Learning to deal with the public and co-workers

I will write several posts about the early part of my career at Social Security. From 1976-1981, I interviewed people at local offices in Baltimore. I was 22 when I started. I think everyone should have a job dealing with the public at some point in their career. I had an 11-week training class which dealt with procedures but taught us very little about how to deal with people.

One time, I had a lady ask me if she could breast feed her baby. I didn’t know what to do since we hadn’t been trained on stuff like that. I let her do it. I had an overpayment interview to do. That baby would now be about 45 years old.

There was a child about two or three who needed to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t tell from their hair or clothing if they were a boy or a girl. I should have asked for their name but I’m sure it would have been Pat or Terry. The men’s room was near my desk and the ladies room was far away. I hesitated and didn’t move. Finally, the little kid figured out I didn’t know what to do and said, “I’m a boy!” Then I pointed the way to the men’s room.

My most embarrassing moment was when I asked a blind man what color his check was. In the old days, most people got checks instead of direct deposit. People would come into the office if their check did not show up in the mail. Sometimes, they didn’t know if they got Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) so we would ask if they got the green (Social Security) or gold (SSI check). I was interviewing this man and forget he was blind so I asked him what color his check was. In 2021, he would probably beat the shit out of me with his cane. Back them, he said “I’m sorry, I can’t see it, sir.” That made me feel even worse. I do believe he understood I didn’t do it intentionally.

Then there was dealing with my co-workers. Almost all were older than me and some had adult children. I thought parents were monsters and kids could do no wrong. That changed when I heard things from the parents perspective. Some of these kids were terrible. I would never do what they did.

My first office had about 15 women and three guys. One day, a man came in who must have been really handsome because all of the women were looking at him, even one lady who was over 50. I didn’t know that old people still looked. I teased her about it later and she said “I’m not dead, you know.” Now that I’m old, I understand. I still look at attractive women.

If you lived near the office, you would sometimes see claimants outside of work. One time, I walked out of my apartment building and saw a man I had interviewed recently who was asleep on the steps.

We would address people as Mr. or Mrs. One man, Warren, didn’t want that. One day, it snowed about 20 inches. It wasn’t the best I idea but I took a a walk and there was nobody outside. Then I saw Warren. I realized I was out there with real crazy people.

My first office had a room that served as the break room and training room. We had a TV for training films but people watched shows on it during lunch. Do you think we watched M*A*S*H reruns or soap operas? I grew to appreciate All My Children. It was really well made and entertaining if you didn’t take it seriously. The good people were always married to the bad people. They couldn’t have something exciting like an affair every day so they had to stretch the plots out. There was one about a teenage boy who was sleeping with a girl and her mother. Gradually, everyone in town (except the girl) figured it out. She finally got it after many close calls but it took months of episodes.

I had some very eccentric co-workers over the years. My term for them was that they were on the wrong side of the desk. They should have been on the public’s side, not the agency’s side.

I worked with one lady who was old (around 52 in 1979) and was into weak men. She would talk about weak men movie stars – Farley Granger, Bruce Dern, Stewart Granger. I think the best example was Montgomery Clift. One day she brought in a picture of her ex-husband. It was perfect. He looked like them.

The same lady was actually proposed to twice in the office. Claimants identified with her because she was crazy like some of them. One guy was a drunk with one leg who lived in his wheelchair. He proposed in the lobby in front of his son.

The other man was crazy in an entertaining way. We were less amused when we found out that he had exposed himself to nurses. One of my co-workers had a dish with the candy hearts with sayings on them. He picked one up and said “Charming but cheap!” That was great.

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