William Ade writes from his basement office in Burke, Virginia. His evolving voice is self-described as “Midwestern Old Man” which is appropriate since he grew up in Indiana during the fifties and sixties.
I sat in the chair hoping to resolve my misunderstandings about Medicare. In front of me, was my assigned government official parked behind a steel-topped desk. Stacks of documents rose on either side of him, creating a valley where he rested his hands, fingers interlocked. The unadorned cubical walls that bounded him were beige fabric. He reminded me of an old robotic fortune-teller, sealed inside a glass box, dispensing futures for a quarter.
I handed the man a summary notice I’d received from the government. “After I first applied for Medicare, I received three letters from the Social Security Administration. Each had a different monthly cost estimate. So I paid the lowest. Then I got a notice saying I was short and it had another amount to pay. I’m confused.”
The man pressed his lips tightly together as he studied the piece of paper. He didn’t ask any questions. Maybe he was verifying the accuracy of my data. Perhaps he was struggling to make sense of my dilemma. I didn’t have a clue. He didn’t hum or murmur or speak.
“I talked with other folks at SSA, and their instructions only complicate my situation. I hoped talking to someone in person would be more efficient."
He didn’t react.
That morning I’d arrived an hour before the office opened and still stood thirtieth in line. I’d survived the gauntlet of preliminary checkers to get this far. I was afraid of slipping up by irritating him with an incorrect form, the wrong data, or a stupid question. I didn’t want to fall victim to the bureaucrat’s most formable weapon – making me start over.
“I was afraid I’d lose coverage if I didn’t get this quickly fixed. Hopefully, you can help me.”
The official didn’t smile or nod. He seemed immune to my chatter. I guessed every anxious citizen tried to charm him, hoping to gain a measure of empathy. Of course, he couldn’t care about my situation. He had a job to do. Ask questions, give answers, and move people along.
The man’s hands played across a computer keyboard, and his eyes studied the magic appearing on the monitor in front of his face. I watched his mouth and eyes, looking for any movement to indicate an emotional engagement. He offered nothing. I wondered if he hated his work. Who could blame him? Everyone he saw wanted something. On the other hand, maybe he’d grown to dislike people. If I were asked enough inane questions, over and over for days on end, I’d become intolerant of our species.
“Did you have a good weekend?” I said. His eyes stayed focus on the computer screen. He grunted, “Uh huh.”
I wanted to break down his shield of indifference. I figured if I could establish a human connection, then perhaps he’d see me more than a simple petitioner. If the official recognized me as a fellow human being, he might overlook any errors and expedite my resolution.
“Weather’s finally getting warmer,” I said.
His head bobbled, but he remained silent. Okay, the man wasn't going to open up to me, even at the most normal level. My smile, my happy chit-chat, and my unassuming ways failed to move him. I was only going to be a social security number to him. I found his behavior irritating. How much energy did it require to behave as if I were a human being?
“Are there any questions I can answer?”
The official shook his head, his attention fully engaged with the computer screen and whatever mysteries the system was revealing. Why was he so unapproachable? Why did I even care? The interaction would soon be over. I’d have to accept what I felt was subtle hostility.
“You are adverse to conflict,” a therapist once told me. “You’re a classic middle child, always intent on bridging differences, ensuring tranquility.”
How could he perceive any conflict? I was polite, asking for nothing outside his job description. Was it possible the man didn’t like my face? It wouldn’t have been the first time in my life. My liberal guilt bubbled to the surface. The man’s skin color was inky black. Did my Irish-German ancestry, manifested by my near-white hair and pale face, rouse any animosity? Had he been victimized in the past and his resentment manifested itself through a purposeful remoteness?
Our meeting drew to completion. The man handed me a printout of the instructions for addressing my mix-up. I had my solution, and the official was one customer closer to filling his quota. I would leave and be replaced by another imploring citizen. My experience would be nothing more than strangers exchanging data. Two humans interacting as if they were machines.
I rose from my seat. “Thanks for your help.”
The official looked into my face. “How do you pronounce your last name?”
A triumphant glow burned in my chest. I fought to contain a celebratory smile. I knew this man. That question knocked down his façade of aloofness. It revealed to me who he was. I’d met his brothers and sisters in the past, masquerading as clerks and taxi drivers. Like him, they gave up their secret identity when they asked me the same question.
“In the United States, it's pronounced ‘Ade.'" I answered. "But in Nigeria, it’s pronounced ‘Ah-day.’”
A smile broke across the official’s face. He shared with me the fact I already knew. “I’m Nigerian by birth,” he said.
I laughed and executed my well-practiced lines. “Are you? Then you might have heard of my cousin, ‘King Sunny Ade.'”
The man’s head rocked back in laughter. His hands drummed the surface of the desk. I may have been the first white man he’d ever met who knew the name of Nigeria’s most celebrated musician, let alone claimed a shared bloodline.
He reached over and grasped my hand, “Can I do anything else for you, my brother?”