“We’re getting old,” Laura said in one of our first conversations in the Social Security office in the almost-North West Bronx. “What?” I answered. “We’re only 40.”In 1991 a lot of people considered 40 to be old. Not me.
Our claimants were from the hood, The South Bronx, The Woman’s Shelter in the Armory across the street, and the men with AIDS who lived in cages (really) in a formerly good hotel on The Grand Concourse. So good the teams playing The Yankees and other celebrities would stay there.
The city paid over $1500 a month a cage. A lot of money, in 1991, for something that was around nine feet long by six feet wide.These weren’t “our boys with AIDS” but drug addicts. You see one “LOVE” “HATE” prison tattooed on eight fingers you’ve seen a thousand. You think you’re going to hate these boys, but during your first AIDS claim you look them in their very young eyes and you can’t help but think “damn some woman’s grandson.” (Many of their mothers were lost to crack.)
There were some truly excellent neighborhoods in The Bronx: Riverdale, Fieldston, Pelham,Throgs Neck and Country Club are the first that come to mind. I know where Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew up in Kingsbridge, still a very middle-class hood
The Bronx wasn’t burning then as much as the entire city was imploding. Crack addicts took over an apartment in my best friend’s incredible Upper West Side (UWS), very Seinfeld but much nicer, building. (The Law & Order franchise loved filming in it.)
Because it was the UWS the building residents were able to work with the police to get the crack addicts out, and the doctor’s widow who rented the apartment into assisted living. She was killed the next week by a bus, but….(There’s a big article in NY Magazine about this whole thing).
The people had power. The police listened and respected them.
The Bronx was different. People lived there. Nobody listened to them. Drive-by-shootings were a daily occurrence. I’m far from a bleeding heart; before this job I was a superficial JAP (Jewish American Princess) who lived for sex, drugs, and rock & roll. (One of those might be a lie. Or not.) My life was in Manhattan; it was a good life.
But the Bronx, it got to me. Mothers spent their days walking their kids to school—kids next to buildings to be safe,–then the mothers would navigate the social service system, walk the kids home, put them in the center of a room with the thick black-out drapes closed to play Nintendo or watch TV so they’d be safe. I quickly learned never to ask if the kids had friends as the mothers would look at me as if I were crazy. They didn’t have the luxury of play dates.
In a few months, I would move out of my giant rent stabilized studio off Fifth Avenue on 63rd Street in Manhattan to the North West Bronx otherwise known as Riverdale, or not really the Bronx, or that place where richer people fled to when the Cross Bronx Expressway was built.
It was time for me to give up my Mary Richards studio for a Mary Richards one bedroom (Neither my studio nor one bedroom looked anything like Mary’s. I liked her and considered a barometer on how to live a great single life.)
Laura dressed in variations of beige. I hadn’t seen the A-line skirts she wore since high school. She cut her hair herself to just below the ears, and she was beginning to lose her battles with gray and gravity despite her dedication to aerobics in the break room during lunch.
My hair was some variation of post-punk red. I wore colorful clothes, and bright red or pink lipstick. Anything, I realized later, to combat the dreariness of the office.
It was a standard government issue drab and depressing office that lost the battle with graffiti every day. Though I liked subway graffiti this graffiti was just annoying and depressing. I don’t know how telling a person they had been accepted for SSI could be depressing, but sometimes I would listen to other claim reps, and want to shake some emotion into their voices.
My office was the second most diverse in the city. I could tell when people were BS’ing me in 41 separate dialects.
You know how sometimes you know something is wrong but it takes distance and time to understand what was wrong? My years in The Bronx were wrong for me. Really wrong.
My father had died suddenly when I was in training. My training group had been a rock of strength and solidarity. We were the first external (not from Social Security) training class in eight years. Hand selected, we were supposed to be “the best and the brightest,” an accolade that cracked us up constantly.
As long as we were together I felt strong, but eight weeks after my father’s death we went to our offices. The first thing, the very first thing Laura (who had appointed herself my mentor) said to me was: “Flynn’s father died on March 31st. He’s very upset. Never ever talk about death.”
My father had died on March 31st. I was in mourning also. But for almost a year I never mentioned my father’s death at work or when I went out with people from work.
It was easy to fit in. Harder for some people to match the girl/woman who was continually laughed during breaks, and was voted best dressed white woman, three years in a row, at one of our many morale building parties, with the serious worker who took excellent claims.
People quickly learned that if they couldn’t figure out how to do a claim to give it to me. SSI calls for much judgment. The Procedure Operating Manual Systems (POMS) was the SSI bible. There could be five rulings for one situation. None of the rulings superseded any other. It was our job to decide which ruling benefited the claimant the most.
Some claims were just difficult. One woman, and her social worker, had been sent to almost every Claims Rep. Her ex-husband, a government employee, made in the high six figures. Some months she would be eligible for SSI; other months she wouldn’t be. It was more important for Medicaid eligibility than for the actual dollar amount which was minimal.
Maybe because I’m disorganized; maybe because I’m an accountant’s daughter, and half good with numbers and money, I quickly saw that the amounts on the ledger didn’t match the dates. Everything was a month, sometimes two off. The social worker couldn’t thank me enough for “teaching him his job.” Yeah, I live for such moments (sarcasm).
The next week a woman and her children came to my desk. They were covered in dust. I kept toys from Star Magic, a popular New York store, that had fun toys you couldn’t find anywhere else on my desk. Everyone was entranced by them. I had to buy another set so the Claim Reps could play with them but I digress.
No child had ever shied away from them. These children (five altogether) didn’t even look at them. They had vacant gazes in their eyes. I’m not easily scared by people. This mother scared me. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t look me in the eyes, though she wouldn’t. It wasn’t that she was so filthy though she wasn’t. It wasn’t that her answers to my questions were monosyllables though they were. It was something I couldn’t explain.
Plus they lived in a motel in Queens near the ocean. Why would a family come all the way to The Bronx for SSI? I asked if she had any family or friends in The Bronx. No. I knew they were eligible for services at the motel and got permission to call it.
The social worker said that the family was “weird” and “not very bright” but had the right to go to any Social Security office they wanted to. Officially that wasn’t true. Unofficially Social Security let anybody go to any office.
I told the social worker she wouldn’t give me relevant information such as where they came from. “Yeah, she’s hazy on info. Don’t have any” I found info out by going into the computer system. I called their old office and asked for the records to be sent. Many things were still on paper in the early 1990’s. The records, when they finally came, were–well nobody in my office would do such horrible, lacking in substance and details, claims.
The social worker at the motel and I had serious fights. I knew he was right. Nothing could be done until she did something horrible or one of the kids was obviously abused or died, but couldn’t she be put into some place where there would be more help? I knew a great family shelter and contacted them. They would take her but she had to ask, and she refused.
I told my supervisor there was something really wrong. Flynn and I didn’t get along. We flirted. I made fun of his politics and his love for Letterman which so didn’t match his politics. He made fun of me. But Flynn lived near me, after I moved to Riverdale, and would drive me home. We would talk for hours. But we didn’t get along. Get that?
Flynn made fun of me for caring so much about the family. Then they disappeared from the motel. We heard rumors. Bad rumors.
After that, Flynn thought I was psychic and would make me look at people in the waiting room and decide if they were sick or not. I told him it didn’t work like that. I wasn’t psychic. I had rearranged the forms so that after I asked a few basic fiscal eligibility questions I could ask the right medical questions and the person or family wouldn’t have to come back to the office if they had been accepted to fill out longer forms. Sometimes they would be accepted so quickly they wouldn’t have to come back to sign. My claims took longer initially but in the aggregate they were shorter. Then there was the claim that was approved in record time–two days.
We weren’t assigned claims but would take whoever was next (or some of us usually played by that rule). I called out the name “Hernandez.” The mother, Marta, was as beautiful as her name. She smiled at me and I melted. It made me happy when people smiled in the office as most people were defensive and assumed you were going to pounce them.
Marta said that she didn’t speak English and was going to let her twelve year old daughter, Angelica, speak for herself. Only Marta said that in perfect English. Throughout the claim I would notice the dual light and sadness in her eyes when Angelica said something only adults should have known.
I introduced myself as Ms. Savage. We used last names at Social Security so that the claimants wouldn’t get too familiar.
Angelica, like her mother, had a beautiful face. Her body was twisted rather oddly, and she walked with two canes. Marta was holding many pillows that she put on the chair before Angelica sat.
I asked some questions and Angelica began telling me the most amazing story. She was one of nine people known to be alive in the world with a variation of brittle bone disease that was both incredibly painful and incredibly deadly.
Soon I became aware that Falk the claims rep who sat in front of me was quiet. He never stopped talking. Laura who’s last name was Levin sat across from him. She stopped talking too. (I called our part of the office the shettel as the four Jewish claims rep all sat near each other.)
Soon everybody in the office was quiet. Every time I asked a question Angelica would answer more eloquently than any twelve-year-old had a right to be. She was very aware that her life-span was almost over. Doctors from Montefiore were studying her. They had brought in experts from all over. I assumed it was because anybody who met Angelica wanted her to live.
She explained brittle bones to me. She explained why and how she was going to die. I managed not to cry as I asked questions. In some ways, it was an easy claim. Angelica was a font of information. But I had to write down every name, every detail. I was aware that my summary had to be the best one I had ever written. Angelica deserved that.
The claim took over four hours. I missed lunch but didn’t care. No way was I going to make this girl wait or come back.
When I finally finished I walked them outside. For the first time I kissed a claimant–or her mother actually; I was scared to touch Daniela.
I was shaking when I got back to my desk. Every claim rep stood up and clapped. Falk later told me that it was the first office standing ovation.
I couldn’t stay in the dank depressing office. Without telling Flynn or anybody I ran out and took a walk.
Instead of walking north to middle-class luxury, I walked south to Jerome Avenue’s famed chop shop area. Men on the street saw me. All my life I had dreaded men saying things to me. These men went: “there’s Ms. Savage. Wow!” When other men came out, the first ones would say: “treat her well. Ms. Savage’s one of the good ones.”
I smiled. I really smiled. Those compliments meant more to me than an outstanding review. Laura was always complaining about how nasty the claimants were to her when she ran into them. She was an excellent SSI Claims Rep but part of her had turned dead.
That was the day I decided to leave Social Security. I didn’t want to become dead inside like so many of the claims reps.
My mother made me take a vacation. She felt guilty because all my days off had revolved around her doctor’s appointments, and the three days I had taken after my father died. I would force myself to go out, but wasn’t the fun person I once had been.
A year later I left.
This post is dedicated to every member of every minority group in the USA; to every person who believes that diversity should be welcomed.
And to every person who has worked a “thankless” severely underpaid job–that every person who has never worked there is sure they can do better.