By Kazim Alam
It was a rainy Monday morning in New Haven. As Bill parked his car outside the U.S. Social Security Administration office on Court Street, I thanked him for driving me from Hamden.
Bill is a family friend of my landlady. He offered to drive me to the Social Security office the night before at dinner when my landlady told him I needed to apply for the SSN before March 30.
New Haven fascinates me — unlike Hamden where I live. New Haven has a distinct look. Narrow roads, small, roadside shops, students cycling around with baskets attached to the handles of their bikes. The hustle and bustle of a compact city. A place where you see people’s faces, instead of motor vehicles, on streets.
As Bill and I entered the Social Security Administration building, he asked me not to be offended by security checks. I assured him that I wouldn’t. “I’m from Pakistan. No American security officer can be as offensive as his or her Pakistani counterpart.”
Although it was just past nine, there were at least two dozen people, making a queue in the reception area of the building. Of all the people present there, waiting to be let inside, Bill was the only white American. There were a few African-Americans and Hispanics, but the predominant presence was of Asians. Arabs and people from the Far East and Indian subcontinent were in majority. They were chatting among themselves loudly while standing in the line.
Bill stood right in front of me. He’s tall and heavy, and wears glasses. He took off his raincoat, belt and wedding band, loosened his shoelaces and took out his wallet, pen, keychain and cell phone from his pockets much before his turn.
I felt sorry about him at that moment. He had told me earlier that security was beefed up and body scanners were installed, especially at government offices, only after 9/11.
Hence, at 150 Court St., New Haven, Conn., the American taxpayers’ dollars were being spent on not only providing Arabs and Pakistanis with social security benefits, but also saving them from being blown up by a jihadist.
I wondered if Bill would be thinking the same thing at that point.
I walked through the scanner and it didn’t bleep. So no pat-down was necessary. “You’re all set, sir,” the security guard told me.
I said, “Thank you,” not only as common courtesy, but also for addressing me as “sir.” Americans have limitless amounts of patience and decency.
We took the elevator and reached the fourth floor. I expected it to be a noisy, crowded place with people trying to argue with clerks loudly. Subconsciously, I was perhaps expecting a place like the passport office in Karachi, Pakistan, where “agents” and “middle-men” moved around swiftly, promising unsuspecting people a hassle-free process if they paid them their “commission.”
Unlike the reception area on the first floor, people were quiet in this large, rectangular hall. Maybe it was so because of the large portrait of the awe-inspiring President Obama or the serious faces of Social Security officers sitting on the other side of the five counters that separated the office area from the main hall. An elegant U.S. flag adorned one corner of the hall.
People collected their token number from an automatic machine at the entrance and proceeded to take a seat in two parallel lines of chairs, which crossed the hall from one end to the other.
Every counter had a digital signboard over it, which showed a token number. The pace of work seemed to be fast. Token numbers were updated on the signboards quickly. In addition, the clerk would call out the token number in case the person concerned failed to notice the signboard.
My token number was 63(c). So that meant the clerk at the third counter would interview me. I started rehearsing the answers to possible questions, such as, why I needed an SSN.
Meanwhile, I saw an American, who was a redhead, tell the office clerk that he had lost the SSN of his father who died recently. He needed it to acquire the business and property his father had left behind. In a matter of minutes, I saw him walking away from the counter, saying, “Thank you, I didn’t know it’d be that easy.”
I told Bill how differently the bureaucracy in Pakistan functioned, if it functioned at all. “The process is so smooth here. In Pakistan, government offices are marked by three things: inefficiency, bribery and harassment.
“If you submit an application to a government department, there’s a fair chance that it’ll misplace your application and ask you to submit it once again.”
My turn came. The lady clerk said good morning and asked me how I was doing.
I gave her my passport, application form and recommendation letter from the Fulbright Commission. She examined all the documents carefully and entered some data in her computer. I was rehearsing the answers in my mind now.
She asked me if I had visited the United States before. I told her I hadn’t. She said OK, and handed me a receipt that said I should receive my SSN within 14 days.
“That’s it?” I asked her, surprisingly?
“Yeah. Have a nice day,” she said.
I looked at Bill incredulously, who was standing beside me. He was smiling.
“Welcome to America,” he said.