We humans have numerous rituals to celebrate important events. Some are one-time, special occasions like baptisms for babies, confirmations and bar or bat mitzvahs at around puberty, marriage (well, not too many in a lifetime) and funerals. Others come ‘round regularly – birthdays and anniversaries, for example.
Many of our celebrations involve special foods and music, recitations of text and clothing just for the occasion. Our rituals give context to and mark our passage through life. They strengthen social bonds, renew commitments, are demonstrations of respect or faith and, sometimes, are conducted for the pleasure of the observance itself.
There is one U.S. ritual, however, that is not remarked upon and as far as I have noticed, not widely recognized as a rite of passage: signing up for Social Security. I did that yesterday.
For all my life, 65 was the “official” U.S. retirement age, the birthday on which all workers and some others become eligible for Social Security. In the past few years, the government has been raising the age at which full benefits are given and for me, having been born in 1941, it is 65 and eight months – December 2006.
During the past two or three weeks, I checked the Social Security website and knew I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate, my tax return for 2005 and my checking account number to arrange direct deposit of my benefit. I had those, but when I tried to sign up on line – twice – the link to that page was broken.
That didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the enrollment, if I could catch the webpage on a day it was working, would happen without a glitch, and as time went by, I began thinking that becoming a Social Security beneficiary is too important an event to toss off with an online form.
Nothing else we do marks our passage into old age. Oh, some have retirement parties when they leave their last full-time job, but with fewer people working at the same company for many years as in the past, retirement celebrations are less common and, anyway, it doesn’t rank up there with birthdays and bar mitzvahs. When was the last time anyone got a gold watch?
We have written and argued here for almost three years about the age at which someone becomes old. Obviously, it is a fluid designation - a different time for different people - and some refuse to be categorized as such at all.
But the whole reason Time Goes By exists is to exercise my curiosity about what being old is really like and receiving a monthly retirement benefit from the Social Security Administration is a pretty good signal that one is no longer young – or even middle-aged.
So I decided to make a private ritual of it, to mark the day when I became an official old person.
I could have called the SSA 800 number, but that's no better a ritual than a webpage form. So at about 8:45AM yesterday, I packed up my papers and drove to the local Social Security office – a dank little building down the street a short way from a strip mall where, inside, a police officer moonlighting as a guard sat reading a war novel. I was there at 9AM, early enough to be fifth in line.
After a 30-minute wait, I was called to the counter. “Social Security number?” the woman asked. Then, instead of “what is your name,” she asked “who are you?” Since I am more than my name, I liked that and decided on the spot that it was an auspicious beginning for my little ritual.
Another wait of 15 minutes and then a different woman, Mrs. Ortiz, called me into her cubicle. Like me, she is from New York City – Brooklyn, to be precise. Moved to Portland, Maine three years ago with her husband and two small children. We had a fine old time talking about what we like about Portland and what we miss and don’t miss about New York.
It was nearly an hour we spent together looking at my papers and leisurely filling out forms while I swore to the facts that I’m not a felon or a fugitive, am not lying about anything and understand my rights.
Except that the Social Security office is as drab and dull and gray as all government agencies and, oddly, neither Mrs. Ortiz nor any other employee I could see had a single personal item in their cubes – not even a box of Kleenex – it was the best experience I’ve ever had with a bureaucracy. Pleasantries were exchanged as if we might have been seatmates who had never met before at a wedding dinner. Questions were asked and answered. Computer keys clacked in response and a printer whirred.
As the final step in our ceremony, we shook hands to affirm that my new status had been ritually achieved. I was now a Social Security beneficiary and, in the lights of the U.S. government, I had become an official old person.
Aside from whatever number of additional birthdays the gods grant me and unless I marry again, this was the final rite of passage before my funeral. Mrs. Ortiz may or may not have realized it, but she made it feel like the ritual I wanted. And to celebrate my "coming of age", I had a glass of wine with dinner. Whooeee!