Waiting at the unemployment office

I once saw an episode of Oprah – it was awhile back, of course, because Oprah was still on the air and not just on her ridiculous Oprah channel. Denzel Washington was on her show that day, I think he was probably promoting John Q (a not altogether awful movie, if I’m remembering correctly). ANYWAY, somehow in this segment with Denzel, he shared his philosophy:

You have to do the things you have to do so you can do the things you want to do.

I think about that often, how there are things that just have to come first, priorities that need to shift to get in line with the way life goes.

And then I think to myself, Whoa, self. You give Denzel a LOT of head space.

I went back to the unemployment office today. I didn’t want to, for sure, but I had to. I’ve worked hard since I was 16 years old. I’ve always had a job. I’ve always paid taxes and contributed to society and all that whoosy-whatsit, and now that I’m not working full time, as much as I would love to not need the unemployment check, I kinda do.

It’s taken me awhile to reconcile myself to that – because frankly, not being able to do everything on my own without help is kind of pissing me off.

I didn’t want to go back. Thursday was really difficult for me and I wasn’t the least bit eager to experience that again. I didn’t want to cry in public. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t want to spend my whole day in that dismal office.

I gathered my paperwork. Check stubs. A People magazines. Two books. Two granola bars and a plastic sandwich bag of popcorn. It could be a long day, didn’t want to get hangry. A notebook and pen, because my god, if I’m going to sit there I am going to take notes.

I arrived just moments after the office opened. The parking lot was already full and when I entered the doors I was immediately faced with full house.

I was ticket number 537.

A glance at the wall showed that they were on 471. 66 people in front of me today.

One of the workers was talking as I walked in. They had yet to start assisting claimants and were going over basics – computers over here and here to use, if you’re dropping off a form go here, you can use these phones. La la la. The room smelled like stale second hand smoke. Every chair was full but no lawn chairs yet. Nearly all of us seemed to be wearing dark colors. Were we trying to fade into our surroundings or just taking on the grim nature of the occasion with our wardrobe choices.

8:30 a.m.: The first lawn chair made an appearance.

There’s an obnoxious loop of information on the television. One segment had a little boy in a suit singing in this exaggerated falsetto. I glanced around the room for a moment, trying to place the source of this noise, before realizing it was the television. Off an on for hours, that kid. Shrieking into the room. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?

A man holding a paper cup of McDonald’s coffee circled the perimeter of the room, his pointer finger buried into his ear up to its first knuckle, rooting rooting. Ear muffs perched on the top of his head. Root, twist, dig in the ear with the finger.

When I was a kid, I loved the story Harriet the Spy – but as an adult, taking notes in the unemployment office, well… I felt like an oddity. I’d alternate: write, read my books, look at the clock, look what number they were on, but infrequently I’d look at my phone. It was my lifeline, that phone, and who knows how long I’d be there. The thought of sitting in the unemployment office with a dead phone somehow seemed even worse than just being there in the first place.

9 a.m.: 489. Shoot me. Faster than Thursday but still gruesome as hell.

“I’ve had two mochas; my toes are curling up. I’m gonna have to go home to have a beer to calm down.” The guy next to me was only without a job for two weeks and out of nowhere he’s telling me his story. Do I want to know his story? It’s far too easy to shift into my mode of not allowing strangers to just engage in conversation, but it seems rude, and we’re all kind of in the same boat. He was fired and said he shouldn’t have been. He found new work quickly but due to an error, never received his unemployment check. “I’m the sole breadwinner, ” he said. “My wife just started working a few days a week, but I just need the check for two weeks and then I hope to never come back here again.”

9:22 a.m.: 497.

Thirsty and hungry and the walls prominently feature signs that say food is prohibited. I began regretting that I’d said I’d go to work after settling things at unemployment because I was already weary and tired, and fantasizing about a really cold Coke Zero.

I found that I spent a lot of time in the unemployment office looking at the clock. This constant need to know the time is something I also experience on airplanes, and so here on land, it surprised me. I started wondering if anyone behind me was taking notes: Woman with brown hair, repeatedly looking at clock.

9:50 a.m.: 499. Shoot me. Shoot me. Shoot me. I’m not patient. This sucks. I feel resigned to the experience. Today is the day and I’m here until it’s done. Even if inside it’s killing me a little. Fine. A lot.

In two hours they saw 30 people. There were six people assisting claimants. 15 per hour? Darn near a half hour per person? The inefficiency of this office is mind boggling. I thought of busy emergency rooms and how patients are triaged based upon urgency – heart attacks before paper cuts. The Social Security Administration offices assist people based on the nature of their visit. Schedule appointments. Prioritize. SOMETHING. The rampant inefficiency was explained by a worker who stood before us and told us that the slow times we were experiencing were due to their new computer system.

“Didn’t y’all beta test this mess?” is what I want to ask, but don’t.Way to roll out a system that your employees can’t figure out.

That’s the government for ya, I suppose.

It’s 10:52. Nearly three hours gone. Coffee would be so good now.

A man and his daughter. A woman putting on makeup  while her son flipped through a book. A man bouncing a screaming baby. I can’t imagine having to bring my children here. Grateful I had a choice.

At 11, they started handing out Call Back slips. Already, people arriving at 11 or after had no guarantee of being seen today. Claimants could opt to leave, filling out a form detailing their problem and someone from the state would call them back with a solution to their problem. I don’t understand why they don’t do that for everyone. Seems more efficient.

When they called number 527, a man with long dreadlocks called out, “Bingo!” and the entire room erupted in giggles. Grateful for a laugh. Grateful that there were just ten more people ahead of me.

11:55 a.m.: 530

I was assisted by a friendly gentleman who never could tell me what the problem was only that he was fixing it, there now it’s fixed. He was kind and when I said, “I don’t think I’d want your job!” he argued back, “But this job makes so much sense. I love numbers.” I would have been annoyed if I was him and if my day had been go go go go go since the second I walked in the door. Then again, I don’t have a ton of patience. And people who are frustrated or upset would wear on me after awhile, I think.

When he told me the benefit amount, I asked, “Are you sure?” I wanted to be outraged. I wanted to be angry. It was considerably less than the determination they’d sent by mail months ago, months ago when they hadn’t done anything and nothing happened. This lesser amount was a shock. A shock, but still? It will help. Though I’ve never been one to be cavalier where money is concerned, it is still humbling to be so grateful for the mere fact that it lightens my load by that much.

I walked out the door five hours to the minute after I walked in.

I hope to never have to go back.

About sarah

Sarah is a book nerd, a music lover, an endorphin junkie, a coffee addict. Oh, and a goof ball. She writes, she tweets, and she sings off key.

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