I wandered along Thomas Street thinking "If I can't see it then I don't have to go, if I can't see it then it's not really there." But it was there. It was the big dirty building with SOCIAL WELFARE OFFICE above it in bright blue letters. It was my first time, and I expected it to hurt."28 years without anyone's help," I thought grandly. "Well, 28 years without anyone's help but that of my parents. Whose help was, at times, one must admit to oneself, of the sizeable variety. But still."
The nice lady at reception directed me to the Fresh Claims counter, whilst the obese man behind me tutted about Nigerians in between his sweaty gasps for breath. "I'm not like you people", I thought, "I washed today and I don't want to be here. I worked last week, I worked!" Two tracksuit warriors, no more than 19, wandered in, dragging mountain bikes across the beige carpet. "It's not my day for signin' on, I signed on yesterday," said the chap in the blue cap airily, to no-one in particular. They appeared to be there just for the craic, leaning their bikes near the counter I was headed to, then kneeling on the chairs like it was their living room at home, as they nattered to some comrades in the queue.
I took ticket 53 and waited in a chair. The queue for payments grew 30 or so long and showed little sign of movement. A bloke nodded to me from the queue. He looked about my age and like the type of person I might know, but his face rang no bells. Lots of people there looked like people I might know, looked not unlike me. If he really did know me then I resented him for showing it. A raised voice coming from behind a closed door in one of the interview rooms started to dominate the place, rising to a crescendo "...no, you're bullying me,WHERE'S. MY. MONEY?! "
"Where's mine?" responded some wag in the line, raising a few titters. I was feeling titterless.
A short, curly-headed woman comes out. "Sorry folks, there's a dispute going on in the office next to mine. You'll have to just ignore it, let it go in one ear and out the other, please." She seemed to rank this oafish grab for lucre alongside the Secrets of Fatima. Her face falls "It's difficult for everyone, it's in the office next to mine." A sigh. "Can whoever owns these bikes please take them outside, please?" The warrior in the grey cap arose sulkily "A'right, I'm movin' them, I'm movin' them. Jaysis." She let them leave them just inside the door, just as Wheresmymoney exited Interview Room D fatly, slamming the door fatly behind him and fuming fatly outside. Like a big fat man, the kind of big fat man that makes me feel better about my own fluctuating levels of chub.
My number finally came up, and I approached the counter.
"Do you live in Dublin 8?"
"Yes, in Portobello," I said too loudly, making it clear that I am better than these folks from The Coombe, and that, were it not for the peccadillos of the postal code people and a narrow streak of grimy canal, I'd have been allowed make the five minute mosey to the Rathmines Social Welfare office instead, where small, neat lines of fecund and attractive briefly-down-on-their-luck artists would welcome me, where no-one wears tracksuits or gets angry, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.
The lady was calm and patient, telling me what forms to fill in and arranging me an appointment for next week. Her constantly changing expressions of surprise as she surveyed her screen left me wondering exactly what kind of information a PPS number leaves one privy to. I left with a fistful of paperwork for both me and my sometime employers to fill in, with the bemused impression that I might somehow have been better off not working at all since June.