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With the Government, and I’m Here to Help
I recently got together with some former colleagues who, like me, are old fuddy-duddy
retirees of the Social Security Administration. As many retirees do, we traded
war stories of our life and times with SSA. I decided to use today’s column
not to impart sobering Social Security advice, but rather to share a few of my
stories with you.
The most boring speech ever?
Very early in my SSA career, I was asked to fill in for a fellow employee who
was sick. Here is the catch: I was a technician just recently hired and trained
to take Social Security claims; but the guy who called in sick was a long time
veteran of the agency who worked in public affairs. His job was to run around
and give speeches to various community groups about the Social Security program.
I was told I could take the rest of the day away from my claims-taking duties
to prepare for this evening talk before the ladies auxiliary of a local church.
The topic would be Social Security widow’s benefits.
So I spent the next several hours preparing for this event. It would be my first
time ever speaking to a group about Social Security. I wrote out a series of
talking points on index cards. I prepared elaborate flip charts outlining key
provisions of Social Security law. (This was long before PowerPoint presentations.)
I fixed up some handouts. I put together a collection of Social Security pamphlets
to pass out to audience members.
Just before 7 p.m. that evening, I showed up at the church in a quiet neighborhood
in northwest Chicago. It took me several trips back and forth between my car
and the church basement where the meeting was being held to get all of my materials
organized. To my surprise, I noticed that this church’s ladies auxiliary
was made up of less than a dozen older women — and I mean older. It looked
to me like there wasn’t a soul in the room under the age of 80.
They held their own meeting first, which went on for almost an hour. By the time
I was invited to get up and speak, two or three of the oldest ladies were already
I dutifully took the stage and began my overly organized and way-too-detailed
speech about widow’s benefits. It quickly became apparent to me that the
audience members were almost all getting such benefits already. So I really didn’t
have anything new or relevant to tell them. (I learned later that the president
of the group was the only non-widow in the bunch. She was the one who requested
the topic, but she failed to show up for the evening’s presentation.)
Anyway, after about 20 minutes, I realized that all of my preparations had been
for naught. By then, several more of the audience members had nodded off. I asked
if anyone had questions. Not a single hand went up, and there was nary a peep
from the crowd — although there was some snoring. The lady in charge came
up to the front and said (and these were her exact words): “Thank you,
Mr. Margenau. We really don’t know what you said or why you came here tonight,
but we appreciate it anyway.”
Despite that terribly embarrassing performance, I would go on to make thousands
of Social Security presentations to groups all around the country. In fact, I
still do them today. And I haven’t put anyone else to sleep since.
Flashing for a disability check
A few years later in my career, I was taking claims at the Social Security office
in Billings, Mont. One day, I had a 30-something woman at my desk who wanted
to file for disability benefits. When I got to the question that asked her to
explain her disabling condition, she said she had “this rash on my chest
that itches so bad I just can’t keep a job.” I tactfully explained
to her that a rash was probably not a condition severe enough to meet the rather
stringent definition of a disabling condition for Social Security purposes. She
told me (rightfully so) that she had every right in the world to file for disability
benefits. So I tried to get her to explain what the rash was or how she got it — and
how exactly it prevented her from working.
She grew increasingly frustrated trying to put into words the answers to my questions.
So she finally said: “Here, just let me show you.” And she proceeded
to lift up the sweatshirt she was wearing — with no bra, by the way — to
show me (and everyone else in the crowded office) her rash — and everything
else that was under her shirt.
I was so flustered I really don’t have too much of a memory of what happened
after that. My co-workers told me later that my face turned redder than any rash
that woman had. Oh and by the way, her disability claim was denied.
Just another day at the beach
At one point during my career, I worked in the Social Security office in Everett,
Wash. My job took me to the far reaches of that office’s territory, including
some islands in the Puget Sound. One day, I had to hand-deliver an emergency
Supplemental Security Income payment to a disabled woman who suffered from severe
depression. When I got to her island home (it was really more of a shack), I
was told that she was down on the nearby beach taking a walk. They pointed her
out to me.
I walked down to the beach and after jogging for maybe a quarter mile to catch
up with her, I called out her name. Instead of stopping, she took off running
as fast as she could. Of course, she had no idea who I was. Among other things,
I shouted “I have money for you.” Finally, she slowed down, and just
as I caught up with her, she quickly turned towards me, took a big stick she
was carrying and whacked me hard on the side of my head.
The next thing I remember, I was coming to lying on the sand with lots of people
around me. She and her family apologized profusely. She said when she saw me
chasing her and shouting something about money, she thought I was trying to proposition
her. Maybe I should have shouted: “I’m with the government, and I’m
here to help!”
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