Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone. It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.
Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative. While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer. Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.
Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– public restrooms
If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line. We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise. Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line). Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR. Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”). Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee. Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you). And public restrooms? Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty. Maybe reconsider that second beer.
The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue. I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”). Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable. At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”. But the old-fashioned distractions still work. It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport. Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.
You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system. Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines). My response to him was not one of my finer moments. Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle. If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.
In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
– on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales
Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have. Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise). It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again. The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.
I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977. With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater. Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die. If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.