There were a lot of parking spaces on the east side of Western where the welfare office is, and there weren’t many people inside. I had come with a friend to get information on a welfare work program. We took number 52 and sat in the back. There was no sign anywhere to show what number they were on.

A man came out of a hallway and sat in front at a table. “Forty,” he called out. “Number 40.” No one answered. “Forty-two,” he said. “Forty-two.”

I wondered aloud what had happened to 41. Then the man calling out numbers shouted, “Security. Security.”

A security guard, sitting half-asleep near the entrance, looked around confused. Then he stretched and yawned. He slowly ambled to the bank of elevators, pressed a button, and leaned against the wall. Suddenly he lurched forward, ran back to where he had been sitting, and retrieved his cup of coffee.

A woman sitting nearby said, “Now watch this. One guard leaves and another takes his place. It’s just like a video game.”

Sure enough, another guard walked out of a side office, walked to the entrance, and sat down.

“You know, they’re really scared of us,” the woman continued.

She said her name was Dolores, and that she went on welfare when she realized her job wasn’t paying enough. “I couldn’t even begin to make ends meet,” she said. “I came in here and asked for any kind of assistance–anything. I told them I wanted to keep working. Could they give me stamps? A medical card? Something? They told me since I worked, I wasn’t eligible. If I quit my job now, then it would be a different matter altogether. So I quit my job.”

The man in the front called out 45. He had skipped 43 and 44. Then he called security again. The guard stood and left, and another guard immediately took his place.

“See,” Dolores said. “We zap one and they send out another.”

Dolores was with a friend who said her name was Jane. “I went on welfare after I left my husband,” Jane said. “The caseworker asked me why I couldn’t go back to him. I told him I didn’t want to. He kept bugging me about it. Finally I gave it to him straight. I told him if he liked to be knocked around all of the time, he should go back to him.”

The man called 52, this time skipping several numbers. My friend and I walked to the front. A very young woman was talking to the man, who asked her to sit down and wait her turn. He called 52 again. I said we were 52, but he called it again.

“We’re 52,” I repeated louder.

“Oh,” he said, as if I had startled him. “Take a seat. Someone will be with you in a minute.”

The young woman, who was now sitting in the front, began to complain. “When is it my turn?” she asked. Thirty seconds later she repeated the question. Then she stood and began to prance around. The security guard watched her carefully. “When is it my turn?” she yelled.

The young man who’d come with her began to sink into his seat. She suddenly sat down next to him and then yelled again.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Am I embarrassing you?” she screamed. “Good.”

“Come on,” he said quietly. “Can’t you just wait?”

“Can’t they get to my turn?” she countered.

He handed her a quarter. “Go call someone.”

A minute later she was back. “I called my caseworker and her line was busy,” she yelled. “I’ve been here 30 minutes. When is my turn?”

A woman walked out of a side office, talked to the man at the table for a few seconds, and then walked over to us. She handed us a booklet. “This should explain Project Chance to you,” she said.

We wanted to ask a few questions, but she told us to read the information and then call her to make an appointment.

The young woman walked to the front, faced all of us, and screamed, “I’ve been here an hour already. When is it my turn?”

As we left, Dolores and Jane waved. The young woman was prancing around the room again. “When is my turn? I’ve been here three hours,” she shouted.