Most people think of the giant federal bureaucracies as rigid and unemotional. But that's not always so. Sometimes they show a mad genius in the creative ways they find to torment us.
And I've never seen a finer example of this creativity than in the case of a pathetic bum named Jerry.
Jerry is about as sad a mess as you'll find on two bad feet.
He's a drunk, he lives in an abandoned building with other bums and he doesn't work.
He used to work but he can't read or write, so even menial jobs are hard to get. He's illiterate because his folks were dirt farmers in Alabama and kept him home from school to help them scratch out a living.
Then there are his toes. He doesn't have many. They were frozen off a few years ago when he first went on the skids. His wife had thrown him out and he wound up drinking and living in an old car in the middle of a cruel winter.
Since losing most of his toes, Jerry has survived on a $208-a-month Social Security check that he receives because of his disability.
But now he has a new problem. He recently drifted back to Chicago from Alabama. Because he has no permanent address here, the Social Security people can't mail him his check.
So he's been panhandling to survive. He works the street, hoping to mooch his daily bread and maybe a daily pint.
That's what he was doing a few days ago when a young do-gooder named Kevin Gregory walked by. Jerry was sitting on a curb with his feet in the gutter. He looked up and asked Kevin if he could spare a few coins.
Kevin sat down in the gutter with Jerry and said he would like to do more than give him a handout. He works for a church group that tries to straighten out bums.
He befriended Jerry, who told him his miserable life story and said he would like to reform, dry out, go back to relatives in Alabama and lead a decent life. But he said he couldn't reform unless he received his Social Security check.
"That's why I live in that burned-out building, or in alleys," he said. "That's why I'm panhandling. I can't get my Social Security check because I don't have a mailing address. And I can't get a mailing address if I don't have rent money.
Kevin said he would help. He said he was sure the Social Security people had an emergency plan for people like Jerry.
So they went to the Social Security office and explained the problem to a lady behind the counter. She had grim lips and cold eyes.
"Is there any way he can pick up his check?" Keven asked.
"No. The checks must be mailed out," the woman said.
"But he doesn't have a mailing address, so he can't get the check by mail. And without the check, he can't afford rent."
They worked that part out. Future checks would be mailed to Kevin's address and Jerry could pick them up.
But that's the future. Kevin explained that at present Jerry is sleeping on cardboard boxes in a gutted building that might fail on him some night. He is broke.
"How has he been eating?" the woman asked.
"I'm beggin'" Jerry said.
"What do people give you?" the woman asked.
"Sometimes sandwiches. Sometimes money."
"People give you money?" she asked.
"Sometimes they do," Jerry said. "Dimes. Quarters. But people in that neighborhood don't have much to spare themselves."
The woman nodded. And then she made a notation on the form in front of her.
Kevin leaned toward and looked at the form and what the woman had written. It was the figure $138."
The woman explained:
The rules say that Jerry can receive $208 if that is his only income.
However, if he has other income, Social Security will give him only $138 a month.
"But he has no other income," Kevin protested.
"Yes, he has," the woman said. "He has been receiving income from begging."
"But the only reason he has been begging is that he hasn't been able to get his Social Security check," Kevin said. "If he hadn't begged, he wouldn't have survived."
"It's the law," the woman said.
"That's crazy," Kevin said.
"Then tell Congress to pass a new law."
"But if he gets only $138 a month, he'll have to keep begging," Kevin said.
"If he keeps begging," the woman siad, "Then he'll be receiving extra income, and he will receive only $138."
"How can he get $208?" Kevin asked.
"When he stops begging," the woman said.
"But he'll starve if he stops begging."
"Tell Congress to pass a new law," she said. And every time Kevin pleaded with her, she repeated: "Tell Congress to pass a new law."
"I need a drink," said Jerry.
"That's the way it now stands. If Jerry stops begging he will starve or get the delirium tremens. But to receive $208 a month, he has to stop begging. But until he stops begging, he only get $138 a month. And on that paltry sum he has no choice but to continue begging. Which means he will not receive $208, and must continue begging. And as long as he is begging, he will continue living like a bum.
His only other option is to stop begging. Then he will starve to death, but he will qualify for $208 a month.
He can always use it to buy himself a nice floral arrangement for the funeral. Maybe with a card that says: "One More Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."