I arrived at the office five minutes after it opened, and every seat was already taken. People who arrived too late and lost the race for a chair were leaning against the back wall, clutching document folders and little paper tickets. I said good morning to the armed security officer at the door, who surprised me by smiling and responding in kind before handing me a little paper ticket of my own. That was the last happy moment in my day.
I found a bare spot between a poster offering the services of Spanish sign language interpreters and a pictogram instructing me not to take photos with my phone, and I joined the sullen group holding up the wall. I glanced down at my ticket. C306. The TV screen bolted into the corner displayed a row of blinking numbers: B46, C394, G30. A voice called out G31, and the screen changed. An old Chinese woman in the middle of a row stood and waved her ticket as she gathered her purse from under her chair. I wanted to hear her call “Bingo,” but of course she didn’t. She turned and inched unsteadily past the line of politely shifted knees to reach the aisle leading to the clerk’s window. As she exited the row, a young man entered it from the other side to take her empty seat.
The numbers crept upwards in small groups. A few Bs were called. Two Cs and a handful of Gs. Then nothing. I glanced up to find the lone clerk sitting at her window and staring out towards the door. Soon, the smiling security guy came in holding a huge set of keys in one hand and pink tennis shoes in the other. He handed both to the clerk, who then changed her shoes and laced them up before calling G35.
The waiting-room musical chairs continued, with vultures swooping on abandoned seats before they could cool back to room temperature. An elderly man came unsteadily through the door with an orthopedic cast on his foot, and sighed as he scanned the full rows of seats. Only after eye contact could no longer be avoided and public shaming was imminent did the young woman with the Kindle stand to offer him a seat. The only smile in the room, besides the one on the security guard now grooving to his iPod, was George Takei’s on the poster across the room.
|No, George, it wasn’t.
C304 and C305 must have had better things to do that morning, because they weren’t around to answer when the clerk called them. After almost two hours, it was my turn. I approached the window with a smile, hoping honey would set the right tone for the interaction.
“Good morning,” I began, putting my documents on the counter.
“Ticket and application, please.” Her eyes didn’t leave her screen.
I gave her my crumpled C306 and my application form #SS-5, filled out and printed from my computer for maximum legibility. She impaled C306 on a metal spike and scanned my application form.
“Name change? You have paperwork?”
I took my marriage certificate from its envelope and handed it to her. Anticipating her next move, I opened my passport to the photo page and extended it towards the window just as she barked “ID.” She looked at my passport photo, then at me. She flipped the passport over, read the all-caps CANADA across the front, and snapped it shut.
“Are you a US citizen?” She handed my passport back to me.
“Not yet,” I replied. “I have a green card.”
“Let me see it.”
“The card itself expired last week,” I explained. “I have a document here extending it while they process my renewal. This is the official paper that says I’m allowed to live and work in the US.” I showed her the document that my immigration lawyer had rushed me by overnight courier.
She glanced at it and pushed it back to me.
“Green card,” she repeated. “I need to see your card.”
I sighed and pulled it from my wallet. She took it from me, leaned it up against her computer monitor, and began typing. Her computer beeped. She looked up at me.
“We can’t use this. It’s expired.”
“I… I know. That’s what this other document is for. It extends my green card until they can process the renewal.”
“Sorry, the card is expired. You need a valid card.”
I resisted the desire to connect my forehead with the desk in front of me. I held the extension notice out again.
“The guy I spoke to on the phone said that this counts as an official document from immigration and I could use it for a name change,” I explained. “I’ve been married almost three years now and I would really, really like to use my married name. I had to wait to renew my green card, because otherwise the fee is almost $600 to change it. This paper is all I get for now – I won’t have a physical card for another year, maybe. Are you sure you can’t use this?”
She must have sensed something in my voice, because she softened. She took the paper back out of my hands and laid it on her desk to read it more carefully.
“Well, it’s got your alien number on it. That’s the same as your green card. Let’s see if the system will accept this as an expiration date instead.”
“I appreciate this so much,” I told her. “It means a lot to me that you’re trying to help.”
She typed away for a moment, and then frowned.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” she said, giving me back all my documents. She turned her screen so that I could read it. “Looks like they don’t have your name changed with immigration yet, see? We can’t do anything until that system has your new name in it. I’m sorry.”
I nodded and thanked her again for her effort. I folded my documents neatly into my accordion folder and left the Social Security office, the same person I was when I arrived.
Note: Those of you who follow me on FB or Twitter may be looking for a post about the “Here in America” comment. I’m still working on that post and hope to have it ready by the weekend.