There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow
Secret agent man, secret agent man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name
(P.F. Sloan / S. Barri)
Gary was one of our strangest customers, for a lot of reasons. He resembled a young, disheveled Dan Aykroyd, except he had an immobile glass eye. He always wore a trenchcoat-style raincoat. Never mind that it generally only rains here from about mid-January through about mid-March, and there can be 100 degree days anytime from late April through late October. Gary was usually a bit sweaty. And he always carried a large salesman’s sample case. I never actually saw into it, but I think he carried what he considered to be his important papers. Lots of them, judging from its apparent weight.
He had a very suspicious nature. He refused to deal with mere employees, so one of the supervisors, Ned, had been given the task of dealing with him whenever he came in. Greg seemed to consider Ned to be a federal agent, which, in a sense, we all were. But in Greg’s mind Ned was more CIA-ish. Whenever Gary came in to talk to Ned, he would stand at attention squarely in front of his desk, sample case hanging heavily from his right hand. I remember the first time I saw him, a month or so after I was hired; this was exactly what he was doing. I asked the employee next to me who was that at Ned’s desk, and got a quick rundown of Gary and his antics.
Eventually, Ned had had enough and complained to his boss, the district manager, and was given the OK to tell Gary that from now on he had to talk to regular employees like everyone else. I remember talking to the district manager one afternoon about Greg. Ned was there in the manager’s office as well. I had gone into his office because I was about to begin Gary’s interview and wanted to know if they had any tips. The manager had a grim expression on his face. He said that if anyone, including a supervisor, gave his name to Gary, he would fire that employee. A very delayed grin told me he was kidding, sort of.
The one and only time I interviewed Gary was to complete a redetermination. Gary received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and had to have a redetermination each year so that SSA could be sure it was paying him correctly. As was his habit, he stood in front of my desk, at attention, holding onto his sample case. He was somewhat irritated to be dealing with a mere employee, but I’d been there a couple of years by then, so he didn’t faze me and we got done in a reasonable length of time. Gary was quite intelligent. He understood the SSI rules which pertained to him very well, and he managed his life carefully to avoid overpayments. When an SSI recipient works or is self-employed, as Greg purported himself to be, overpayments are almost unavoidable. Gary never got one.
Gary’s self-employment didn’t really qualify as true self-employment, but other employees, including Ned, had previously determined that it was, so I didn’t reopen their determinations. His supposed business was this; he had a contract with one of those free newspapers which are distributed out of boxes on street corners. The ones which primarily feature ads, both photo and classified, for sex-related businesses and individuals. What Gary did was to submit an article on some issue, usually political, along with two photographs he had taken which related to his article. He did this once a month, and was paid a fee of about $1400 per year.
When Gary did his taxes every year, he would start with his gross income, and deduct as business expenses things like office supplies, cost of film and development, transportation, and so forth, until he got his net to exactly $1020.00. The importance of this amount is that it was, and still is, the maximum amount an SSI recipient with no other income could net from self employment in a year and not have it affect the amount of his SSI payment.
Another thing it did for him was to build up his quarters of coverage. In the year I did his redetermination he would have been credited with a quarter for each $370 of covered earned income, two quarters total. He was a little under the amount needed for three. As soon as he hit 40 quarters, he would be eligible to file for Social Security disability benefits. He would be awarded SSDI more or less automatically (we already knew he was disabled, and his supposed “work” would not have been considered to be Substantial Gainful Employment.) In his 25th month of entitlement, he would become entitled to Medicare as well. Since he had SSI, the state would pay his Medicare Part B premium. Part A is free, if the beneficiary is insured. Gary had this all figured out.
When I requested his Schedule C, he handed it over along with a stack of newspaper clippings. These were large clippings. They consisted of one or two pages from a tabloid style newspaper of the kind I have described. On the front of each page were his articles and photos. On the back were a lot of really gross ads. He insisted that the clippings be kept in his file. When I filed the current documentation in with his existing documentation, I found one of the fattest files I had ever seen. It consisted of three or four manila folders stapled together, each one stuffed to maximum capacity. This included a great many of his clippings. The entire file used about a fourth of a standard file cabinet drawer. I only ever saw this exceeded one time, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Not long after this Gary left our service area and moved, to another part of the San Fernando Valley. I never saw him again. But I did run across his name twice.
The state where all this took place has a division called the Department of Rehabilitation (DR). Back in the eighties it was a robust agency, which provided substantial retraining opportunities to people whose disabilities prevented them from pursuing a career without help. It could do a lot to help people. I had a friend in their office, Kurt. Their office was about a half mile from the SSA office. I usually walked when I went over there. Kurt and I had worked on several cases jointly, involving Plans For Achieving Self Support. I won’t bore you with the details. I happened to mention Gary to my friend one day, whom I knew had been one of their clients. They had put him through four years of college at the state university, where he had gotten a BA in journalism.
Karl was delighted. “Oh! You know Gary too!” he asked cheerily. I nodded. “C’mere, I want to show you something.” He led me to their files room, opened a drawer.fully, and waved his hand over it like a magician doing a trick. “That,” he said, “is our Gary file.” The drawer was tightly stuffed, and the ever present newspaper clippings were sticking out. “You know what’s even worse?” he continued, “He wants us to send him to law school now.” He paused for a moment, then went on, “Of course we won’t, but he’ll give us a helluva fight.”
Sometime after this, I was reading the newspaper on a Wednesday after local elections. I noted that Gary had been a candidate for an open seat on the Community College Board of Trustees. There was a small photo of each candidate next to his name. It was the same Gary. No mistake. He had come in third, with 270,000 votes. A scary thought.
I wonder what he is doing now. I found a couple of articles dated 2002 which showed him as a local activist still running for office.