Jun 8, 2010

Standing in Line

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day

Here's a brief personality test: you're standing in line at a big-box store, asking for the assistance of a "sales associate." That employee is carrying a telephone which rings in the middle of the conversation and the salesperson says, "I have to take this, excuse me." What do you do?
Here's another scenario: you're zipping down a two-lane highway, having a fine time playing with your two-wheeled vehicle/toy when you come upon a dozen or more bikers in a staggered-line parade. As is typical of this kind of demonstration, they have spaced themselves in a precision "rolling bowling pin" formation that doesn't allow for passing unless you are willing to pass all of them at once or you have the skill/risk-immunity to fit yourself into the small spaces allowed between bikes as you ladder-step your way past the wannabe-Shriners highway obstacle course. What do you do?

I think both of these situations are some kind of Rorschach personality test, but I don't know what the results mean. In the first instance, I would walk away and find another salesperson or a different place to buy what I want to buy. I know that insanely stupid big-box company managers require floor employees to "service everybody, all the time." So, the salesperson is doing his/her job, as directed, by answering the phone and leaving you two twiddle your thumbs while you wait for the telephone conversation to end and hope the phone doesn't ring before you get the information you need. However, anyone who thinks a telephone "virtual customer" is more important than a live, in-store, with cash-in-hand customer is too dumb for my money and time. I don't care where the store CEO's mommy bought his MBA, that's stupid logic.

In the second scenario, if I'm just out for a ride, I look for another road to travel rather than making the monster pass or the precision step-pass. If I'm in a hurry, one or the other passing tactic is the choice. Better yet, I wait for someone in an SUV to pass me, then pass or breakup the bowling pins so that I have a little more space to work with. Regardless, my tolerance for certain kinds of motorcycles and motorcyclists gets reduced, a little more, every time I experience this kind of road arrogance. Eventually, at this rate and if I live long enough, I'll be as pissed off about motorcycle road blocks as the rest of the driving population. For now, I can still see the humor in another demonstration of declining human intelligence.

As an MSF instructor, at the beginning of each season we have the pleasure of attending a sign-up "conference" where we stand in line for several hours, waiting to sign up for the classes we want to teach in the spring, summer, and fall. The line is semi-sorted by instructor senility (using the usual "honor system" that, in these modern United States, works only slightly more effectively than when Germans used "honor" to sort out gas chamber patrons). If an instructor wants to teach more than a couple of classes during the season, he or she will have the pleasure of working through the line several times. Honestly, it's mostly a fair system and, if one hadn't been exposed to the technology advances that have occurred in the last 40 years, it would seem to be "efficient."

Standing in line simply grates against one of my pet peeves. Actually, lines in general, of all sorts, in any situation, drive me nuts.

A decade in Southern California taught me more than I want to know about the "human herding instinct." What finally drove me from the beach, a state with lane-splitting and filtering, year-around motorcycling weather, and friends and family and a great job, were . . . lines. I will walk a mile to avoid a three-person-long line. I will abandon a cart full of groceries that took me an hour to collect if I have to wait in line for more than a few minutes. I will take dead end two lane exits, go off-road (including through alleys, across lawns and golf courses, down or up freeway ditches, and damn near off of a cliff) to avoid having more than a couple of vehicles in front of me. I have changed the destination of vacation trips when I found myself stuck in traffic. I have slept in a tent, my car, buses, and train or airport depots when my hotel reservation required standing in a line of suits waiting for an over-taxed clerk to wrestle with a hotel chain's crappy computer system.

I freakin' hate lines.

Because of this personality weirdness, I rarely see movies in the first release week (I usually wait for Netflix to put the movie in an envelope and mail it to me). I rarely go to concerts or sporting events. I am totally disinterested in popular restaurants. I spend a lot of my daily commute traveling through neighborhood streets rather than more efficient freeways. While politicians see congested freeways as an opportunity to waste more money on asphalt, I see traffic as evidence that I need to send another $100 to Planned Parenthood and ZPG. There are too freakin' many people and, even worse, there are too damn many people between me and where I want to go.

Many motorcyclists and a statistically equal number of motorcycle instructors like to stand in line. What else would you call those lines of hippo-bikes jamming up traffic, violating community noise standards, and stacked in front of bars and restaurants? Gotta be line-lovers. Apparently, a fair number of instructors consider their time in line as "opportunities to network" and "social events." Wow! I either have a way better social and personal life than I thought or I'm lacking in the gene that leads humans to gather in packs, herds, crowds, and lines.

Social scientists who study animal resources have spent a lot of energy determining the square acreage or mileage that a given animal needs to be healthy and sane. An obvious and true result of that study has found that the further up the food chain an animal climbs, the more resources (read space) that animal requires. Hence, predators need a lot more territory than herbivores. Omnivores, like us, fall somewhere between being comfortable in small groups (chimps and baboons) and requiring moderate space or being incredibly solitary and requiring mountains (literally) of space (gorillas and orangutans) for the "elbow room" required to remain sane and healthy.

The top of the food chain, we'd like to think, is occupied by humans. Based on the modern urban experience, we may be as dumb and far down the food chain as Mark Twain suspected (read "The Lowest Animal") because we allow ourselves about as much territory as a hill of oversized ants. Can you think of another animal that tolerates standing in line for a morsel of food? How about sitting in line (in a cage) or standing in line (in a bus or train) for hours to get to a place where we'll stand or sit in place for hours so we can earn enough credit to sit in line (in a cage) to drive to a store where we can stand in line to exchange credit for food? There may be no other animal on earth that passive or unaware of the need for livable conditions. Mr. Clemons was an optimist.

How long do the lines have to get before we realize that overstuffing this planet to standing-room-only is going to reduce worthwhile riding (and living) territory to nothing? Pretty soon, I won't be able to find an alternative Twin Cities route that allows me to escape from the roaring mindless mass of humanity. Then what? Whatever happens, you know that you won't have me to kick around, if you're standing in line. I'll find a nice cave in the mountains to spend my leisure years.


  1. Not every line bothers me--some things are just popular for a reason. If there's a great ice cream shop and I arrive and all three windows have big lines it just means the quality is still worth it. The lines that are truly annoying are the ones that are obviously there because some jackass has done some poor planning. Like when you're trying to cash out at WM or the supermarket and there are 30 aisles with two of them staffed. Or when you're waiting in a long line at the post office and the clerk just drops the overhead door down and heads off to lunch, meaning everyone has to join the other long line.

  2. Wise, witty, and well worded. I always enjoy reading your clever commentary and very much look forward to one day reading your book!

  3. There are a few lines that can't be avoided. Ice cream isn't important enough to wait for, nothing Walmart sells is worth a moment of patience, and lines don't mean squat about quality. Avatar is a case in point. There were lines out the door and down the block of my neighborhood theater for that piece of drivel. Two weeks later, when the theater offered $5 weekday tickets, my wife and I suffered through that chick flick and it wasn't worth half of what I paid for it. The fact is 10 million Elvis fans could be and were wrong.


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