The albino guy at the counter was nearly blind and almost deaf, so naturally the government put him in charge of answering the phone. They gave him a larger-than-life phone straight out of the Roaring 20s, sporting a big red light where the dial should be. Whenever someone called, the phone would emit a soft brrrrring and flash its light.
He couldn’t hear its ring and could barely see the light, so periodically he’d pick up the handset and shout “Hello, HELLO?” Nothing there of course, so he’d slam the handset back into its cradle, then pick up the whole phone, peering anxiously at the light. In the hour I watched him, the phone rang twice. Both times he missed.
Right about then I coined a word for such things: Bureaucrass.
A colleague at work bought a house that needs extensive renovations, so he spends nights and weekends tearing down, framing in, and dealing with contractors. A county inspector came out to review the wiring–which took about 5 minutes and a wave of his hand–but noted that some esoteric plumbing also needed inspection. My colleague, he said, must call the county and order yet another inspection.
He called, an appointment was made for today…and so today the very same inspector showed up, glanced at the plumbing and waved it off.
He also noted a couple of additional things that needed inspection. “Can YOU do that right now, so I don’t have to call again?” my colleague asked.
“Nope, that’s another department.”
I’m not tarring all those hard-working public servants out there with the bureacrass brush (else I’d have a LOT of friends and relatives mad at me)…but do you ever wonder how bureaucrassies come about? Has anyone ever figured out how much each bureacrass COSTS the folks who pay taxes?
I happened across the albino guy at the Immigration & Naturalization office in Baltimore, several years ago. My housemate needed to file an INS change-of-address form which for some reason couldn’t be mailed or faxed–we had to make the hour-long drive to Baltimore to pick it up. Parking was scarce, so I volunteered to “run up and get it.”
Famous last words. What I ran into was straight out of an Ionesco play. Or maybe from the movie, Brazil.
When I lived in Maryland I had the great misfortune to have leased a car in another state. Every year, Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) would require me to obtain a fresh signature from a “ranking executive of Toyota Motor Corporation,” authorizing me to register the car.
Obtaining it, and the necessary Maryland state waivers, required a full day–sometimes two–at an MVA office. I’d stand in line after endless line, telling my story over and over, and waiting for my number to be called. After four hours of this, the first year, I broke into tears.
One year I watched the MVA bureaucrass handling my case move a stack of papers 10 feet down the counter. She picked up the top sheet and–in slooooooow motion–shuffled to the end of the counter, dropping it in a clear space. Then she slowly made her way back to the stack and picked up the next sheet. She kept this up until the whole stack–maybe 20 sheets–had been transferred.
It took a half hour, while I waited for her to get back to me.
The INS offices in Baltimore were dark and grimy, filled with hard wooden benchesful of the saddest bunch of folks I’ve ever seen. A sign flashed “Now serving 98,” but these folks were staring mostly at their hands. Even the babies were quiet.
I took a number–63–and realized that the sign only went up to 99. 64 people would be served before my number would be called. A half hour later the sign still flashed, “Now serving 98,” and I got tired of waiting.
I stood up, ignoring frantic shushings from my fellow benchwarmers, and stomped up to the counter. I saw a box marked “Change of address forms,” and pointed to it.
“Excuse me,” I said firmly to the guy behind the counter, “I just need one of those forms.”
He ignored me, so I tried again.
I’m not going to bring up the time the state of Indiana sent my dad a refund check for six cents–six cents that my father informed them he wasn’t owed, to no avail. Two years later they demanded we return the “funds” with loanshark-like interest when it turned out Dad was right.
Or the time the Oregon unemployment office required that I call in to tell them that I wasn’t supposed to call in.
“EXCUSE ME!” I said, “Will someone please just hand me a change of address form? That’s all I need.”
Without even looking up, the man waved me off. “Wait for your number to be called. Failure to wait for your number to be called could jeopardize your status in this country.”
For the next 15 minutes I roamed the INS counter, trying to get ANYone to pay attention to me (the albino said “What? I don’t work up there” which was at least an acknowledgement). The people on the benches–apparently mindful of the “jeopardize your status in this country” bit–gave me surreptitious glances of awe but mostly stared at their tickets.
Is there a reason that I receive notifications from the insurance company about notifications I’m going to be receiving from the insurance company?
I pounded the counter. I said “excuse me” about 50 times. Nothing. I got mad and pulled the press card.
“DAMMIT!” I cried, “I was bloody BORN in this country, I could care LESS what you do to my @#$&*)(!@ status and I’m a REPORTER in Washington DC. If SOMEbody doesn’t give me a change of address form in the NEXT FIVE MINUTES I’m going to write a #@)*(&@# story about this hellhole and you will ALL be in it. And I am taking NAMES, people!”
(I didn’t mention that I worked for a computer magazine, which might have been slightly less intimidating)
The first bureaucrass reached back, picked up a change of address form and slid it across the counter. “Now get out before I call the guards,” he growled. He never did look up.
I grabbed my form and fled, getting a thumbs up from a man on the bench, and a hello HELLO from the albino.
I have no bloody idea how you solve the bureacrass problem, but I sure wish somebody could figure it out.