Their Queues is an excerpt from the work-in-progress,
A Season in Scotland: Reeling Through the Highlands and
Lowlands, a travel memoir. Jan is also writing a third
novel, a comedy of baby-boomer manners, and has completed
a book-length parody, Toujours Cleveland and A Year in
Cleveland, and a humor book of answers to rude questions,
Who Did Your Breasts?
The idea that the British love to wait in line may be true
of the English. It is certainly not true of the Scots.
of the enduring myths about the British is that they are more
civilized than Americans. The evidence typically cited for
this is that they queue. Let a horde of Brits find themselves
a bus stop or ticket booth, the argument goes, and they will
instinctively arrange themselves into an orderly line and
maintain it though Armageddon might arrive while they are
waiting for the No. 62 to Peebles or the late show at the
sentimental fiction rests on the odd premise that Americans
dont queuethat commuters going from the Port Authority
bus terminal to Princeton will whack the bus driver over the
head with their briefcases instead of lining up and sports
fans hoping to attend the World Series will smash the ticket
window instead of unfurling sleeping bags. In fact, Americans
are often as quick to queue as the British and do so more
efficiently. The film critic Richard Schickel noted in The
New York Times that Broadway-show ticket-holders recently
have adopted the remarkable habit of forming queues in Shubert
Alley in the sweltering heat even when they are free to walk
into air-conditioned theaters.
what explains the peculiar idea that the British queue and
Americans dont? The answer seems to lie in another myththat
the Brits like to queue. They dont mind standing for
hours behind red velvet ropes at clubs once frequented by
Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow. But even this argument collapses
under the scrutiny of its parts. The idea that the British
like to queue may be true of the English. It is certainly
not true of the Scots.
Scotland I never saw people form a queue in a situation in
which Americans wouldnt. And I saw far more evidence
that the Scots loathe queues than that they love them. In
St. Andrews the graduates of the Caddie Connect project began
camping out overnight in the hope of loosening the old-timers
privilege of carrying Jack Nicklaus bag the next morning.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club moved swiftly to quash the
practice, and The Scotsman inveighed against it in
an editorial that said that if queuing is an unavoidable part
of life, it shouldnt be allowed to go too far.
sign of the Scottish aversion to queues was paradoxical. As
I traveled from the Lowlands to the Highlands, I found queues
almost nonexistent. Except in Edinburgh during the Festival,
I rarely had to wait in line for more than a few minutes to
buy a newspaper or get into a restaurant. When I had to do
so, the line moved swiftly. If Scots are so fond of queues,
I wondered, why didnt I see more of them? The answer
clearly didnt lie in a slump in tourism or in overstaffing.
The number of visitors was up sharply from the preceding year
owing to a heat wave and other factors. In some cities you
could have gotten tickets to a World Cup final more easily
than a hotel room. The travel boomlet should have led to more
lines, not fewer.
Perth I talked about the dearth of queues with the owner of
a bed-and-breakfast not far from the center of town. I said
I was surprised to see few lines in places where they occurred
routinely in the U.S.for example, at pharmacies. Perhaps,
I suggested, a weak economy was keeping Scots away from places
where they might spend money?
no, she said. We never have long queues here.
We hate to wait in line. We would think we could be doing
made no sense that people who could endure haggis and bathing
in the North Sea couldnt bear a 15-minute wait to buy
a package of Walkers Marmite crisps at the Alldays.
I told the owner of the bed-and-breakfast that a lot of Americans
hate to wait in line, too, but regularly form longer queues
than I saw in Scotland. What happens, I asked, when Scots
routinely encounter long lines at a certain spot? Do they
take their business elsewhere, or do they save it for times
when they wont find a queue?
We try to arrange it so there wont be a queue.
idea might sound bizarrely utopian to anyone who has ever
had a car inspected at an American motor-vehicle department.
But I knew what she meant. At supermarkets Americans typically
form as many lines as there are checkout lanes. Scots form
one or two lines that feed into the lanes as they become available.
So checkout lines in Dundee move faster than those in, say,
Chicago. But is this a sign that Scots love queues? No, its
a sign that they want to get out of them as quickly as possible.
began to understand why Scots dislike waiting at line when,
at His Majestys Theatre in Aberdeen, I had my first
experience with a dysfunctional queue. The line for the evenings
performance consisted of two groups of peoplethose who
hoped to buy tickets and those who wanted to pick up tickets
they had ordered earlier. (Those who had tickets, unlike Broadway
denizens described by Schickel, just walked in.) I imagined
that the management would provide a separate queue for each
group as happens at American theaters of comparable size.
Not so. The management of His Majestys provided one
queue until theater-goers began to grumble. Then it sent into
the lobby a man clutching a fan of prepaid tickets, who waved
them above his head in the hope that people at the end of
the line could see that there was another queue.
did see queues form regularly at bus stops and public rest
rooms, but these often seemed to defy logic. One rainy evening
I waited for a bus in front of the National Library of Scotland
in Edinburgh with about a dozen others. The bus shelter might
have kept all of us out of the rain had we crowded in willy-nilly.
But the queue held. About half of the people stood in line
in the shelter while the rest of us waited for the bus in
the rain. At other times, I stood in lavatory queues in which
nobody gave up a spot to someone who was old, pregnant, or
in a wheelchair.
not complaining about all of this, only pointing out the obvious:
The idea that the Scots love to queue has as much foundation
as in reality as moonlit sightings of Nessie. Kirk Elder wrote
in The Scotsman that while queuing might remain a quirk
of the English, it is an anathema to the Scottish psyche.
As a case in point, he described his reaction when he read
that tickets to the Edinburgh Festival Fireworks would be
sold to those hardy enough to wait in line on a Sunday morning:
Scot will do many things in order to locate a bargain. He
will clip coupons from the yellow press. He will jostle with
jumble-sale matrons, inhaling the vinegary aroma of desperation.
He will even, on occasion, visit a hypermarket, despite a
deep-seated antipathy to anything that can be described as
hyper. But queuing? No, sir.
overcame his reservations and went to the line for the Festival
Fireworks tickets. He was startled to find that many people
had arrived early and better prepared: They had deck
chairs and sandwiches, maps and compasses. They wore
raincoats or heavy outerwear, though the day was sunny. He
didnt say it, so I will: They were probably Americans,
scarred but cheerful veterans of Bruce Springsteen concerns
and National League playoff games.
his dismay Elder reached the front of the line just after
the last ticket had been sold. He left, more convinced than
ever that queues tax the Scottish soul. I could have told
him that. I only wish I had known about the ticket offer so
I could have showed up with a picnic blanket, the Sunday paper,
and a few macadamia-nut brownies to share with my fellow soldiers
and keep my spirits up when the line stalled. Americans may
have their faults, but an inability to turn a queue into a
party isnt one of them.
2005 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
2005 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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