The View From Away: What lurks behind the helpful facade at Maine DHHS? More of the same

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My wife and I recently made our first visit to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of our daughter, Elizabeth.

Carol has been the point person for navigating the labyrinth of social services ever since we became aware of Elizabeth’s special needs. She figured, wisely, that the less I was involved, the smoother things would go. Not that it’s my fault. They pay consultants millions to point out the flaws in their systems, but let an equally objective outsider offer the same insight for free, and they’re all, “Sir, you’re holding up the line,” and “Security!”

But with Elizabeth becoming eligible for a more comprehensive and complicated set of services, we both need to be involved. That’s how I found myself at DHHS four minutes after the office opened at 8 a.m. Years of living in big cities have hard-wired me to expect a crush of people waiting for the doors to open at government offices, and harried employees working double speed to keep things moving.

When we got married in New York’s City Hall, it was standing room only in the outer office, and the justice of the peace was so rushed he almost married our witnesses when they approached his desk a step ahead of us.

Arriving at 8:04, I expected to be at the back of a long line waiting to see a receptionist who would already be frazzled by the time I got to the intake window. Instead, I found one guy in front of me. He walked away with his instructions almost as soon as I got there. It was happening too fast. I was all prepared for a long wait followed by trying to talk to somebody who was doing three other things at once and shoving a clipboard at me without even looking up. What I got was a pleasant woman with a calm, peaceful demeanor.

“Good morning. Can I help you with something?” she asked, smiling.

Naturally, I think, “OK, what’s her angle? If she thinks I’m going to help her get some employee-of-the-month award, she is very much mistaken. That open, guileless look doesn’t fool me, sister. I’m from Hollywood, the Big Town. We invented fake sincerity. I’m not letting my guard down just because DHHS tries some bush-league ploys like short lines and friendly personnel. Besides, where does Maine get off trying to make every other state I’ve lived in look bad? I wasn’t born yester —”


Apparently, I hadn’t said anything out loud yet.

“I hope so. I’m a little confused,” I said, playing the dumb husband card. I was aided in pulling off this ruse by cleverly having no real idea why I was there, other than to provide moral support for Carol while she did all the work.

Early in the relationship we discovered slight differences in the way we do things. She plans meticulously. I do nothing until the last minute, make the most expedient decision, and look around for somebody to blame when things inevitably blow up in my face. In hindsight, it’s a miracle I didn’t end up in elected office. Anyway, the goal in these situations is to look helpless and make as little sense as possible. So I gave her my best forlorn look and ad-libbed something about waiting for my wife who had all the information and how we were applying for some form of something for our special-needs daughter so she could get in the system for a case worker or something, whatever that means.

I thought it was gibberish. Not only was the receptionist sympathetic, but she also knew what I was talking about. I didn’t even know what I was talking about. Not to mention knowing what form I would need to fill out after the form I needed to fill out. This was rapidly becoming an out-of-body experience. Then she handed me my service number: 16. There weren’t even 16 people in the waiting room, including family members. A light bulb went on. DHHS sucks you in being all friendly, they make you believe, and then bam – No. 16. How do you like us now, Mr. Citizen? Or should I say, Mr. Wait All Day-izen?

I was all ready to complain when she added, “By the way, I love your glasses. Very cool.”

A compliment from an intake person to some random guy at the window? I’m not even supposed to have a face, much less a face with cool glasses on it. Don’t they train these people at all?

Luckily, I didn’t complain because, despite No. 16, we got called in to see a consultant in the first five minutes. Don’t even get me started on her, with the politeness and the thoroughness and the making sure we understood everything. Come to think of it, you can’t get me started on her since I didn’t get quite catch all the details of her name and title. Not that it was my fault. She and Carol went off into their own little world figuring out the application.

And let’s face it, my phone contacts don’t update themselves.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at