My Trip to the Social Security Administration

I changed my name legally on May 17th, 2011.  Since then, I have been slowly changing all of the documents I can get my hands on.  A couple of weeks ago, I had some time between errands, so I did what every normal guy does with his free time – I took a spontaneous trip to the Social Security Administration.

It was lunchtime, so there were a ton of people there.  I took a few moments to try and figure out the system, then made my way to the check-in line.  I only had a few hours, so I was anxious to figure out if I thought I could get through the whole process in time.  The check-in line moved pretty quickly, and I soon found myself face to face with a terse, all-business young woman.  I told her I needed to change my name on my SS card and pulled out my file of documents, handing her my court order and my driver’s license.  I watched as she read carefully through the court order, felt the watermark to make sure it was a legitimate, certified copy, frowned until she figured out the county of the court.

When she looked at my driver’s license, she glanced up at me and said, “This is your new driver’s license?”  I nodded yes.

She gave me a look that screamed, “What exactly are you trying to pull here?”  “I’m sorry,” she replied, “We’re going to need a valid I.D.”

“This is my valid I.D.”

She frowned again.  “No, we need I.D. with your old name.  Do you have an old driver’s license?”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I was hearing, and explained that the DMV took my old driver’s license when they corrected it to reflect my current legal identity.  The explanation, however, did not satisfy her.  I offered my birth certificate, which she would not accept.  So I asked if my Social Security card would work.

“No, I’m sorry,” she repeated, “Your Social Security card is not a valid I.D.”

I refrained from asking why I was even bothering to change it, if I can’t use it as I.D. in the very office that issues the damn thing.  I also explained that my current legal name was reflected on my driver’s license and that the court order should be enough.  She gave me a form to fill out and a number, saying, “Well, I can’t make any promises that this will work, but you can try.”  Fortunately, as she handed me the form, the woman at the next station explained to her that my driver’s license was truly a valid form of I.D.

The crisis averted, I sat down to fill out the form, realizing with a sinking heart that I was in for a long wait.  My number was B3177.  When I looked up at the board flashing the current numbers, I quickly saw that the system was not so simple.  The board had numbers for A,B, C, D, E and F.  B was currently on 3162.  The first number I heard called was an A, and then a B, so I thought, “Okay, not so bad, it just cycles through the letters.”  But the next number called went back to A.  As did the next.  And the one after that.

I decided to wait it out until I absolutely had to leave.  I was already there, I might as well try to get this done.  The anxiety in the room was palpable.  The kind of anxiety bred in those places where no one wants to go, but end up going because they absolutely have to.  Like the DMV, but without the excitement radiating at least from teenagers getting their first driver’s licenses.  A lot of the people there appeared to be immigrants applying for temporary or first Social Security cards.  Everyone looked uncomfortable.  First Social Security cards are apparently not nearly as exciting as first driver’s licenses.  Plus the DMV only has one set of numbers.

There were “no cell phone” signs covering the walls – seriously, they were everywhere – and a security guard whose primary purpose seemed to be keeping people from using their cell phones.  She was up from her desk, I swear, whenever someone looked at a cell phone.  She dragged at least three people out of the building while I was there.  One of them even had the gall to demand that the security guard save her spot in line while she finished her call.  I only saw one person who simply said, “Oh, sorry, I have to go,” and quickly hung up her phone.  I don’t know why the SSA cares so much about cell phone usage, but they take that rule seriously.

The more I watched, the more the number system confused me.  The B numbers got up to 3165, then dropped down to 3100, then back up to 3165.  Signs indicated a policy that the administrators would call each number three times, then move on to the next number, but they would stay on numbers long after it was clear the person it had disappeared, then return to them much, much later.  It seemed one person was assigned to check in, and the others each had different categories of numbers they oversaw.  I listened to the people around me grumble as those who had been there for hours were forgotten and fresh arrivals were brought into the back room of the SSA.  Frustration emanated from those whose numbers had been mysteriously skipped.

As luck would have it, the lack of system worked in my favor and the B column moved rather quickly.  The woman who checked me in came back on duty and became the B number person, calling my number.  I shuffled quickly up to the desk and handed her my form.  At this point, I should remind my readers that she had previously told me my birth certificate did not count as valid I.D.  I should also mention that the request form for the new card asked specifically for my mother’s maiden name and that my mom had kept her maiden name after she married.  Let’s say, for the purpose of this story, that my last name is “Smith” and my mom’s last name is “Johnson.”

So I handed her the form and watched as she gave it a thorough read-through.  She took my I.D. and my Social Security card.  As she moved between the form and her computer, she stopped for a moment and gave me that familiar, doubtful look.

“We’re going to need proof of your mother’s identity.”

I stared at her blankly for a moment, managing only to ask, “What?”

“We use the maiden name for Social Security,” she said, as if it explained something.  “We’re going to need proof of your mother’s maiden name.”

Confused, still, since the form had asked for my mother’s maiden name and I had provided it, I responded, “My mom’s name is Johnson.  It has always been Johnson.  She never changed it.”

The woman glared at me, visibly wondering how I could be such an idiot.  “Her name according to our information on you is Smith.”

“How is that possible?  She never changed her name.”

Unmoved, she repeated her mantra, “I’m sorry, we’re going to need valid proof of your mother’s name.”

I began to look through my file, wondering what I could use, when she added, “Do you have your birth certificate?  That would work.”

I decided it was best not to ask why my birth certificate could not function as my own valid I.D., but could function as my mother’s, and handed it over.  The woman corrected my mom’s name in the system without ever explaining how, if they use maiden names, it ever got changed in the first place.  She explained very slowly and carefully to me that she would need to take my old Social Security card, which I happily handed over, and that the new one would arrive in the mail in a week.  I thanked her and got out of there as fast as I could.

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3 Responses to My Trip to the Social Security Administration

  1. Erica says:

    I know you already told me this story, but it’s just as mind-boggling and (sorry) hilarious the second time around. This has to be one of the best stories you will ever have about your transition process. And about bureaucracy in general, actually.

  2. sirgarreth says:

    Haha, it’s cool. I found it pretty entertaining as well. And, in her defense, the woman was not uptight about what mattered (changing from a female to a male name) and was friendly/helpful when I asked about the requirements for changing my gender.

  3. Polka Dot says:

    The ss office belongs to the land of Kafka as does the INS aka Homeland Security. A shiver runs down my spine even when I think about it. Your experience there reminds me of my own struggles with documents and innane questions.

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