There must have been some sort of system-destroying intestinal bug going around the Alameda County Social Services building the day I arrived to pick up my food stamps, because every last employee looked like they’d rather be in a hospital than at work.
I didn’t know how to get to the office from the 19th street Oakland BART stop, so I rang the number that I had called to set up the appointment. An irate shriek of a voice responded to my question:
“I was just wondering what the address is for the office?”
The voice on the other side gave a sigh so deep it sounded like someone had just sat on her chest.
“We’re at [I forget]. It’s just a few minutes away.”
“Thank you. I’ll be there in a moment.”
There’s always large groups of people hanging around social services buildings. As you walk up to the building, it looks like the structure everyone is in front of should be a bar, or a circa-50s soda fountain/burger joint, or anywhere else other than a bunch of sovietesque bureaucratic offices. I guess by definition people hanging out in front of these places don’t have a lot of money, so they don’t have many places they can afford to chill at. Plus it concentrates a type of people with similar interests (social services), so there must be OODLES to talk about.
After wading through the masses outside the building, I entered the type of situation that would make Free Market-Libertarians lunge forward and scream “I told you so!” directly in your face. It was like the DMV’s retarded cousin. A 30-person line leaned across the entire front wall. Row after row of cheap plastic chairs containing people who couldn’t afford their morning coffee covered most of the floor-space. Most of their eyes were pointed at a single lightboard which featured a randomized series of numbers telling them whose turn it was the plod up to one of the windows and state their case.
I had been given an 11:30 appointment. I was told on the phone the day before to ask at the front desk for my social worker, and she would “come down to get me.” However, I had forgotten the name of the worker and there wasn’t any “front desk” anyway, instead a sprinkling of various-sized desks scattered randomly around the room. I walked up to the biggest one and stared at the woman behind the desk as she did a few things. She finally looked up.
“Hi! I’m Roger Gilson. I have an 11:30 appointment to apply for food stamps?”
She did something else at her desk, then blurted:
“Social workers name?”
“Uh…I don’t remember.”
The lady stared at me for a moment, then looked back down to what she was doing.
“You need the name of the social worker.”
“There isn’t a list of appointments or anything?”
“No,” she blurted, not looking up.
I stepped away from the blurter and dialed the number the office had rang me from, which seemed rather ridiculous, me being AT the office. No one picked up. I remembered my social worker had left a message on my phone, so I dialed up my voicemail. The recording didn’t give a name, but instead a “social worker number,” as though the employee was a machine part, or a prisoner. Success. I stepped back to the desk and waited for the blurter to look up.
“I don’t have her name, but I have her social worker number right here.”
“Need the worker’s name.”
“You don’t have…like a list of the social worker’s numbers somewhere back there?”
“No.” The blurter unhelpfully stared at me as though saying, ‘what are you gonna do now, huh?’
“So…what am I gonna do now?”
“You should call the number you were called from.”
“I just did. No one picked up.”
The blurter shrugged and looked back down to her desk, dismissing me.
Knowing not what to do, I took a seat in one of the multitude of chairs and waited around for something to happen.
Eventually, a voice came on over the speakers:
“Roger Gilson, could you PLEASE report to room [I forget].”
In fact, I forgot the number of the office as soon as I stood up, so I elected to wander down a short hall that looked promising and see what happened. It led to the ‘office,’ which contained about 20 unadorned cubicles in a room that was FAR too small for 20 cubicles…everything in the room was slapped with a depressing shade of gray paint, and there wasn’t really any signs, so I kept walking the channel around the cubicles, hoping to hear my name again.
A morbidly obese lady in a yellow t-shirt angrily slogged up to me.
“Roger Gilson? Are you Roger Gilson?”
“Yep! That’s me.”
“Whaddareya doin? You’re late. You were supposed to be here at 11:30.”
“Well, I got here at 11:25, but I was sitting in the main…”
“No you didn’t. Because you called here at 11:30.”
“Well, sorry if I don’t know the exact time, but I WAS sitting in the main room and…”
“No you weren’t. Cause you woulda heard me calling you.”
“I did hear you call me. That’s why I’m back here.”
“NOW we don’t have enough time for your appointment.” She struggled to raise her flabby arms above her head to express exasperation. “Follow me.”
She slogged her way to an office, then snatched a couple papers from her desk.
“According to the paperwork you filled out, you qualify for food stamps.”
“Hand this,” she thrust her gargantuan arm at my chest, “to the women at the information desk. She has your EBT card up there.”
“OK. Am I going to be talking to you about this in the future, or just a random employee?”
“No, you got me.” She sounded angry about the forthcoming task.
I thought about bitchily telling her that I was sorry she was having such a bad day, but I figured that she had power over my sustenance, and seemed the type of petty bitch to deny someone food if they got on her bad side, which apparently I already was on.
“Thank you,” I said, and walked back to the stuffy chaos that was the main room.
The next step in the process of receiving governmental aid was to stand in the aforementioned 30-person line with the other chattel. After doing this for a half hour, I got my time with the gatekeeper of my caloric fate.
“Hi! I’m Roger Gilson. I was told I could pick up my EBT card here?”
“You have your paperwork?”
“California State ID?”
“Uh…I just moved here…I have a CONNECTICUT state ID.”
“Take this ticket.” She ripped off a slip of paper with one of the randomly-generated numbers on it. “…take a seat and wait for your number to be called.”
Unfortunately, by now it was lunchtime at the offices, and staff was light. The 30-person line had stretched to 50 people, and the queue now looped around the entire room. The end of the line ran along a row of seats, and the welfare-seekers were resting their feet.
“Hey!”—a security guard from across the room—“you can’t sit down while on line! Stand up.”
The people sitting realized this for the ridiculous command it was, and glanced non-confrontationally in different directions, not rising. One of the women was pregnant.
“Hey!”—the security guard yelled across the room—“from now on, end of the line starts there—” he pointed to where the line of sitters ended and people had to stand. “—anyone who has to go on line, just walk past the people sitting. They are NOT in line.”
Grumbling, the line of sitters rose to their feet. The security guard leaned back in his chair, satisfied, his security badge flashing.
I waited for 45 minutes. A guy in his 50s who was talking into a cellphone sat in front of me, then leapt up a few seconds later, patting his ass. He looked down to the chair, where a puddle of yellow liquid sat.
“Ew. Hey–ewww.” He strode over to the desk with the blurter.
“Hey. Looks like somebody pissed the chair.”
“The second one in. Right there.”
“Alright.” The blurter didn’t look surprised, but certainly looked annoyed that the man would bother her with his personal concerns. That selfish man.
It look a good 20 minutes for a sad-looking Mexican janitor to wander over and sop up the piss.
Finally, lunch hour was over, and numbers began to be called more rapidly. Still, I had been sitting for an hour-and-a-half before my number blinked up.
I enthusiastically strode towards the window, where I was met with another sad-eyed bureaucrat.
“Hi! I’m Roger Gilson. I was supposed to pick up my EBT card at the information desk, but they told me to come over here?”
“Do you have ID?”
“Yeah.” I showed her my CT license.
“Yeah. That’s all you need.”
“I don’t need a California ID?”
“No. Just any state-issued ID. You can pick up your card at window 12.”
“Oh. Then why am I here?” I pointed down to her desk.
“I dunno. You’re fine.”
I went to window 12, where my card had been all along. I rushed out of the gray mess that was the office and into the sun.
I was now part of their system.