the letter had a couple of typos in it. He just thought this was very unprofessional. "I can't believe my tax dollars are paying for this kind of incompetence!" he stammered.
What I wanted to say was this: "Are you serious? I mean, with all the problems in the country right now (the Vietnam War was dragging on; President Richard Nixon was about to get impeached, etc., etc.), you're upset because you got a letter with a misspelled word and a comma out of place? C'mon — get real, buddy!"
But, of course, that's not what I said. Instead, I apologized and told him that such work was unacceptable. He wasn't satisfied. He asked me what I was going to do about it. My mind raced. How could I placate this guy, I wondered. And then I hatched a plan.
I went back out into the office and talked to the secretary, Sandy, whose initials were on the letter. She looked at the letter and said: "I remember this. It was a bad day. I had to get out something like 20 letters that day. And I obviously messed this one up. I'm sorry." (This was before computers, or even word processors. Letters were done on typewriters, with mimeograph paper for copies. It was a labor-intensive, messy business.) Anyway, Sandy and I talked things over, and we set my plan in motion.
I went back into the manager's office with Mr. Obnoxious. And then, as Sandy and I had prearranged, I called her into the office. "Miss Smith," I scolded, "this kind of work is totally unacceptable. In the future, let's make sure that all letters that leave this office are perfect, with no typos or other errors, OK?"
"Yes, Mr. Margenau," she said apologetically. "I'm really sorry. This will never happen again." And I excused her from the office. (Sandy and I should have gotten Best Actor/Actress awards!)
Mr. Obnoxious turned to me and said, "I like a man who takes the bull by the horns. You handled this situation like a true professional. Thank you very much." And he left the office a satisfied customer.
After he left, the other employees in the office came up to me and thanked me for handling the boisterous old goat. I was sweating profusely and slumped down into the chair by my new desk and finished setting out my calendar, stapler, pen holder and other office minutiae. Then I got ready to get on with my career as a newly minted public servant for the Social Security Administration.
About two hours later, the office manager returned with the injured claims representative, whose right hand was wrapped up in a thick cast with a sling around her neck. The manager looked at me and said, "Well, just like I told you, right? I bet nothing happened while we were gone!" All I could do was smile.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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