In America, I waited in line, because that is what we do. If we’re at the supermarket, in the bank or hanging around outside the ticket office for eighteen hours in order to get good seats for Wrestlemania, we are in line (and in the latter case, the people ahead of us would have been “in line” for several days).
We’re taught to wait in line early: from practicing foul shots in gym class (“form a line, everybody!”) to waiting for the bus to take us home (“Line up, now, children”) we did it in a line. Some people waited “on line” but I was not one of them. Any time I found myself in a row of people and looked down at the floor, I never noticed a line drawn down there to stand on. What I did see were people, in front of me, in back of me, forming a line. And I was in it. Waiting. In line. Now that we have that straight, we can move on.
The one common element about waiting in line in America is that it wasn’t something we particularly liked. A line is an inconvenience, a barrier between us and something we want, and want now. Patience, as I recall, was not a virtue.
In Britain we queue, and I like that a lot better. First of all, it just sounds better; it’s a friendly, inviting word that sounds almost fun. That could be because, historically, it has been treated better: have you ever heard of people being queued up to be shot? And that’s the other thing, it’s a versatile word; you can queue up, or just queue, or be queuing (whereas you cannot, no matter how hard you try, be “lining”).
Fascinating as all this is, it is largely beside the point; the point is, I found myself in a queue this past weekend. A long one.
I was at the West Dean Apple Festival in need of some lunch and spied a hog roast kiosk selling roast pig on a roll. We seemed to be a good match. Unfortunately, so did 758 other people. My wife fancied a vegetarian flan for lunch; so she just walked up to the vegan booth and bought one, but I wanted pig, so I suppressed my American distaste for lines and settled into the longest queue I have seen since standing in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World in 1978. I tried to be British about it, but as the day progress and I began to notice that, not only was I in a very long line, but a line that wasn’t moving very fast, my Americanishness began pushing to the fore.
The reason for the long queue was the popularity of roast pig; the reason the queue was moving so slowly was down to the method they used to deploy it. The pig was merrily roasting away in a pig roasting device some distance behind the dispensing kiosk. At the kiosk was a large basket of rolls and a lone woman taking orders. In my world, there would be rows of plates with open rolls on them, ready and waiting and, as each order came in, she would take them back to the carving guy, pick up the finished ones and serve the customers. But that would be too efficient. The way this pig-roasting team chose to operate was thus:
A customer would get up to the counter and the woman would ask for their order (NOTE: there was only ONE ITEM ON THE MENU!!). When the order was placed, she would then prepare the requisite number of rolls. Then she would carry the rolls back to the roasting pig where her partner waited. He would carve off the meat and place it on the buns (and he wasn’t in a big hurry about it, either). Then she would walk back to the counter to dispense the order. The only reason I can think of for this odd behavior is that they were the only pig roast at the festival and, therefore, had no competition. Even so, in America, that would never fly.
I noticed, however, that I was the only one getting irritated—all the others were taking it in stride—so I clenched my teeth and settled in with my queue-mates to chat about the weather, and places we’d been, and how our children were doing at school, and wasn’t the coalition government an embarrassment to Britain. As I inched another step closer to the counter I began to wonder if I should get my money ready, so as not to hold things up when I finally got there. I decided, however, that rather than go through all the trouble of taking a fiver out of my wallet, I perhaps should just send away for the proper government forms to allow me to open a small business and, once the paperwork was approved, set up a cottage industry right there in the queue and earn the five pounds. God knows, I had the time.
When at last I arrived at the counter and had a hot pig sandwich in my hand, I turned to the people behind me, told them I was going to miss them and asked them to be sure to write (I really did do this, but I don’t think the woman at the counter caught the irony). I then rejoined my wife, who had long since finished her vegetarian meal. She didn’t remark on my lateness; she had seen the queue and knows how I disliked waiting in line. But it wasn’t the wait that irritated me; it was the fact that it was so unnecessary. Watching inefficiencies that cost me time makes me want to find the people responsible, queue them up and have them shot.