It’s 11:30 a.m., and after three hours of waiting, I have finally gotten to the front of the line at the Social Security Administration on M Street in Washington, D.C. I have come to see if they received a fax—the agency rarely uses email to communicate with the public.
The harried worker in front of me click-click-clicks something into her computer terminal, then looks up at me disapprovingly. “You have an appointment,” she says. Um ... what? This was the first I had heard of an appointment. After weeks of calling their 800 number without success, I decided to just show up in person. “It’s at 3 o’clock,” she went on. “Didn’t you receive the notice?”
I would later find out that their office had indeed sent me a letter, but because a “2” was incorrectly entered as a “4,” it had gone to the wrong address. The fact that I appeared on the day of my “appointment” was a fluke. And they had not received the fax.
I have always seen myself as an organized, goal-driven person. I make to-do lists, color-code my files, and have an unhealthy love of the “labels” feature in gmail. So when my daughter Emily was born three months early, at just one pound 15 ounces, I thought I was going to handle things, like I always do. In the awful few weeks that followed, this tiny creature endured feeding tubes, an IV that dwarfed her miniature arm, a respirator, a blood transfusion, and countless needle pricks to her foot. But in some ways, our 10-week experience in the Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit, or NICU—which ended happily when we brought our daughter home in March—was easier than the different kind of hell that followed: a three-month tour through the woefully underfunded world of government social services.