The waiting game, minus the strain

I needed to take some information to the local Social Security office, so I found the place, parked in the sunshine, and walked in.

Five people sat in the waiting area. A woman stood at the window that connected the inner offices with the waiting room, conferring with the employee who worked at the window. A sign said, "Take a number," and there was a machine with a number on red paper sticking out like a cat's tongue. But I could also stand behind the woman at the window and hope for the next turn. I sensed tension from the waiting people as they watched me.

I could step back and observe until I understood the protocol in effect and fit myself into the pattern. That's how I did it when I was in grammar school.

My dad worked construction, and we moved a lot. I attended 13 schools before I started junior high. I was shy. Take it a step further: I was scared. I stood or sat at the edge of class or playground activity.

If I figured out that I could fit into the activity, I might try to work my way in. Or, I might just wait until we moved to the next place and see what the patterns were there.

When I started junior high, we stayed longer in one place. I became more confident and had more friends. My excessive shyness at school ended.

As I looked the situation over in the Social Security office, I decided my experience with blending into walls or the edges of playgrounds had ended all those years ago, and I should leave it in the past. So I addressed the waiting people. "How are we operating here today? Does everyone take a number and wait until the number is called?"

The woman sitting and waiting said, "We did. We all took numbers, but she" - the woman pointed to the woman at the window - "just came in, walked up to the window, and got waited on. She's been up there about 20 minutes."

Ah, so now the reason for the tension was clear. Those transacting business hadn't heard our conversation. Probably, the woman who ignored the accepted procedure for being served didn't realize she had pushed ahead of the line. It's best to forgive her trespass and start from where we are.

A man came in, looked around, then stood as if next in line at the window. I saw that no one else would say anything, so I said, "Excuse me. We all take a number, and then we wait until our number is called. Here's where you get the numbers."

He said, "Oh. OK." He took a number and sat down.

The woman said, "We've been waiting about half an hour."

The man said, "I wouldn't want to crowd in ahead of anyone. I'm glad you told me about the numbers."

The man three chairs toward the sun said, "We all just sat here and said nothing, but we started getting mad about the way things were going. I guess we'd sit and take whatever anybody wanted to do to us, get mad about it, and keep the anger to ourselves."

I said, "I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles a few weeks ago, and they skipped my number. I was across the room from the woman calling out numbers, and I spoke up loud enough, everybody in the place heard about it. They might have been startled by somebody speaking up loud and clear, but I don't think they minded. I think people want to be fair, but if they get out of order, you have to speak up so they'll know."

The man who came in last said, "There's nothing wrong with speaking up. If we just sit and take whatever anybody does, how's anyone going to know we want to be treated right?"

The woman said, "What I don't like is all the places you call now, and all you get is a recording: Punch this number, punch that number. They keep you on the phone four or five minutes, and you still don't get what you want. The idea seems to be our time doesn't matter but theirs does, and that isn't right, but I don't know what to do about it."

The man sitting beside her said, "I changed banks because of that. I checked around until I found one where a live person answers the phone, and that's where I bank now."

THE woman at the window left, and the woman working there called out a number. A man came out from the inner offices and called two numbers. Then it was my turn. I transacted my business and left.

Two new people walked in and looked around. The new people tried to see what the accepted procedure was. I smiled at them and walked out into the sunshine.

I'd had the pleasant experience of seeing resentment turn into conversation, smiles, and a brief sense of companionship among strangers. I hoped the people who had just entered the office would find as enjoyable progress to their day, but I would let them find it on their own.

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