The Old Coot is out of line

I was in a crowded deli the other day. It could have been a coffee house or a fast food restaurant; they are all about the same when a crowd shows up. Some give you a number or set up a rope barrier to guide you to the counter in an orderly fashion; some don’t. I like it when they don’t; I sit off to the side, sipping coffee and watching the show. I’m a student of the queue. Queue is a corporate word for line. CEO’s think we don’t mind waiting our turn if it’s in a queue, rather than a line. I love to watch people in line; it reveals so much about them.  

Lines wouldn’t be a problem if the fictitious “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld sitcom ran things. If you wanted soup from him, you conducted yourself by his rules: money in your left hand, step to the counter in one swift motion, speak your order clearly, quickly step sideways to the cashier, pay, keep your mouth shut, pick up your soup and leave. He would never allow the undisciplined, sprawling, disjointed lines that take place at delicatessens, fast food restaurants and other places that often have customers backed up in a mass of humanity.  

Some people who join a queue seem to have a psychological disorder, like the guy who keeps a four-foot distance between himself and the person in front of him. I guess it’s a phobia about bumping into another person. I hate being behind these guys. I’m afraid someone will come along and take the spot behind the person in front of him. It happens a lot.   

Fussy people with complicated orders are fun to watch – “I’d like a small coffee but put it in a “large” cup. I want it with two and 1/2 sugars, 1/2 sweet and low, three squirts of milk (not half & half), a cup of ice on the side and leave an inch between the coffee and the top of the cup. These people are painful to be stuck behind, but fun to watch when you’re just observing, almost as much fun as the people in Dunkin Donuts and other places who order in a zigzag fashion, giving the clerk a workout: a jelly from the lower right shelf, two steps over to a glazed on the upper left, three steps back for a plain in the next section. On and on they go, putting the poor clerk through an aerobic adventure and taking twice as long as they should. They do the same thing at a deli counter.  

The worst customer to get stuck behind is the one who doesn’t know what he wants. He’s waited in line facing a giant picture menu and has a panoramic view of the display cases, yet when the clerk asks, “How can I help you?” he gets a blank look on his face and replies, “I don’t know. What’s good?” The clerk starts rattling off suggestions; each is discarded; I don’t like jelly, I can’t eat chocolate, I have a bad tooth so I can’t chew a bagel. The game continues until he finally makes a selection. The clerk quickly throws it in a bag, hoping to get rid of him but it doesn’t work. Now, he changes his mind. “No, take this back. Give me the breakfast sandwich, but put the cheese on the bottom, don’t warm up the bagel, and make sure the egg is not too hot,” proving he knew what he wanted all along.

The list of queue performances is endless: customers on cell phones who have to discuss their selection with a friend – parents with four brats who insist the kids order for themselves but then veto their selections – absent minded shoppers who have to run back to their car where they left their wallet, low talkers, who order in a whisper and then get indignant when asked to repeat their selection. Queue watching is a pleasant pastime. You don’t even have to be an old coot to partake. All you have to do is pull up a chair or lean against the wall and watch the show.

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