Empires live on after their demise, not just in their hubristic monuments and kitschy memorabilia, but in the habits they drill into their citizens over time. The Soviet Union was famous for its long lines for bread and other basic necessities that came to symbolise the mind-numbing stasis of the Communist dream. Though queues for bread are now a thing of the past, their memes still replicate through the culture, as I discovered recently while starting a business in Ukraine. Having to make frequent trips to the post office to send samples to Europe, I found myself frustrated by the gelatinous lines that snaked to the parcel counter. Babushkas would take endless minutes filling out obscure forms to send gifts to their granddaughters in Canada, while shady mustachioed men would arrive with an entire carload of boxes to be sent to Georgia, Armenia or wherever.
At times, just when it seemed I was near my goal, the counter would shut unexpectedly, and another would open at the other corner of the hall, where I’d find myself at the end of the line again. It was Kafkaesque, this meaningless wait for a simple service. Increasingly adept at Angry Birds, I whiled away the long wait thumbing my iPhone, and taking deep breaths to control the rage that welled up at times. This weekly routine of torture sapped my energy and would have been the bane of my startup had my landlord not enlightened me in good time.
Explaining the culture of lines when I showed up late to pay my rent one afternoon, the landlord said that ‘queuers’ could ask somebody in front to hold their place for them in return for a small fee. This practice from the Soviet era ensured that busy people could get their work done, and also rewarded ‘waiters’ for their patience. Lines were a breeze after that: I’d pay somebody $2-3 to hold the line and then retire to the nearest café with my laptop, getting work done while waiting for the ‘waiter’ to text me. I’d then head back quickly, send my package, and be done in less than five minutes. Now, when I’m stuck for an hour at the post office in Berlin, or at an embassy in New York, I wish the culture of ‘bread lines’ were a universal phenomenon, and not just limited to the former Soviet Union.
With pizza, air tickets, Hollywood blockbusters and even cool threads accessible on a click of the mouse, queueing or waiting in lines should have been an anachronism by now. It should have been a historical curiosity, like the rotary phone, trunk call and the pager. However, since we humans aren’t as efficient as data points that can be parsed at millions of bits a second, we tend to clog up when our needs converge. This is especially true in the developing world, where people are numerous and technology sparse.
Visiting India last winter, I was struck by the ubiquitous queues for everything, from banks to the post office to the purchase of bus tickets to those for shopping, movie theatres and any number of essential services. Thank goodness, I didn’t have to deal with the labyrinthine government bureaucracy.
However, what also struck me was the ‘aaram se’ mood in Indian lines, as opposed to those in Germany or the UK. While Germans and the English pride themselves on their sense of order and fairness, and suffer through queues with a proud stoicism, most Indians seem relaxed when faced with a long line. They tend first to bunch around the object of the queue, instead of forming a straight line as in the West. Some sit on their haunches and patiently fan themselves while waiting their turn, while others buzz around, gossiping, chatting, speaking loudly on their mobile phones, or exiting for a few minutes before returning with bluster. The mood is often buoyant, not dour, and women with babies or grandmothers are often allowed to skip the line. Keenly observing all this while trying to buy a train ticket from Bangalore to Goa, I realised that queueing up for most Indians is a break from the drudgery of their routine lives. It must be an outing almost, to spend the day trying to buy a bus ticket, instead of cleaning the flat or tending the fields in the hot sun. What might seem like a massive ordeal to the typical Westerner is just a little adventure to his or her counterpart in a poor country like India.
This aaram se attitude disappears when you get to the airports, however, to board a flight. Upper-class Indians, used to being waited upon by an army of servants, are much more impatient than even Americans when held up. A slight glitch at security check or a flight delay has them grumbling and groaning, wiping their brows in frustration and calling for the manager. A longer-than-usual queue brings out their frustrations with India’s weak infrastructure in particular and governance in general. It reminds me of being in Spain or Italy, where there’s a similar Mediterranean disdain for queues. Unlike northern Europeans, Italians don’t find any aspect of waiting quietly for one’s turn even vaguely redeeming. They tend to look for excuses to cut the line, or, failing that, to shuffle and shift into Angry Italian mode. The common Italian way of queue jumping is to push to the front, saying they have a question for the person at the counter, and then quickly conduct their business. This can be seen in several YouTube videos of ‘Italians cutting lines’ posted by Britons, Germans, Czechs and others left fuming by their cavalier attitude. It has gotten so bad that most post offices and banks in Italy now have ticket-number systems in place of physical queues.
While people in most of the world form queues that are peculiar to their cultural framework, Americans—those who belong to the Land of the Free—have come closest to eliminating lines altogether. With Americans making almost 60 per cent of their big purchases online, according to Internet Retailer, and spending over $200 billion on online shopping, retail stores are nowhere nearly as crowded as they were a decade ago. The ongoing recession has also curtailed crowds at Macy’s and downtown shopping malls. Food trucks, fast food stands and fast home delivery options have eased the lunchtime crush in cities like New York and Los Angeles. In fact, except for those dreaded security check lines at airports, queues have so completely disappeared from most aspects of daily life in the US that they have, perversely, become a status symbol of sorts.
In New York last month, I was surprised how people affirmed their praise of a particular establishment by adding that, “There was always a line for a table.” One hyped eatery in New York’s Lower East Side—said to have the city’s best ramen—was famous for the constant lines that snaked around the block for a bowl of its delicious noodle soup. The lines, instead of hurting the eatery’s popularity, have only made it all the more attractive for the city’s trendsetters. We turned up there at midnight once to escape the lines, and still had to wait at the bar for almost 45 minutes. Yet, the lines and the wait made the experience that much more pleasurable, and soon I was also talking about its queues while recommending it to friends. It was the same for films: Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi feature, was deemed an instant summer hit by the huge lines seen around movie halls on its opening night.
When the iPad 3 hit stores worldwide last year, hardcore Apple fans made a pilgrimage of their devotion by waiting all night for the new gadget outside Apple stores. Many brought sleeping bags and parkas for the cold night, while others played music on boomboxes and danced around to keep warm. The line for the new iPad had morphed into the best party on the block. Pictures from around the world before the release of the new iPad were also celebratory. By just waiting in line for it, people felt part of something revolutionary.
As online shopping expands and waiting systems become more efficient, expect similar trends across the globe. Eventually, as technology catches up everywhere, lines will become a sign of what’s cool, a thing of fun, and a piece of nostalgia. Lines will remind us of those bad ol’ days when bread was scarce and time was plentiful.