A friend just recently told me his New York Story: “I’m standing outside Madison Square Garden to buy tickets to a game. There is only one counter open and I’m standing behind a white horizontal line about a yard from the counter, waiting for the customer ahead of me to leave. Suddenly, another guy cuts in front of me. I say ‘Hey! I’m standing in line!’ He answers, ‘This is New York!’”
I think how we wait in line tells a lot about our culture and where we’re from. I’ve seen videos of people in Tokyo standing in perfect rows behind the line for the next underground train, then patiently allowing the passengers to exit before they begin to board the train car in a coordinated fashion. I had never seen anything like it, so used to the pushing and shoving hordes of the New York subway system. It’s every man for himself there, and we look more like a swarm of bees, or even rioters storming a castle, than the calm and courteous Japanese passengers. Similarly, on a trip to England, I recalled the look of horror on my British friends’ faces when, while patiently waiting in the “queue” at a self-serve restaurant, a young woman strode past and confidently bypassed us all to reach the counter and place her order. For sure she wasn’t English, my friends muttered angrily, ruminating on her arrogance and rudeness.
I myself agreed with them, but ventured that she probably thought those who maintained the line rigid and simple-minded, as I recalled a time in Paris when I had waited in line at the post office. There had been two lines, but both were of equal length, so a friend who had accompanied me offered to wait in one while I stood in the other. It was so simple, so natural a maneuver that I didn’t think twice about it until a woman also waiting in line, noticing our stratagem, began shouting imprecations at us in French. I was taken aback by her ire and explained that we were not cutting in line but had waited with everyone else. My reasoning did not appease her and worse, she drew further ammunition from my accent. “And foreigners to boot!” she yelled. “You Americans think you can do whatever you want!” To this day I still don’t see how my friend and I crossed any lines, pardon the pun, but I found it significant that the woman ascribed our “immoral” behavior to our being American. I wondered if she had a point, only in the fact that we had found an efficient solution to our problem and didn’t let a small matter of convention get in our way. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and many other game-changing companies and producers originated in the United States. We pride ourselves, after all, on our break from the yoke of old-world tyranny, on our rebellious roots. We shook off the ancien régime and formed a new way of doing things. To be American is often enough to not accept the status quo.
Another time, however, at another post office, this time in Tel Aviv, it was me who was the offended party in line-cutting. I had been waiting for fifteen minutes or so, when all of a sudden, a middle-aged man entered the line right in front of me. Whereupon he turned around to me and, to add insult to injury, smiled. Smiled! I couldn’t think of a better example of chutzpah, that particularly Israeli brand of hubris. Not only did he cut in front of me, but he leered in my face as he did it. I was beside myself with fury. When I pointed out to him, shrilly, that there was a line, he calmly replied that he had been in line but had asked the boy in front of him to save his spot while he went to run a quick errand. He then prevailed upon the boy to back him up, which the poor red-faced kid did.
“Well, I’ve been on this line for at least fifteen minutes,” I countered, “and I didn’t see you when I got here!”
“Well, I was here so too bad.” Too bad!
“What do you think?” I continued, my voice an octave higher than usual. “You can ask someone to save your spot while you go off to… I don’t know, have lunch, and maybe a glass of wine while you’re at it, and then expect to come back and waltz right to the head of the line? No sir!”
“Oh, you Americans”–my damn accent gives me away every time and earns me no end of grief!–“think you can rule everywhere you go? You’re in Israel now, sweetie,” he said very unsweetly, “and you’re not the masters of the universe here!” So I am responsible for, and made to suffer for, my nation’s history of conquest and hegemony!
By then we had reached the front of the line and though we were providing much appreciated entertainment to the people behind me, I decided it was a lost cause. I told him to just go on then and shut up.
“Don’t you talk to me that way, young lady!” he actually had the gall to say. Not only did he misbehave; he then turned around and acted like I was the one in the wrong.
“You’re the one who cuts in line,” I now shouted, beet red and huffing, “and now you’re acting all offended? Get out of my face!”
By this point I was close to apoplectic. Yet scanning around me for a witness to this travesty, for an ally in my righteous crusade, I found none. Oh sure, they were all paying attention, it gave them something to pass the time, but from their expressions I saw that no one really cared. Israelis aren’t fazed by someone trying to get in ahead of their turn, and even less so by loud voices raised in verbal conflict. It’s a small country and they act with one another like siblings sharing a bathroom. They are always in each other’s faces, for better or for worse, and they are not afraid to tell you exactly what they think of you. There is no distance preserved, neither physical (they get up so close to talk to you) nor metaphorical. And let’s face it, they have bigger fish to fry than worrying over queuing protocols, over who was standing where and when. There is, sadly, never a dull moment there. So get over yourself, they seemed to be telling me, and get on with it.
Now I live in Costa Rica. Here you have to wait in line for almost everything, as in Soviet era breadlines. In the bank it’s like playing Musical Chairs: as soon as the next person in line’s turn comes, we all have to get up and sit in the next chair. Lately banks seem to have joined the modern era and employed numbered tickets, but you still do musical chairs at the Costa Rican DMV and wait in line everywhere else. To get a doctor’s appointment through the National Health Service, for instance, you have to be there by four am or you won’t get a place in line at all.
Usually the lines, wherever they be, are respected and the new arrival will ask who’s last and then civilly place themselves behind that person. But there’s always someone who thinks they’re too smart or too important to waste their time grazing with the sheep. They usually walk boldly up to the front or else maneuver themselves so that you can’t tell exactly where in the line they really are. Costa Ricans aren’t famous for order, so even when there is a line, it’s sort of nebulous and amoeba-shaped. But what always kills me is the reaction of the Costa Ricans to the infraction. Because there never is one. At least the English will grumble and whisper and share disapproving glances with one another. A bold soul might raise their voice a bit, say “Oy, mate!” but won’t really insist if the other person ignores them. The Costa Ricans won’t even do that.
Once, waiting at a bank, I realized the long line was due to the fact that only one teller was open. Being an American, I found this scandalous. Time is money, and the customer is king and all that. So I walked over to a woman sitting at a desk and asked if there were any other tellers available, as the line was practically out the door. She told me the other teller was on her break.
“The other teller?” I asked, stunned. “You mean this bank only has two tellers?”
She answered that that was the case. I, not to be deterred, asked where was the manager.
“He’s out running an errand.”
“Doesn’t he have someone to run his errands for him?” I asked. “After all, he’s the bank manager.”
“It’s a personal errand,” she replied.
I gasped. “A personal errand? During work hours? Are you kidding?” I turned to my comrades in line, expecting to see equal measures of shock and dismay. And in fact that is what I saw, only it wasn’t directed at the rogue manager, or at the hapless clerk, but at the strident American. I heard mutterings of “esos Gringos” and the like. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, standing up not only for my rights but also theirs, and yet I was the bad guy. Yet again.
My Costa Rican friends later explained it to me. I was the bad guy because I was making a scene. I was rocking the boat, and I was acting like I was the boss. In Costa Rica, the customer is not king but rather serf, happy for the attention of those in charge who can get their problem solved so they can be merrily on their way. They don’t want to fight for rights. They don’t want to fight at all. They don’t even have an army! How much farther away from Israel, geographically and metaphorically, could one be? Costa Ricans just want to take it easy, to live their sunny lives under the shade of a mango tree. Their unofficial motto isn’t Live free or die or Don’t tread on me. It’s Pura vida. “Pure life.” As in: Sit your butt down and crack open a cold one.
So what is my point in all these ramblings? It’s this: Even standing in line at a post office requires a feel for one’s milieu, a deconstruction of one’s cultural midst and mindset. Without it, you are just another ugly American, an imperialist colonizer trying to force your worldview onto the lives of those around you. Thus, in order not to hear “Go home, Gringo!” in whatever language it happens to be hurled at you, you should really study the terrain before proceeding. Although really, it’s best just to be quiet and keep that tell-tale accent under wraps. No matter how un-tourist-like you dress, or how fluently you speak their tongue, as soon as you open your mouth, it’s game over. You’ll never win, despite your good intentions. People like things done the way they are used to things being done, the way they and their countryfolk have always done them, with the subtext being that they don’t need no damn Gringo telling them how to reinvent the wheel. Or the line.