A Window on Number 187


The Social Security office opens.

An elderly lady—the first customer in line—informs us: “They’re late again. It’s like this every time.” She’s Number 173.

Number 177 to Number 178: “I just need a replacement card.”

That’s what I need—a replacement card—to pass a security checkpoint in ten days.

I ask Number 177: “Is there a form to fill out?”

“No. Just tell them your mother’s maiden name and first name.”



Number 173 is finishing. Finally.

“Can I help you with anything else?”

“Well, we should go to lunch sometime?”

“Oh, that would be nice. But I can’t today.”

“I’ll give you a call and we’ll get it planned.”

“Sounds wonderful.”



The agent calls the next customer.

“Number 174.”

He’s in a sour mood.

“My son hasn’t been by since Christmas.”



I chalk it up to coincidence that the agent knows Number 173 and 174.

“He’s a good kid. He’ll be by. It’s been a tough winter.”

“Yup. I’ve burned five cords of larch. Only got one more.”

“What can I help you with, Joe?”


Joe leaves.

“Number 175.”

She’s younger. No small talk from the agent.

“May I have a photo I.D. and your Social Security number?”

Whispering under the glass partition.

“And you mother’s maiden name?”

More whispering.

“What can I help you with?”

“I moved to Montana last year…”

Typing from behind the glass.

“You’re information will be updated in two business days. You’ll need to contact the IRS regarding your Idaho residence.”


“Can I help you with anything else?”

“No. Thanks.”

“Where did you live in Idaho?”


“Near Boise?”

“Have you been there?”

“My sister lives in Eagle.”

Now the agent knows Number 175, and I have a hunch she’ll get to know Number 176 if she doesn’t know him already.

“Number 176…Number 177…Number 178…”

“Number 186.”

I’m next. Over the last two hours a distinct pattern has developed: a young-old pattern.

Old. The agent tells the elderly customers that they can resolve their issues online, from home. They decline, and the agent then spends a few minutes asking into children, grandchildren, retirement life, deaths and births in the family. Social Security benefits are merely a pretense. These folks are here to share more important matters. They know this. The agent knows this.

Young. The agent conducts business and then extracts very personal stories from the younger customers. She opens small windows into their souls. She gets to know them. Maybe when they are old—and she is very old—they’ll come here to share important matters. In a very short time, she has learned something personal—maybe sacred—about each one.

Number 188 through 201 are waiting behind me. I’ll keep my turn short. No personal stories. Nothing private. Just my Social Security number and Mom’s maiden name.


“Number 187.”

“Good morning, ma’am.”

“May I have a photo I.D. and your Social Security number?”

I whisper under the glass partition.

“And you mother’s maiden name?”

More whispering.

Typing from behind the glass.

“Your card—”


“Excuse me?”

“My mother’s first name. But she goes by her middle name.”

“That’s ok. I just needed a maiden name for verification.”


“Lucy’s not a common name anymore.”

I wanted to avoid this—not waste anyone’s time.

“No it’s not a common name.”

More typing.

“Your card should arrive in the mail in two weeks.”

“Two weeks?”

“Do you need it sooner than that?”

“Yes. I’ll need it in a week and a half.”

“Well, we tell everyone two weeks, but it usually arrives in a week.”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

“Can I help you with anything else?”

“No. Thank you.”

“I can tell you’re worried about getting your card in time.”

I have nothing interesting or important to share. My reasons are my own.

“A week should be ok. Thank you.”

But I suddenly feel empty, as though something remains to be shared between us.

“I have to present it at a correctional facility.”

“A prison?”

“Yah. My friend is incarcerated.”

“Has he been there long?”

“No. He just started his sentence.”

“What’s his sentence?”

“Eight years to life.”

“I hope you have a nice visit. I hope your friend is well.”

“Thank you.”

“Number 188.”


2 thoughts on “A Window on Number 187

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