Posted by on Dec 21, 2012 in BLOG

Inspired by Alain De Botton’s A Week at the Airport, two classmates and I chose to spend a week at the Richmond Social Security Office. Between classes and meetings, I spent my time at the Social Security office, trying to blend in by observing rules, customs, and observe, document and blend in   by

When I imagined the social security office, I saw a cement building and men and women in their sixties or older with stiff joints that creaked as they stood up. I pictured them chatting about how they were trying to get work because social security just wasn’t enough to live on these days.

What I found was an amalgam of people ranging in age, gender, race and social standing, but all looking for one thing; help.

This waiting room is guarded, and overseen, by two slouching sentries.  As I took my first step inside, I observed one of these, a man in his thirties, nonchalantly leaning on a counter and texting.  A little later a woman arrived at the same counter to fill out some forms and he chatted happily with her.

The casualness of the guard and the obvious attempts at friendliness on the part of the social security office (from the Patty Duke and George Takei posters ordering its audience to “BOLDLY GO to socialsecurity.gov” to the silly cartoons on Social Security TV with bald eagles moving out of their nests with moving trucks and reminding people to report their change of address) told me this place had a certain charm.

Sometimes the waiting room seemed like just that, a room with people waiting. Other times it seemed like a community, with people chatting and catching up like old friends.

Every so often, though, the atmosphere of the room would shift. Sometimes it happened naturally and sometimes it was forced, but every time it was a reminder that this place had an order to it and that order would be jealously guarded.

For example, on a busy and particularly lively morning, a chirp of a cellphone rang from somewhere in the room; the guard immediately lost his friendly demeanor, straightened himself, stepped forward and commanded in a booming voice, “Please silence your cellphones.”

By contrast, later that day, two women disrupted the near-silence of the room when they walked in, cackling and doubled over laughing. They sat down and continued their conversation and laughter, entirely unmolested by the guards. Eventually, one woman’s number was called and she jogged up to the window, still chuckling the whole way.

These subtle and often indecipherable social standards were all secondary to why people really visit this office. On my last day, a young man in skinny jeans and a beany was at the reception window. He was a construction worker who had been out of work for three weeks. He was raising a child on his own and he didn’t know what kind of help he could get but he knew he needed it. The receptionist explained that all the young man could do today was make an appointment and maybe try social services.

This man’s story brought into sharp contrast the reality of what I was witnessing.  This place wasn’t significant because of its charm or its sense of community. This waiting room matters because it gives people who are going through hard times a place to go and get help.