Citing sources ranging from Harvard Business School professors to Seinfeld, the book comes back to one underlying truth: it’s not about the time you spend waiting, but how the circumstances of the wait affect your perception of time. In other words, the other line always moves faster because you’re not in it.
|Publisher:||Workman Publishing Company, Inc.|
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Chapter One The Taming of the Queue A Life in Line
Many minds have explored the question of how we tame the queue, which is to say: How do we reduce the ubiquitous and obnoxious presence of line standing in our lives? But I’m equally interested in a separate question: How does the queue tame us?
The question first came to me circa summer 2002. I was nineteen. My parents had driven up to visit me on Liberty Weekend, the three days toward the end of boot camp at Great Lakes Recruit Training Command (RTC), outside of Chicago. This is when young sailors-in-training—eager-beaver and hunting in packs in those sparkling starched white uniforms they must all wear by decree—are at last unleashed into the streets of suburban Chicagoland for eight hours or so, before reporting back by five in the evening, jazzed up for the first time in weeks on candy, matinee movies, Six Flags, and (for the lucky few) sex.
I wasn’t much of a letter writer then, and all phone calls home I’d made were brief and perfunctory (not by choice; we had less than a five-minute window to use the pay phone once every two or three weeks), so my parents arrived with questions: So-o-o-o, how was boot camp? What was it like? What did we do in boot camp? Did I feel . . . different?
I stumbled. Boot camp was . . . but then didn’t really know what to say that felt satisfying in any way. I’d learned the dead man’s float. I knew the feel of pepper spray in my eyes and lungs from a macabre exercise they call the Confidence Chamber. I could now iron straight creases into shirts and fold clothes with a rigor and geometric exactitude mostly reserved for engineers and OCD sufferers. I’d learned some colorful new language, though little I could share with my parents. My shoes were so well polished, I could see my reflection in their tips. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to report. I felt I had been through an exhausting ordeal, that I had somehow been changed, so it was a little mystifying to me that I had so little to say after seven-plus weeks.
The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.
—H. L. Mencken
“That’s it? So what did they have you do all day?” my mother wanted to know.
“Um, well. A lot of standing. A lot of waiting. Standing in line. Standing in formation, which is like standing in line. It’s not very interesting. It’s actually extremely, extremely boring.” This was true on all accounts.
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting for the chow hall. For uniforms. For doctor exams, eye tests. For everything, really. A lot of the time they just make you wait until they tell you to stop waiting. Just stand in this line, and don’t move until I command you to move.”
“Ach. Lines.” This was my father, his nostrils flaring with a note of disgust. A subject that always got his goat; the rant I’d heard countless times before: “Listen, I won’t stand in them unless I absolutely have to. I’ve had enough lines for one lifetime. I’ll come back later, rather than waste my time.” My parents (and attendant children) had spent seven years living and working as expats in the post-Communist Romania of the 1990s, in which for various reasons (failures in market supply chains, a crippling bureaucracy left over from the days of Ceaus¸escu, et cetera) there were impossibly long lines for almost anything you can imagine: gas, eggs, milk, bread, the post office, currency exchange, visa renewal. Queuing was sort of the unofficial national pastime, placing third only to soccer and the American television import Dallas (both followed with a religious zeal: The streets emptied, businesses closed up shop, parents named sons J.R. and Bobby).
Having returned stateside, my father now abstains on principle. There is precious little in this life that’s worth more than, say, five or ten minutes of his time. He’s the sort who, under the guise of being helpful, will fill out customer service cards complaining of the delay—the businesses that have at some point filed away his criticisms must number in the triple digits by now.
“Well, you know, David,” he said, in that manner that certain middle-aged fathers sometimes have: They have reasoned out the subject to its logical endpoint and will now impart to you in no uncertain terms the truth of the matter, which you will no doubt agree is just common sense. “The military is basically a socialist organization. The government—it pays you, feeds you, clothes you, provides your health care at no cost. No one’s ever fired, no matter how incompetent. This is why there’s so much waiting. No one’s pressing them for quicker service. No one has to compete in the marketplace.”
The lesson my father—a onetime business major, now a small-business owner moonlighting as the proud interim president of the Chamber of Commerce of an out-of-the-way town on the West Coast with a population of 1,671—had arrived at from his time in Eastern Europe was that free markets liberated from government constraints cured a world of ills. In his mind, the word citizen is cousin to the word customer, and no businessman in his right mind would risk alienating his customer base with long lines. For him, the problem with “big government” is that it holds a monopoly and doesn’t treat its citizens like customers. If only Washington were run like a business.
I didn’t necessarily disagree with his assessment in this particular case, although I disagree with him on plenty of others. It was certainly true that I—lowly seaman recruit that I was—was no customer in the eyes of the military. No one was concerned with whether I was happy or not. In fact, keeping recruits unhappy is kind of the point.
But there was also certainly a lot more to this business of standing in line in the military than simply waiting for goods and services, something deeper. There had to be. In fact, the norms of how to stand in line are pretty much the first thing they teach you.
For example, here is what my first ten minutes of boot camp were like, after stepping off the shuttle that ferries new recruits from O’Hare International to RTC. The couple dozen of us newbies—dopey and doe-eyed, trying not to look terrified—were shepherded into the holding area of the Recruit In-Processing Center, a large, windowless, slate-gray hallway that reminded me of my rural Midwestern high school built in the architecturally utilitarian 1970s: austere, immediately forgettable, all possible distractions effaced to keep moony teenagers on task. All of us looked befuddled and shabby-looking, and not a few looked hungover (perhaps there’d been the inevitable last hurrah the night before, at the fleabag ashtray-smelling airport hotel contracted to service all incoming recruits), clutching duffel bags, wearing loose jeans and T-shirts with the names of rock bands or beer logos emblazoned on them.
Presently a tall first-class petty officer, a recruit division commander (the navy equivalent of a drill instructor), detached himself from a phalanx of other RDCs to direct traffic, barking in a loud, clipped, condescending voice (think R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket; the movie is nothing like my experience of boot camp, but I swear drill instructors model their bedside manner on him, as well as crib most of his best lines).
He directed us to stand in rows of three, backs to the wall. He was going to show us the three ways to wait: at attention, at parade rest, and at ease. For present purposes, at attention would be the most important—the one we should hold to until directed otherwise. Stand with your bodies erect, faces forward, legs straight, shoulders up and slightly back. Arms should be at your sides, hands in a balled fist with your thumbs just touching the outer seams of your pants legs. Heels should be touching and feet angled away from each other at 45 degrees. Keep forty inches between you and the person in front of you. Keep your eyes forward in a thousand-yard stare.
Other words of advice: Learn to use your peripheral vision. Never, but never, look a superior in the eyes, especially when in line. Speak only when spoken to, and never when standing at attention. Don’t lock your knees (as I would learn one day when the person three bunks down from mine fell face-first onto the floor, giving himself a concussion). Always keep the bulkhead to your right. When two lines converge, “zipper in.”
“Hurry up and wait,” he told us, “is the unofficial motto of the United States armed forces.” The tone of his voice said, So get used to it, capisce?
We didn’t know this yet, but in ten minutes we’d learned the building blocks for our entire seven weeks of boot camp and arguably our entire military career. We would spend hours every day in this supremely uncomfortable position. At attention your feet hurt, your knees threaten to buckle, your lumbar region feels swollen to about the size of Wisconsin, and if anything itches, forget about it, because it’s not going away, and you rarely know how long you have to stand like this, waiting, waiting, waiting. There is nothing to distract you from your boredom but the back of your shipmate’s buzz-cut head. The tedium of it takes on an achy feverish presence.
My father later would say to me, “I bet if boot camp was run more like a business, you could all probably be in and out of there in two, three weeks, tops. None of that waiting around.”
I myself would come to wonder, “So what the hell was the point of all that?” That’s the question that led to this book.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Taming of the Queue: A Life in Line 1
Chapter 2 The Birth of the Queue: Bread Lines, Assembly Lines, Lunch Lines 30
Chapter 3 A Stationary State of Mind: On the Psychology of Waiting 63
Chapter 4 Queuetopia: The Body Politic Waits Its Turn 100
Chapter 5 Billions Served Worldwide, One Cheeseburger at a Time: A Study in Cultural Contrasts 139
Chapter 6 Lessons from an Underground Bunker: Science in the Magic Kingdom 170
Coda: How to Avoid Standing in Line Completely 195