Last week I took my lunch hour to run down to the Social Security office on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. After being turned away at the door for the Swiss army knife on my keychain I stashed it across the street behind a concrete trash bin and went back in. They gave me a number, 133, and there was no “now being served” sign to be found. I was told I could have a seat and wait or I could get in line and maybe I would be served before my number was called. In hindsight I cannot figure out why some people are given numbers and some are told to wait in line. It all seems rather silly.

So I got in line and stood there for some time. No numbers were called and no one in the line moved forward. Two of the four counters had plywood nailed over them and one of them was vacant. The center of the room had rows of hard chairs bolted to the floor and not one of them was vacant. I silently cursed at myself for leaving my book at the office. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” would be a cheery escape compared to the faces and ambience of this cramped little room with fluorescent lighting.

The minutes crawled mercilessly by. Five minutes. Ten minutes. The line remained the same, the crowded seats stayed crowded. From what I could see not a single person had been helped. It was right about then that a woman in line up ahead of me caught my eye. She looked Hispanic, but with very light skin so I couldn’t be sure. Her short, dark, curly, oversized hair was accented by some poor silky looking black shirt. The synthetic fabric was stretched across her skin like an explorer, leaving no fold or crack unfound. After what appeared to be 5 or 6 decades on the planet, there was plenty of creative terrain to be displayed too.
The thing about this woman that struck me was her cell phone. It was clipped onto her belt in a clear plastic sleeve. It made me wonder if her furniture at home were adorned with clear plastic as well, ensuring that the style and condition of her vintage 70’s sofa would survive the ravages of time. I looked at her and felt something sad about her, something almost dark. Tragedy was just around the corner for this woman.

The phone lit up and filled the waiting room with its obnoxious ring-tone. The lady fumbled with her purse and coat and bags and managed to extract it from its clear plastic home just in time to avoid sending the caller to voicemail. She answered in a rushed tone, seemingly exhausted from the process of pulling the phone out and pressing the talk button.

“Hello?” she said to the caller. Moments passed and she just listened. “Oh my God ….. When? ….. How? …..”. She began to get congested and sniffle on the phone, leaning one had to stable herself as the news hit her. She was no longer talking, but speaking in a hybrid dialect of pain, sadness and horror.

“What’s the number? ….. Hold on, let me find a pen”. As she fumbled in her purse looking for a pen and paper several people around her jumped to help, handing pens out toward her with audible clicks. I had a pen too, but I was more than ten feet away from her and would have had to move people out of my way to get to her. I felt badly though, I wanted to give her my pen. I wouldn’t have even asked for it back.

She quickly scrawled down a number and stuffed it in her purse and said goodbye. Maybe the number was to a funeral home to make arrangements for whomever it was who had just passed away. She hadn’t seemed too surprised by the news though, maybe that’s why I sensed something tragic about her. She was standing there in line, waiting to get a social security card or something, wondering when her little plastic sleeve would deliver the news to her. She was ready for it, but the emotions inside her still managed to overwhelm her, no matter how much she had been prepared.

I looked at the clock on my plastic-free cell phone. Fifteen minutes had passed since I arrived. Not a single person had moved yet. I left the building and went down to the street and headed back to work, annoyed that I had wasted my time and would have to make a second attempt at this errand, and wondering incredulously how that woman could possibly still be there in line, and hoping the next time her phone rang it would be much happier news.