The albino guy at the counter was nearly blind and almost deaf, so naturally the US Immigration and Naturalization Service 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.

The poor guy 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 time 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 five 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, because “that’s another department.”

So my coworker calls, makes an appointment for the following week. The very same inspector shows up, glances at the plumbing and waves it off. Then he notes that a couple of ADDITIONAL items will need inspection before the job can be declared complete.

Weary sigh from my friend. “Since you’ve done both inspections, can’t YOU do that right now, so I don’t have to call again?” my colleague asked.

“Nope, that’s another department.” Guess who shows up again, twice? Bureaucrassy.

I happened across the albino guy several years ago at the Immigration & Naturalization office in Baltimore. My housemate needed to file an INS change-of-address form which they said couldn’t be mailed or faxed. We had to make the hour-long drive to Baltimore to pick it up, and then couldn’t find parking, so I volunteered to “run in and get it.” 

Famous last words. My INS encounter 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) required me to obtain a fresh signature from a “ranking executive of Toyota Motor Corporation,” that authorized me to renew my Maryland car registration.

Obtaining that permission, and the necessary Maryland state waivers, took one full day–sometimes two–at an MVA office. I’d stand in line after endless line, telling my story over and over, waiting for my number to be called. The first year, it took four hours before someone first asked me what I wanted.

I’d just watched the MVA bureaucrass handling my case take 30 minutes to move 20 pieces of paper ten feet down the counter. She picked up the top sheet and–in slooooooow motion–shuffled to the end of the counter, dropping it on an empty spot. Then she’d slowly make her way back to the stack of paper and pick up the next sheet, shuffle down the counter, drop it on the last sheet. She kept this up until the whole stack–maybe 20 sheets–had been transferred.

Job complete, she finally asked if she could help me. I burst into tears.

The INS offices in Baltimore were dark and grimy, filled with hard wooden benchesful of the saddest folks I’ve ever seen. A sign flashed “Now serving 98,” but these folks were staring mostly at their hands. Even the babies were quietly dispirited.

I took a number–63–and realized that the sign only went up to 99. There were at least 200 people sitting on those benches, dispiritedly holding numbers, and a half hour later the sign still flashed, “Now serving 98.”

I tired of waiting–all I needed was a blank form–so I stood, ignoring frantic shushings and sit-down motions from my fellow benchwarmers. I walked to the counter and saw a box marked “Change of address forms.” 

“Excuse me,” I said firmly to the guy behind the counter, pointing to the box, “I just need one of those forms.”

He completely ignored me, so I moved to the next person and tried again. Same thing. No one behind that counter so much as looked up but continued working, ignoring me and anyone else on the other side. Finally, I simply shouted.

I’m not going to bring up the time the state of Indiana sent my dad a refund check for six cents he wasn’t entitled to. He sent them a polite letter, along with the check for six pennies, informing them that they’d made a mistake. They sent it back, so he gave up.

Two years later they demanded we return the “funds” with loanshark-like interest. When he called to explain they accused him of trying to pull a fast one.

Or the time the Oregon unemployment office required that I call in to tell them that I wasn’t supposed to call in. Bureaucrassy at its finest.

“EXCUSE ME!” I yelled, “Will someone PLEASE just hand me a change of address form? It’s in THAT BOX RIGHT THERE! 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 WILL jeopardize your status in this country.”

For the next 15 minutes; I roamed that counter, trying to get ANYone to pay attention to me (only the albino acknowledged me at all: “What? I don’t work up there.”).

Most of the benched people–apparently mindful of the “jeopardize your status in this country” bit–gave me surreptitious glances of awe and pity but mostly stared down at the numbered tickets in their hands. One woman hissed, “they will deport you, they really will, please sit down and don’t make them angry.” A couple others nodded.

It was the closest I came to a friendly human in the place.

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. Said “excuse me” about 50 times. Finally, a slimy little buttondown management bureaucrass emerged from his rathole, eying me. “What seems to be the problem here? YOU are jeopardizing your resident status in the United States at this VERY MOMENT. I suggest you SIT DOWN and wait to be called.”

That did it. I pulled the J-card.

“DAMMIT!” I cried, “I was bloody BORN in this country, I could care LESS what you do to my @#$&*)(!@ status because I’m a taxpaying CITIZEN and I’m a JOURNALIST in Washington DC. If SOMEbody doesn’t hand me that bloody change of address form in the NEXT FIVE MINUTES, the story I write about this #@)*(&@# hellhole for my NEWSPAPER will crucify each and every damn one of you. Not kidding, it is BY MILLIONS OF TAXPAYERS and CONGRESSMEN and you will ALL be in it. I am taking NAMES, people!”

(I didn’t mention that I worked for a computer publication, which might have been slightly less intimidating)

The manager reached back, picked up a change of address form, and slid it across the counter. “Now get out before I call the guards.” 

I grabbed my form and fled, getting a thumbs up from a man on the bench.

“Hello HELLO?” said the albino.

I had my form. I had status in this country. I felt sorry for all the poor souls at bureaucrassy’s mercy.

I have no bloody idea how you eliminate bureaucrasses. I suspect they’ll be with us long after cockroaches.