Waiting as a Social Bond

The great rock band The Sex Pistols had a song back in the 1970s that railed — railing being the primary function of all Sex Pistol songs — against their former record company, EMI. Watching a massive queue the other day outside a neighborhood hotdog stand brought back memories of John Lydon (aka “Johnny Rotten”) wailing “stupid fools who stand in line, like: EMI!”

Waiting in line is not intrinsically stupid. Sometimes it’s necessary, and sometimes even helpful. But standing in line for 30 minutes to procure a hot dog makes us think old Johnny was onto something.

One of the peculiar ways we seem to form awkward social bonds is by patronizing certain establishments that, through the miracle of marketing, word-of-mouth, and brute longevity, serve as cynosures for our general inability to make convicted choices. These places remove our usual uncertainty. Visiting them — along with hundreds of other seekers — brings calm. It’s understood and agreed by everyone that this is the right and best and most reliable outlet for that which we seek — waffles, sushi., cigars, strippers, used records, hot dogs — and enduring the crowds and long lines and wasted time is all part of the experience. Indeed, the waiting, the idle shuffling from foot-to-foot, the talking on the cell phone as the herd inches forward, is part of the magic. If one didn’t have to outlast dozens of other clever people who know the big secret, one’s impeccable taste wouldn’t be so clearly illustrated.

We’ve observed an inordinate number of hats and tee shirts carrying the logo of a cafe on Martha’s Vineyard. We’ve seen a startling number of bumper stickers from a drug store in North Dakota. We’ve watched thousands of our neighbors in Los Angeles line up on La Brea Avenue for hot dogs, oblivious to the upsetting “meat” content of the sausages and focussed on the certainty that their presence there on the street was somehow a continuation of history, a connection with a local institution.

Not long ago a friend returned from a trip abroad, where he said he had patronized a diner in Australia that was universally known to have “the best pancakes in the world.” (We were not previously aware of this place, but that’s not proof of anything except how out of it we are.) When asked about his dining experience, he nodded enthusiastically. “Best pancakes I ever had.” We didn’t press him to explain why. Pancakes, after all, are a simple mix of flour, eggs, and sugar, with a nice dollop of butter to tie the disc together. Is it a particular short-order cook who makes them superlative? And if so, is he always on duty at this diner? When he’s not, does his relief cook possess the same divine way with a spatula? Or is it the diner itself? Does it have a special griddle that’s been seasoned with rare woods and essential oils? Perhaps a secret ingredient like bacon grease or a cooking technique like baking versus frying might impart a recognizable difference between a very good pancake and a great one.

But more likely was that the pancakes in question benefited from the preconceived conception that they were worth the absurd amount of time one was expected to wait for them. We might call this the Communion Phenomenon, in which hundreds of people simultaneously agree to waste hours of time waiting together, bonded by their group anticipation of what awaits each of them individually at the climax of the wait. Of course it’s eventually going to be the best ever; we sacrificed a tiny portion of our life standing around waiting for the line to move — it’s got to be worth it!

Our willingness to wait for things that really don’t warrant the wait is why some nightclubs throw up a velvet rope at the door, even when the place is a quarter-full. It’s the same reason certain religious philosophies encourage their adherents to get explanations and benefits later instead of on the earthly plane. With apologies to The Sex Pistols, good things, we know, come to those that wait.

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2 Responses

  1. Bambi Woods says:

    Stellar writing. I’m a fan.

  2. chile says:

    Surprising analysis that somehow makes sense. Nice.