November 4, 2007



I arrived at the post office a few minutes after nine Monday morning. The previous Saturday, I’d found a slip in my mailbox informing me that there was a package waiting for me. At the time, I was just on my way out the door to give a reading at Germ Books in Philly, so it would have to wait.

      I knew what was in the box—mostly contraband, actually—and so I was anxious to get my hands on it.

      When I reached the pickup window, I pushed the slip and my driver’s license under the bulletproof glass. I never much liked showing my driver’s license to people. I look lost, drug-addled and retarded. Even my mom groaned when she saw that picture—and when your mom groans at your picture, you know it’s bad.

      The clerk picked up the license and examined it. Then he peered at me through the dirty window.

      “This is you?” he asked.

      Yes, well, it’s that kind of picture.

      I lifted the hat from my head to give him a better look. “I’ve since got my hair cut,” I explained. For a moment I thought of adding “ . . . and I’m no longer retarded,” but didn’t.

      He looked at the license again. Then, instead of giving it back and going to retrieve my box full of contraband, he just walked away, taking my license with him.

      Thirty seconds later, I heard a cluster of women burst into laughter in the back room.

      (Like I said, it’s that kind of picture).

      Several long minutes passed, as I listened to the laughter spread from group to group in the back. Then the clerk returned, still chuckling.

      “Yeah . . . ” he said, sliding the license back beneath the window, “that parcel’s gone out again already.”

      “Oh,” I said. “Well. In that case, I guess I’ll be seeing you tomorrow morning.”

      On my way home, I thought to myself that it’s at times like this I regret disconnecting the front door buzzer. It may keep the Jehovah’s Witnesses and unexpected guests away, but packages and pizza deliveries are a real pain in the ass.

      Ah, well. I got home, signed the slip, checked the box telling the postman to leave the damn package there, then went back downstairs and taped it to the front door.

      That day, unfortunately, the postman apparently just wanted to drive around for a few hours with my box of contraband. He never stopped—or if he did, he ignored the slip. In any case, it ended up back at the post office, which meant I’d have to make another trip and put up with more smirking mockery.

      I’d been having my share of trouble with bureaucracies lately: services, agencies, corporations and administrations alike .

      When I first signed up with the National Cripple Fund last March, the lady who was handling my case told me that if I ever earned more than $500 a month, I needed to report it to them. So when I received the advance for the new book (finally) in July, I dutifully called it in to the social security office. The agent I spoke with then informed me that I didn’t need to worry about it. Unfortunately, though, since I’d called it in, I was stuck. The conversation had been recorded and registered, so something needed to happen as a result.

      Three months after that phone call, I received a dense, multi-page form in the mail, asking for a detailed account of all the money I had earned since I was twelve. I was to fill this form out and return it as soon as possible with original documentation proving I had earned what I said I did.

      Well, one Saturday afternoon with Morgan’s help, I did just that. It took awhile, but with no little relief, I was able to drop the form back in the mail, thinking I was done with it.

      Then, three days later, a longer form arrived in the mail. This one asked pretty much all the same questions, but they were arranged differently, thus making it a different (and therefore necessary) form. It also asked that I provide information regarding any earnings I might have made “following the date marked in Box 1, Section 1 of this form.”

      This section, which clearly stated it was to be filled out by someone at SSA, was, of course, blank.

      So I stuck a Post-It to the form with a big black arrow and question mark pointing at the “date” box, then sent it back to them.

      That might have been a mistake. Two days later, a third form arrived in the mail, once again arranged differently, but again asking for the same information.

      And all this, mind you, was in response to a single check—and not a very big one—which I had received three months earlier.

      I decided to call SSA and find out what the deal was.

      Now, first of all, it is absolutely impossible to reach anyone at the Brooklyn office by telephone. No matter what numbers you hit while answering the questions posed by the voicemail menu, you end up in “Mailbox 1001,” which is inevitably full to overflowing and accepting no further messages. Then the machine hangs up on you.

      So I called the national office. After struggling to spell my name to a computer for ten minutes, I finally reached an actual human being, who informed me that all I needed to do was make a copy of that first form and send that in instead.

      “Oh . . . .um . . . .thank you.”

      I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by that, especially since I’d sent the first form in to them already.

      Then, while I was trying to figure that one out before another set of forms arrived, my email went kablooey. Stupid me, first thing I did was pick up the phone again to try and call the support number.

      After twenty minutes of branching my way through the voicemail menu, I finally reached a point where the recording said, “We’ve got enough problems of our own right now, so please hang up and don’t call back.”

      With all of these things still hanging unresolved, Morgan and I went to Philly so I could give that reading. When we got back, I wrote up a little invoice and sent it to my publisher.

      Now, I wasn’t asking for anything crazy—didn’t ask them to pay for the beer and smokes. Just the train tickets, is all. Train tickets are damned expensive, and I was told beforehand that they’d be covered.  The reason behind the trip was promotional, after all.

      But then I heard from an editorial assistant after my invoice arrived at the publisher’s office. It seems I had two choices. I could give them all of my banking information—account numbers, addresses, “routing numbers”—and they’d deposit the money into my account electronically, shortly before selling off that information to some Ukrainian mobster. Or, if I just wanted them to send me a check, it would take several months and there would be other forms to fill out.

      Y’know, is it just me, or did life used to be a hell of a lot easier before we got all these modern conveniences?

      I’m coming to the conclusion that there aren’t really any presidents or prime ministers out there anymore. They exist on television and no place else. There are no governors, no mayors, no CEOs or Executive Vice Presidents. No regional managers or departmental heads, either. There’s just one giant interconnected bureaucracy, staffed with millions upon millions of clerks, who answer to nobody. If a customer demands to talk to “someone in charge,” they just grab another clerk, who plays the role for a few minutes. (Morgan and I used to pull that one at the Press all the time.) And that’s if they even choose to deal with the public directly at all. Those voicemail systems are godsends.

      At heart, it’s 21st century Kafka. It’s rule by voicemail menu. It’s a kind of accidental anarchism—but in an incredibly aggravating form.

      And that, if you ask me, explains a hell of a lot.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.