Old age pensioner probably isn't the politically correct terminology, but that's what we used to call the crusties when I was young, and I see no reason to change the nomenclature just because I'm now a crusty myself. So yes, I am officially old I receive a pension and I have both a gold card and a community service card. Each card gives me discounts on this, that or the other thing or service because they define me as legally poor, and therefore in need of all the financial help that I can get. Additionally, the gold card entitles me to free bus trips during off peak hours. However since I live in a place that does not have a bus service, I suspect I will find this gold card feature to be less than useful...
There are bureaucratic wheels to be set in motion before you can collect a pension. It isn't automatic. I always assumed (if I thought about it at all, which I didn't) that there was a dusty clerk buried deep in a dusty government office who had a huge filing cabinet full of information about the birthdays of everyone in the country. As soon as an individual had clocked up sixty-five birthdays, the dusty clerk in his dusty office would sit up and take notice and start sending out dusty cheques. But that's not how it works. The government doesn't monitor you that closely (thank goodness). Instead, the onus is on you to tell them when you have reached the age of eligibility. You have to say, Please, pretty please with knobs on, can I have some money?. And if all the i's are properly crossed and all the t's are properly dotted, the money just rolls in.
It starts, as these things invariably do, with a form to fill in.
You can get printed forms from your friendly neighbourhood WINZ (Work And Income New Zealand) office or, if you are feeling sufficiently hi-tech, you can fill the form in on-line. Since there are at least a dozen computers scattered around Casa Robson, I elected to go the hi-tech way. What could possibly go wrong?
The form was long and boring but I strongly suspect that it was quite streamlined, in the sense that the answers I gave determined what I would be asked next, so that I didn't have to wade through the piles of inapplicable irrelevancies that would have faced me had I filled in a paper form instead. Nevertheless I was still presented with about a dozen screens full of questions about the minutiae of my life. Finally I reached the very last screen. It helpfully informed me that once I clicked on the button marked Next my application would be submitted and I would no longer be able to edit any of the information I had supplied.
I clicked the button marked Next and the next thing I saw was:
An error occurred while displaying the page.
Please use the browser back button to go back to the previous page
or select the Home button above to start over.
An un-handled server exception occurred.
Please contact your administrator.
I can't say that I was very surprised when the error occurred. These things happen all the time with computer systems (particularly governmental computer systems) since most of them are designed and implemented cheaply rather than properly. Nevertheless, I was mildly annoyed. Fortunately one of the clever things about this particular form is that as long as you don't click the button marked Home you can simply log off and come back to it a few days later and you will find that your information is still there waiting to be submitted. (If you click Home, you will indeed have to start again from the beginning so despite what the instructions say, don't ever click the button marked Home. Trust me, you will deeply regret it. Would I lie to you?).
I waited for about three days and then I tried to submit the form again in the hope that they might have fixed the error. No such luck. It still failed on the final step. Clearly nobody at the other end was paying any attention to their system logs. I did not find this at all surprising.
I was now faced with a bit of a quandary. Since I couldn't submit my application for a pension, Catch-22 said that I would never be able to convince the government to give me one. Perhaps it was all part of a deliberate ploy designed to save the government money by refusing to accept pension applications in any form at all. I began to consider the purchase of a tinfoil hat.
Fortunately, in the very small print on a very small web page on the WINZ site there was a link that took me to the bottom of a locked metaphorical filing cabinet that was itself stuck in a disused virtual lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'. And there I stumbled across an email address which could be used to report problems with the site. So I reported the problem and sat back to see if anything would come of it.
Rather to my surprise, I got a reply about a week later. It said, in part:
Thank you for taking the time to email us.
We sincerely apologise for the fault you are experiencing.
The error message displayed relates to a fault which has now been resolved.
You should be able to log back in to your application and complete your form online.
Full of hope, I went back to the form and submitted it. This time it worked (wonder of wonders) and a page appeared telling me to ring a particular phone number and arrange an appointment for an interview. There were intricate instructions on how to hack my way through the jungle of the voice mail system that the phone number would connect me to. When I was six levels deep in the maze I was instructed to say the word appointment to the robot that was questioning me. So I dialled the number, navigated the maze and said appointment. The robot vanished, a phone began to ring and an actual human being said, Hello, how can I help you?
I was astonished. I can't remember the last time I got a human being on the other end of a business phone call.
I need an appointment to discuss my application for a pension, I said.
Have you filled in the application form? asked the human being.
Yes, I said. I did it on line.
Did you print out the form so that you can sign and date it? asked the human being.
No, I said, puzzled. I didn't realise that I had to. Nothing on the web site told me to do that.
There's a button, said the human being. You click on it and the form with all your answers filled in gets printed. There's a space at the end for your signature and the date. It's marked with an 'X'. You can't have a pension if you haven't signed the form.
There wasn't a button, I said.
It's not valid without a signature, said the human being.
There wasn't a button, I insisted. There hadn't been a button.
The human being heaved a deep, long-suffering sigh. I'll see if I can pull it up on my screen. When did you submit the form? What's your name, address, date of birth and inside leg measurement?
I supplied the necessary information.
Do you dress to the right or the left?
Hang on, I said. I need to look in a mirror.
Never mind, said the human being. I've found your details. I'll print the whole thing out on your behalf and post it to you. Don't forget to bring it with you when you come for your interview.
That's right, I said. In all the excitement, I quite forgot that I rang to make an appointment for an interview. Can I have an appointment, please?
The first available appointment is with Mr Bond on the 9th of February at 2.00pm.
But that's a whole month away, I said.
They are all very busy people, said the human being. Do you want the appointment or not?
Yes please, I said.
I've put it in his diary, said the human being. Goodbye.
The phone went dead as the human being hung up. One more hurdle out of the way.
A week or so later, a very fat, official looking envelope arrived from WINZ. Inside was my filled in form with a space for my signature. As the human being had said on the phone, 'X' marked the spot. There was also a letter confirming my appointment with Mr Bond. I was instructed to bring my birth certificate, citizenship certificate, passport, a bank statement to confirm the details of the account the pension was to be paid into, and a letter addressed to me with my postal address on it to confirm that my house actually existed. Nobody seemed to have noticed that these requirements overlapped possession of a passport confirms both my citizenship and my date of birth. So why do I have to provide a birth certificate and citizenship certificate? But bureaucrats are not noted for their logic...
The WINZ office where Mr Bond lived and worked was a little bit of a surprise to me. I walked through the entrance and found myself in an anteroom with no indication of what to do next. There were no signs and no reception desk. The only available door was locked. I was starting to wonder if I really was in the right place when the locked door opened and an enormous security guard stuck his head out.
Yes? he asked. What do you want?
I explained why I was there and he opened the door wide. Behind him was a huge open plan office full of desks with nobody sitting at them and a counter with several hatches. All the hatches except one had their grilles closed. A gigantic queue of people stood at the only open slot, chatting among themselves as they waited to be served. Bored toddlers ran shrieking around the room. Several people were carrying takeaway coffees. Obviously they were old hands who knew just how long everything was going to take.
Over there, grunted the security guard.
? I asked.
He waved vaguely towards the other side of the room. See that sign that says Senior Citizens? he asked.
I can see something, I said, but I have no idea what it says. It's too far away for me to read it.
There's a waiting room there, said the guard. Go and sit in it and Mr Bond will be with you soon.
I walked towards the senior citizen area. Along the way I passed several more security guards standing alert with their hands poised, ready for instant action should it prove to be necessary. I felt both reassured and slightly perturbed. Over the last year or so there have been several violent attacks on staff in WINZ offices as angry beneficiaries took out their frustrations with their fists and sometimes with weapons. I was pleased to see that WINZ were obviously reacting positively to the potential threat. But today there were no angry vibes. Everyone seemed calm and good humoured.
Eventually I reached the senior citizen waiting room. It was the first time I'd been referred to as a senior citizen and it made me feel rather odd. I sat down and stroked my silver beard. A man came into the room and looked at me. Mr Robson? he asked.
We shook hands. My name is Bond, he said. James Bond. Come with me.
Doo diddley oo doo doo doo do. Doo diddley oo doo doo doo do. Doo doo doo doo dum.
I hummed the familiar theme music under my breath as we walked over to one of the empty desks. (Bang! Bang!) Mr Bond logged himself in to the computer that was sitting on it and clicked on a few things. All my details appeared on the screen. I was mildly disappointed that no blood trickled down it. Maybe he wasn't the real James Bond after all...
Now, let's see what's what, he said. Have you got your documents with you?
I gave him my passport and the various certificates and letters. He fed them into a photocopier that scanned them and sent him a pdf file of the results. He displayed them briefly on his screen and then attached them to my file.
Are you employed at the moment? he asked.
No, I said. It's wonderful to have all that leisure time.
Are you intending to get a job? he asked.
No, I said. Well maybe in a few months time, just as a hobby.
He snorted with laughter. Having a job as a hobby, he said. That sounds like a good idea. I wish I could afford to do that.
He checked the signature on my application form and he scanned that as well. It all seems quite straightforward and routine, he said. You will be eligible for the pension from your next birthday. Unfortunately that's half way through a pay period, so your first pension payment will only be a part payment, proportional to the length of time you've been eligible. But from that point on, you'll get a full payment every two weeks.
Sounds good, I said. Do I need to do anything else?
No, that's it, he said. I've verified and confirmed all your details. It's all automatic now. Just sit back and wait for it to happen.
We shook hands again and I got up to leave. There was an exit door on the other side of the Senior Citizens waiting room. Another enormous security guard opened it for me.
Thank you, I said.
My pleasure sir, he said. Enjoy the rest of your day. I went out into the sunshine and he closed the door firmly behind me.
Then suddenly, just like that, I turned into an old age pensioner.