CHARLEYWORLD: Queue And A? (Why Is My Line Always The Slowest? Because You’re In It!)

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“Nobody gets too much heaven no more


It’s much harder to come by

I’m waiting in line …”

That’s the opening to a song by song by the Bee Gees, likely written by the brothers Gibb when they were waiting in a supermarket line holding a case of tequila while the lady in front of them – wearing a beat-up overcoat and army boots – was demanding a price check on a can of jellied iguana and planning to try to pay for her groceries with Russian rubles.

Nobody gets too much heaven no more waiting in any lines, especially at supermarkets, banks, driver’s license bureaus and U.S. Post Offices. In a word, it is hell. In two words, it is bloody hell.  But for me, standing in a line moving slower than bottled ketchup is just part of living in Charleyworld. Given all the possible cashier lines in a supermarket, I will inevitably get in a line behind a Hungarian refugee for whom English is a sixth language, the Coupon Queen of North America or an illiterate professional rat catcher who decides today is a great day to sign up for the store’s Super Saver Card and scrawls upon the necessary documents at the blazing speed of one letter of the alphabet per minute.

I’ve grown used to waiting in lines, even expect it. It doesn’t matter which line I’m in, time will slow to a crawl, dynasties will rise and fall, babies will be born and raised to adulthood in Aisle 10 and new species will evolve in the oceans and climb out unto dry land.

I use my time in line generally to find ways to speed time up. Sometimes, like the Bee Gees, I compose songs. Sometimes I jot down poems. But I usually spend the eons considering the many delightful ways one might throttle the human being in front of you if you have left your garrote at home.

Here’s a limerick I composed one day while in shopping limbo:

Life On The Line Sucks

         I’m stuck in a food mart again

         This line is slower than sin

         The man just ahead

         Moves like he’s dead

         I could use about twelve shots of gin

Now, you may wonder why some businesses have individual lines to cashiers, like in supermarkets, and some have one “feeder” line to multiple cashiers, like in banks and post offices. (Long’s Drugs has both: a single feeder line for getting your drugs and individual lines to cashiers for getting your Spam.)

I have no idea why there are two theories of lineage but an authority on lines says one system works the best.

Bill Hammack, a biomolecular engineer at the University of Illinois, has produced a video that explains why the line you are NOT in moves faster than the one you ARE in. The video is helpfully entitled: “Why Is The Other Line Likely To Move Faster (Queueing Theory for the Holiday Season)”.

(Queueing is a word invented by some British chap who had a weird hang-up on vowels. Queueing is simply the act of “lining up.” A “queue” being what people in other parts of the world call a “line” to make Americans feel inferior.)

Professor Hammack says many stores try to figure out how many people are expected to come at a certain time an assign cashiers accordingly.  That is a recipe for gridlock, he says, because people arrive in “bunches” not spaced out equally.  Any delay in one line stops that line completely. If there are three cashier lines there is a statistical chance to two of them are going to move faster than the one you are in. A single feeder line to three cashiers thus would be three times faster than having individual lines, Hammack says. (You can view his video here)

The reason some businesses stick with the multiple lines to cashiers is because one long line bothers customers psychologically.

“Customers prefer, unwisely, to jockey for position,” he said.

I think it’s more than that. My own experiences aside, multiple lines seems more, well, American. It allows people to use their wits, cunning and enterprise to pick the fastest lane. Having one queue is what happens in commie places like Russia, China and parts of California where people are treated like zombies.

I have to say, however, that having a single queue gives you a chance to hate a lot more people at once. As you get to the front of the line in the bank, you can see five or six idiots dilly-dallying around opening new accounts or converting dollars to yen instead of just one idiot in front of you at the supermarket.

I, too, have a theory for “queueing.”  If you are looking for a fast line, especially in the supermarket, they are easy to find: Just pick the one I’m not in. Get behind me at your peril for you are likely to decompose into dust before it’s your turn to pay.





  1. "This line is slower than sin" I've recently discovered that 90% of us is wasting its life at lines. We're siting at the railway, we're sitting at the market, we're sitting on the couch… Waiting to finish our lives, probably.

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