By Syed Arif Hussaini
Over a decade back, I had received a letter from the local Social Security Department informing me that I had died! The letter, rather NOTICE OF ACTION as it was called, bore my name as the addressee and said: “Medical coverage for the above named will be discontinued because we have been notified of the person’s death. There are no special death or burial benefits provided under the Medi-Cal program.”
Since I had not yet kicked the bucket, I was least interested in the “special” or regular death or burial benefits. If I were dead, as the bureaucracy had presumed, would it have mattered to my dead and buried body whether the medical benefits were withdrawn or not. As I was still alive and needed the medical benefits that I was entitled to as a senior citizen, the Notice Of Action did scare me.
Much as I would have liked to, I could not treat the letter as junk mail. I could have made a paper plane out of it, but I couldn’t have made it fly considering the nature of information on it. Death is the last serious act of a person; it couldn’t be treated lightly that way.
To make sure that it was just a normal slip of the bureaucratic pen or computer, I decided to shave, dress and present my ghost or myself to the Social Security Office.
On the way it occurred to me that my letter informing that office about the demise of my wife might have been read by some functionary in a hurry - a paradoxical term in a bureaucracy - who saw the word “dead” and understood clearly what had happened. Then the person might have skipped the text, considering it to be redundant, and noted my name at the bottom of the letter and connected the two. Two plus two made five to him, and I was the number five in this case.
The moon-faced, oriental-looking lady at the window of the Social Service office was all charm. I informed her that I was not dead but it was my wife who had passed away and I had myself informed their office of her demise. She kept saying ‘Hokay, Hokay” (OK) to emphasize the clarity of her comprehension. She also took some notes to strengthen that impression. Naturally, I was quite confident that I had communicated to her my predicament and that the minor mistake of identity would not turn out to be a big bill for the medical service I was receiving for my diabetes.
Lo and behold! Within a couple of weeks of all that “hokay, hokay” I received another notice saying exactly the same thing. I called the office several times to receive busy signals or the answering machine. I understood why people were living longer these days. When the Angel of Death calls, all he gets is an answering machine.
Finally, when I did succeed in speaking to a human being and not an answering machine, he asked me to speak to Mr. B. I recalled the words of a wit: “If the first person who answers the phone cannot answer your question, it is a bureaucracy. If he does, it is a miracle.”
Hoping for a miracle, I called Mr. B. He picked up the phone on the first ring and did not take more than a couple of minutes to understand the problem. He asked me to hold the line and disappeared for a good ten minutes. I started debating whether to keep hanging on to the phone or hang it up. When I was about to hang it up, I saw the ghost of a fat medical bill floating in my direction to strangulate me financially.
Eventually when he did return to the phone, he apologized for the error and said it was the fault of his office and that of the computer; it took him so much time to correct the numerous entries in the computer.
Computers are indeed great. They make lots of mistakes, but when they do, it is nobody’s fault!
The computer is undoubtedly a poor substitute for human intelligence, but then so are a lot of bureaucrats. It may some day be capable of artificial intelligence, but it will never master real stupidity like some bureaucrats do.
To revert to my story, I did receive a letter a couple of days later saying: “The discontinuance of your qualified Medicare beneficiary program benefits has been rescinded.” Very simple bureaucratese!
Language is all that separates us from the lower animals, and from the bureaucrats.
That is not the end of the story, as I had presumed. For, last week, twelve-and-a-half years after the demise of my wife and complete silence since the above-mentioned incident, I received a letter of the same office addressed to my wife asking her to visit that office on November 2, with certain documents, so that her continued entitlement to social security benefits could be reviewed. I informed the office in writing that she was no longer in this world, that I had submitted to them a copy of her death certificate. Obviously, she could not claim, nor receive any benefit since her death over 14 years ago.
My wife was an effervescent, vivacious person always enhancing the joie de vivre of those around her by her wit and humor. Even in death she appears to be maintaining for others that zest for life.
I recalled the story of a plumber who wrote to the BUREAU of Standards that he had found hydrochloric acid excellent for cleaning drains. He inquired whether the Bureau thought it was OK. Their answer: “The efficiency of hydrochloric acid is indisputable but the chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.” The plumber wrote back thanking the Bureau and expressing his pleasure that they agreed with him. The people at the Bureau were alarmed that they had been misunderstood and wrote back: “We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues with hydrochloric acid; we suggest you use an alterative procedure.”
The plumber wrote again to say he was glad to know their interest in his work and that he was continuing with the acid. The Bureau sent a telegram: “Don’t use hydrochloric acid. It eats hell out of the pipes.”
In my first posting in a large government bureaucracy back home, I was frequently stumped by the language used. My stenographer became my guide. I could not understand why a note on which the President was giving orders was called an unofficial (u.o.) note. Why a Memorandum was called an Office Memo, and why it started with the words “The undersigned is directed to...” If I was the undersigned, who could be the over signed. Why should formal letters end with the words: “I have the honor Sir, to be your obedient servant”, when the bureaucrat actually means: “You have the honor, you nobody, to be my obedient servant.”
The expression “Enclosed herewith please find” was totally beyond me, as I couldn’t conceive of enclosing something therewith, and if a document was enclosed, the receiver of the letter would of course find it, unless he was dumb enough to be specifically asked to “please find”. Thanks to my steno, I survived.
You cannot imagine the strain the clerical staff back home go through every day to think in mother tongue and to translate their thoughts into an alien language. Here is the exact text of the leave application of a clerk I had received:
“Sir, shortly I am going to be faced with the delivery circumstances of my wife. For this purpose, as also to look after the remaining children, I need seven days leave. Last year also when I was faced with similar circumstances, I had applied for leave but was not granted, and the child in question died as a result thereof.” This young man left service and did quite well as a cloth merchant.
To sum up, let me quote the famous French fiction writer, Balzac: “Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pyg mies.” Let me add the adjective “brain-dead” to pygmies. I should know; I have held bureaucratic jobs for decades.
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