Depending on whom you believe, the average American will, over a lifetime, wait in lines for two years (says National Public Radio) or five years (according to customer-loyalty expert Nick Wreden, whose post-office branch you might want to avoid).
The crucial word is average, as wealthy Americans routinely avoid lines altogether. Once the most democratic of institutions, lines are rapidly becoming the exclusive province of suckers. Poor suckers, mostly.
Airports resemble France before the Revolution: first-class passengers enjoy "élite" security lines and priority boarding, and disembark before the unwashed in coach--held at bay by a flight attendant--are allowed to foul the Jetway.
At amusement parks, too, you can now buy your way out of line. This summer I haplessly watched kids use a $52 Gold Flash Pass to jump the lines at Six Flags New England, and similar systems are in use in most major American theme parks, from Universal Orlando to Walt Disney World, where the haves get to watch the have-mores breeze past on their way to their seats, as if Space Mountain were Spago.
Flash Pass teaches children a valuable lesson in real-world economics: that the rich are more important than you, especially when it comes to waiting. An NBA player once said to me, with a bemused chuckle of disbelief, that when playing in Canada--get this--"we have to wait in the same customs line as everybody else."
Almost every line can be breached for a price. In several U.S. cities this summer, early arrivers among the early adopters waiting to buy iPhones offered to sell their spots in the epic lines. On Craigslist, prospective iPhone purchasers offered to pay "waiters" or "placeholders" to wait in line for them outside Apple stores.
Inevitably, some semipopulist politicians have seen the value of sort-of waiting in lines with the hoi polloi. This summer Philadelphia mayor John Street waited outside an AT&T store from 3:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. before a stand-in from his office literally stood in for Hizzoner while he conducted official business. And billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg often waits for the subway with his fellow citizens, though he's first driven by motorcade past the stop nearest his house to a station 22 blocks away, where the wait, or at least the ride, is shorter.
As early as elementary school, we're told that jumping the line is an unconscionable act, which is why so many U.S. lawmakers have framed the immigration debate as a kind of fundamental sin of the school lunch line. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, to cite just one legislator, said amnesty would allow illegal immigrants "to cut in line ahead of millions of people."
Nothing hacks off a national lawmaker more than a person who will not wait in line, unless that line is in front of an elevator at the U.S. Capitol, where Senators and Representatives use private elevators, lest they have to queue with their constituents.
But compromising the integrity of the line is not just antidemocratic, it's antediluvian. There was something about the orderly boarding of Noah's Ark, two by two, that seemed to restore not just civilization but civility during the Great Flood.
How civil was your last flight? Southwest Airlines has first-come, first-served festival seating. But for $5 per flight, an unaffiliated company called BoardFirst.com will secure you a coveted "A" boarding pass when that airline opens for online check-in 24 hours before departure. Thus, the savvy traveler doesn't even wait in line when he or she is online.
Some cultures are not renowned for lining up, which is why the Chinese, on the 11th day of every month, now practice queuing in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. They have their work cut out because there is something in the cosmos that does not love a line. As Emerson wrote: "Line in nature is not found/ Unit and universe are round."
Then again, some cultures are too adept at lining up: a citizen of the former Soviet Union would join a queue just so he could get to the head of that queue and see what everyone was queuing for.
And then there is the U.S., where society seems to be cleaving into two groups: Very Important Persons, who don't wait, and Very Impatient Persons, who do--unhappily.
For those of us in the latter group-- consigned to coach, bereft of Flash Pass, too poor or proper to pay a placeholder --what do we do? We do what Vladimir and Estragon did in Waiting for Godot: "We wait. We are bored."