Friday, August 28, 2009

A simple lesson in geometry

I recently returned from an eight-day business trip where I did the tourist thing in between comedy gigs. I investigated architectural landmarks, poked around museums, and sought out the trendiest cafes that I had read about on blogs.

Often I had to wait in line. Others were doing the same thing. Nobody complained, tried to "cut" in front of another patron or formed their own line just outside the actual line.

In case you hadn't figured it out, I was NOT in the United States.

In this cyber age, where we have grown accustomed to booking airline tickets, making restaurant reservations and shopping for everything from ink cartridges to automobiles on line, the idea of forming a line - a single straight line - has eluded everyone in this country.

I thought we had solved this problem after 9/11. Remember the scenes of people from all walks of life waiting patiently to donate blood? They stood in lines that snaked around city blocks, chatting with complete strangers about where they were on that horrible day and what brought them to this line.

Sadly, that behavior has been quickly forgotten, as I noticed this week while waiting to pick up a pre-ordered fruit tray at my local grocery store. I strode to the deli at 8 a.m., happy to find a single patron in front of me. "This won't take long," I thought.

As the worker sliced meat for the other customer, an elderly woman appeared from nowhere and walked straight to the carousel of paper numbers that one is supposed to grab during crowded deli moments, thereby ensuring a rightful place in line.

The key word here is "crowded." Because I didn't feel one other customer constituted a crowd, I neglected to take a number. A simple math equation would read:

First customer's turn
- my turn
= eldery lady 's turn

Not so. The worker, whose back was turned to all three of us, finished filling the order and then, for some inexplicable reason, glanced at the LCD screen displaying "46."

"Forty-seven?" he said

Grandma Haggard immediately stepped forward. "Right here," she said.

"Can I help you?" said the worker, having not a clue that I had been waiting.

Too stunned to say anything, and not having the energy to argue with a senior citizen, I opted to let her demand a quarter pound of pastrami and pepper jack cheese while I waited. However, it was the first time I ever looked at a kielbasa and considered using it as a weapon.

Scenes like this play out endlessly as Americans search for a way - any way - to avoid the simple task of waiting. I stay in a ton of hotels and still marvel at the jockeying for position that occurs at check-in desks. Las Vegas is the only city where the hotel employees appear to have gotten together and found a solution. Velvet ropes are usually found in the lobbies, FORCING guests to form a single file line and wait for the next available receptionist.

Hotels in other cities either can't spring for velvet or relish the idea of a fight breaking out in front of them. Often I approach a desk to see three employees helping guests. My strategy is to wait in front of the center clerk; not DIRECTLY in front but leaving myself about 10 feet of space. It's my way of saying, "I'm in line for whomever is available next."

But invariably another guest saunters up, assumes I have a special affection for the center attendant and parks him or herself directly in front of another clerk. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that clerk is available within seconds, while I wait as the guest in front of me reviews his bill with the concentration of a brain surgeon.

Finally, there is the airport, truly the Mecca of unorganized lines. Despite repeated warnings by airline personnel of "board only when your row is called," "do not congregate in the boarding area," and "I WILL PERSONALLY RAM A SHOE DOWN THE THROAT OF ANYONE WHO SEEMS TO THINK THE PLANE WILL LEAVE WITHOUT THEM IF THEY DON'T GET ON THIS INSTANT," the mess continues.

And that's if the plane is on time!

Ever waited in a line full of people who are being rebooked(the airline industry's word for "we screwed up big time"? You start in a "line." Four minutes later that line has become a "clump" as irate passengers scream into their cell phones trying to get a faster response from the airline's help desk. Upon hanging up they resume their place in what has now turned from a "clump" into an "angry mob."

Is there a solution to this madness? Personally I think everyone in this country should be forced to watch images of starving Third World residents, waiting patiently in broiling sun for hours just to receive food, something far more relevant than an airline seat. Let's hope those scenes never play out here.

I'm off to San Antonio this week. I'll be flying American Airlines and staying at a Hyatt hotel.

Thankfully there will be no deli runs on this trip.

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