For some time now, I have been working on a book that I plan to give to my kids and grandkids for Christmas. That book is full of stories and pictures from my life, my wife’s life, and our lives together. I figure somewhere down the road, one or more of those kids will find it a treasure trove of family history. At the beginning of the book, I quote a line from the Broadway musical, “Carousel,” that goes something like this: “As long as there is one person on earth who remembers you, it isn’t over.” And maybe that’s my selfish reason for writing down those stories. I figure as long as someone somewhere is reading them, people will remember Tom Margenau and his wife, Becky Bachstein, and the mostly good life and times they had.
Anyway, as part of that book, I just finished reviewing the story of a trip I took to Poland for the Social Security Administration in 1994, and I thought you might find it interesting.
First, I’ll tell you how the trip came about in the first place. Sometime in early 1994, while I was working at the SSA’s headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, where I was the chief editor of all the publications the agency produced for the public, I was asked to make a presentation to a group of visiting Social Security officials from Poland.
Let me pause right here to talk about that a bit. What were Polish Social Security representatives doing in the United States? As I’ve explained many times in my column, the concept of social insurance, or Social Security as we call it, is certainly not unique to the United States. Almost every country on the planet has a social insurance system in place for its citizens. And many of those countries, especially in Europe, had such programs long before we ever got around to setting up our Social Security system in 1935. In fact, the first Polish Social Security laws were established in 1927.
Almost all these social insurance systems around the world are remarkably similar to ours. They almost always provide benefits for retirees, for people with disabilities and for the survivors of a worker who has died. And it is not uncommon for Social Security officials from around the world to get together to exchange ideas, to share common concerns and challenges and to discuss possible solutions to those issues.
That’s what Polish Social Security officials were doing at the SSA headquarters back in 1994. And I was talking to them about the kinds of pamphlets and fact sheets that we produced and distributed to the American public to help our citizens understand the various Social Security programs in the United States.
When lunchtime rolled around, I got to chatting with one of the Polish visitors. On a whim, I asked him if he’d like to take a drive to see the “Little Poland” neighborhood of Baltimore. There is a much more well-known “Little Italy” part of the city that is near the famous Inner Harbor and is very popular with tourists. The almost unknown (except to locals) Little Poland is just a few blocks away from that area.
I really didn’t know the Little Poland neighborhood at all. But I figured we’d just drive around to see what we would find. So, off we went. The first place that caught our eye was a small neighborhood meat market. We went in.
The butcher and my Polish Social Security official (his name was Jan) were talking to each other in Polish. After a minute or two, they were hugging each other and crying. It was very emotional. Jan explained to me that it turned out both of them came from the same small town in Poland — and they had so many memories to share. (I mean, how serendipitous was that?)
Well, the butcher closed up the shop and got in my car with Jan and me and took us on a tour of the Little Poland area. We stopped at a couple homes, a Polish church and a few other small businesses. And most memorably, we ended up at the neighborhood meeting place — a Polish bar. Jan and all his newfound friends started doing some serious drinking of Polish vodka!
Jan was having a really good time. I kept telling him that we had to get back to the Social Security headquarters complex and to our meetings. But Jan and his friends just kept on drinking and talking (all in Polish) and hugging each other. Eventually, about 3 p.m. or so, I finally talked a rather tipsy Jan into going back to work.
When we got there, I was pulled aside by some of my superiors and got chewed out. “Where the heck were you?” they asked. “Do you know who you were with?” I had just assumed Jan was some midlevel management type like me. But it turns out he was the head of the Polish Social Security system, and actually was a top official in the Polish government. And I brought him back to the conference drunk!
Long story short, for a while, I thought I was going to be in some serious trouble. But a few months later, the SSA got an invitation from the Polish government to send a representative to Poland to conduct training. Because of my friendship with Jan, they specifically asked for me. So, my trip to Poland came about all because I took a guy out drinking in Baltimore!
Anyway, a few months later I was in a small town outside of Warsaw at a Zak?ad Ubezpieczen Spolecznych training facility. ZUS is the name of their Social Security agency. I was there to teach their public affairs officials about how we promoted our Social Security system to American citizens. This was new stuff to ZUS staff because Poland was just coming out from under decades of Soviet domination. They had to teach Polish citizens how their recently revamped social insurance system would work.
I have so many stories I could tell you about that experience. But I’m running out of space. So let me share just this one.
The Polish currency is the zloty. And at the time I was there, a 100,000 zloty note was worth about $5. So, for example, I was walking around Poland with millions of zlotys in my wallet! It was so strange to go out for a meal and pay a half million zlotys!
And I learned something very interesting about the Polish Social Security system. Like here, Polish senior citizens got their Social Security benefits once a month. But because at the time, the Polish banking system was essentially non-existent, Polish seniors didn’t get checks. They got cash. So once each month, Polish mail carriers, with armed guards accompanying them, would walk around cities and towns throughout Poland with literally trillions of zloty notes in their mailbags. They would knock on doors and hand seniors their ZUS benefits in cash! I’m sure that today, all these decades later, the Polish economy is back to normal and Polish seniors probably get their ZUS benefits via direct deposit just as we get Social Security benefits in our country.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It’s called “Social Security — Simple and Smart.” You can find the book at www.creators.com/books. Or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.