The other day, as I was in line at Pier 11 for the water taxi to Ikea, I started thinking about how much waiting in line we all do. Every day we wait in line at stores, stations, theaters, banks, post offices and bus stops. We wait in line to get seated at a restaurant, to buy a Metrocard, to get gas. I looked it up: the average person spends over an hour a day waiting in line—that’s two to three years in a lifetime. (If you’re a woman, probably at least one year of that waiting time is spent in line for the ladies’ room.)
Considering how commonplace line-standing is, it’s amazing how many New Yorkers I’ve come across who think, basically, that lines are for suckers. Once friend told me, “Oh, I never wait in lines. I jump the line any way I can. If there are 500 people in the line, you think I’m okay with being 501?” There are other pushy types who habitually barrel ahead of everyone with “just a quick question,” as though they are certain that everyone else standing in line has issues that take much longer to address and so naturally will not mind. Some people, I have heard, actually pay others to wait in line for them.
I guess if I was rich enough I might pay someone to stand in the DMV line for me (I certainly wouldn’t mind someone else posing for my driver’s license photo) but one thing seems clear: We’re a city of eight million people—it’s inevitable that we’ll need to queue up from time to time. I myself am comforted by a well-run, orderly line. I don’t even like lines where you can choose between several stations, an environment that leads to jockeying for position. I am much happier with a simple, first-come, first-served line. I feel more relaxed knowing that no one, not even me, can cheat the system. Well-defined lines—and people willing to adhere to them—are a sign of civilization. Just think what would happen if no one was willing to “be a sucker” and stand in line. Imagine going to the movies or some other situation where hundreds of people just milled around outside in a big, stressful horde, and at a certain point they all rushed the door at the same time. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine that. All we have to do is go down to Penn Station and watch how New Yorkers behave when a train’s departure gate is announced. It’s chaos.)
Obviously there are many reasons for hating long lines–fatigue, physical discomfort, boredom, loss of time, the feeling of powerlessness (otherwise known as the Sheep Syndrome). I’ve talked to people who get annoyed by how close people stand to them in line or by how loudly their fellow line-standers talk on their cell phones. But one of people’s secret fears about having to stand in line, especially if they are by themselves, is the fear of getting trapped in conversation with someone with whom they’d rather not engage.
You don’t choose who to stand next to as you do at a party. If someone starts talking to you in line, you can’t excuse yourself and go get a drink. You are stuck there. Especially if you are the one who initiated the conversation, there is no graceful way to back up and say, “Sorry, now that I have exchanged a few words with you I can tell I really do not want to speak with you.” Engaging with a stranger in a line is like striking up a conversation with your seatmate on a plane. Once you are in it, you are pretty much in it for the duration.
Nevertheless, (and I know you won’t be surprised that Miss Mingle is telling you this) as long as we do have to spend so much time of our lives in lines, try to be open to in-line socializing. Don’t worry, it’s really not that different from being at a sit-down dinner party. You may have a bore on your left but a beauty on your right. If the person behind you is not your cup of tea, the person in front of you may be.
Note: This is one of those times when complaining is an acceptable conversational ploy. Commiserate about the length of the line—or about the shameless woman you just saw cutting it.
Originally published in The West Side Spirit, October 19, 2001