Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Home Bureaucrat

For the last three months I’ve been struggling with the UMass bureaucracy to secure financing for my son’s semester abroad. My daughter is a social worker who spent most of the last two years helping her clients ( HIV positive homeless people) navigate the diabolical HUD paper-work labyrinth.

In the middle of yet another endless phone call (on hold for ten minutes until disconnected by the bursar’s office hang-up robot)I had a vision of what ordinary domestic life might be like if it were organized along the same lines.

In this fantasy I become the power-crazed institutional functionary. My girlfriend asks for a cup of coffee in the morning. Normally I make a pot when I get up. Not any more.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ll just need the coffee request form 676-J. When you get that signed by the Early Morning Activity office -- ”

“Early Morning Activity Office? What are you talking about?”

“We’ll need their approval. You can fax the form over to them after you’ve gotten it notarized."

“But I just -- ”

“When that’s approved you can turn it in for a single-cup-of coffee voucher --”

“Single cup off coffee? Who drinks a single cup of coffee?”

“Well, many people do, I assure you. There’s no need to be short with me. I didn’t make the rules. For multiple cups you’ll need an excess-of-ten liquid-ounces variance from the Hot Beverages Office.”

“The what?”

“It’s all very tightly controlled. We can’t have people just guzzling coffee willy nilly, M’am.”

“But, I – it …How long is all that going to take?”

“Hard to say. Depends on the brewing method. If you use the standard Mr. Coffee drip machine, and you have the sales slip and proof-of-purchase voucher, it could be as short a time as two weeks. But that has to be submitted with coffee-brand form and the grind specification sheet. The problem is, you can’t access the grind specification software until you have full approval on the coffee-brand form. That requires three signatures, one from each of the Morning Protocol offices. And you have to take those in personally. I’d get there early. Word to the wise. The lines can be brutal. Ironically, they often offer coffee and doughnuts on those lines, when they get too long.”

“You’re insane.”

“Being rude isn’t going to move things along any faster, M’am.”

“I just want some coffee.”

“Well of course. We all do. If it was up to me I’d just pour you a cup and be done with it. But I could get into a great deal of trouble for doing that. I’m sure you don’t want that to happen. I could lose my job.”

“Your job? You’re a housepainter!”

“I was. Now I’m District Supervisor for Caffeinated Beverage Distribution. So let’s stop whining and get started on this paperwork. You do have five forms of identification, don’t you? We require five forms of identification.”

“No one has five forms of identification!”

“Coffee drinkers do. As of January 1st, 2008. What can I say? It’s people trying to cheat the system. They make it worse for everyone. They think coffee drinking is a right. But in fact it’s a privilege and the sooner you appreciate that fact, the better it will be for you.”
I offer her a tissue as she starts to sob quietly, and pick up the phone to discuss tea-bag allocations with my supervisor. I’m good at this. I’ve been on the other side of it for months. I’ve learned the lingo.

I’d apply for the job, but there’s too much paperwork.

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