Holzer: In Defense of the Line

Good things come to those who wait.

by Emory Holzer | 2/19/19 2:00am

I hold my coat tight to my chest, the only protection from the biting Chicago cold. The sun just edges up from the jagged tree line, casting long shadows on the almost vacant Toys-R-Us parking lot. It is 4 a.m., and I could not be more awake. The year is 2006, I am 7 and my brother and I have managed to convince my mom to wait in line with us to buy the newly released Wii. A wad of ones and fives bulges in my pocket, dollar by dollar meticulously saved from the past year of birthdays, holidays and any odd jobs with which my neighbors would trust a 2nd grade child. Like everyone who arrived in line earlier than the store’s 8 a.m. opening, we had managed to snag a Wii, but the now outdated gaming console is, unsurprisingly, not what sticks with me all these years later — my brother ended up selling it to pay for some newer system. No, what sticks with me is the line.

The line is truly an egalitarian concept. Reward is based solely on one’s place in line. The longer one is willing to wait, the more likely he or she will achieve the desired end. A great equalizer, the concept of a line ensures that access to a resource is purely correlated to the amount of time one is willing to wait. In most cases, money or power do not expediate the process of waiting in a line. Everyone — regardless of race, wealth, gender or creed — has to wait.

In late 2017, my mother and I stood in the pouring rain on an unremarkable street corner in Washington, D.C. Determined to eat at my favorite restaurant, Bad Saint, we arrived two and a half hours before its opening. As the restaurant takes no reservations, a line begins to form as early as 2:30 p.m. on weekends, a whole three hours before the restaurant opens. But the rain presented no obstacle to us and to others in the line. To many this behavior would seem irrational, but to everyone in line the food and the experience is worth the wait. In fact, to many, the wait makes the experience.

As the restaurant opened its doors and people began to trickle in, we started to notice people leaving the line. In their place popped up other people, dressed in dry clothes, not shaking from the cold, and unfamiliar to those of us who waited hours in the rain. We were told by those around us that these people had used “line waiters.” Professionals of this self-explanatory term wait in line in the place of individuals who do not want to spend the time in line. My vision of the line as a direct product of effort had shattered. People were evading the requirements of the line by hiring stand-ins. Not only did this strike me as unfair, it also removed the whole experience of waiting, still resulting in a good meal without any of the work usually necessary to attain the experience.

To most, the line is nothing but a chore that must be completed to reach a desired end. Whether it be a delicious meal, a rollercoaster or a brand-new Wii, the line is merely an additional price to pay. Often, one weighs this cost against the perceived reward, leading to a common declaration that “it is not worth the wait.” A long line causes many to pass over what they would not otherwise.

But the line is only negative in framing. On its basest level, a line is a grouping of people who, at the very least, share one similarity: they all have an interest in what they are waiting for. Humans, for the most part, enjoy interacting and communicating with each other. So why is this viewed as a cost when in the setting of a line as opposed to a bar or coffee shop? Interacting with people in a line builds connections. Waiting in a line creates an experience.

Like waiting in a long line for a ride at Disney World, anticipation builds. Through the line, one imagines the end product, so that when one finally gets to the front of the line and gets on the rollercoaster or sits down for a meal, the ride is all the more fun and the food tastes all the better. Waiting for something forces that person to want it, and when it finally comes, to appreciate it.

If one puts in the work, and waits in a line, one is bound to be rewarded. It might not be with a Wii or a massive milkshake. The reward might not be the direct product of the line. But the line itself will reward in time with a memory that cannot be attained with a line-waiter. It might seem logical, to those who can afford the service, to simply avoid the line altogether by paying someone else to wait. 

However, taking this shortcut often fails to reap the same benefit as those who devote their own time. Waiting in that vacant parking lot at 4 a.m., I thought what mattered most about the day was getting a Wii. What I did not realize, though, was that the most I would get from that day had already been given to me the second I got out of bed and climbed into my mom’s car in my PJs.