I have great respect for the ire New Yorkers express when someone cuts in a line. This is especially so when I accidentally go out of turn while placing my Sunday morning order at H&H Bagels, eliciting a shrill “I’m next!” from the person in front of me.
I want to shout, “I thought you had already ordered…I swear it was a mistake!” Instead I shamefully mumble “sorry,” hoping that nobody else noticed my faux pas.
But the city’s line-etiquette condones some practices that ought to be regarded with the same disdain as cutting:
• Line Holding: this odious custom is common in movie ticket lines. After I wait on line (for unknown reasons New Yorkers say “on line,” while the rest of the country says “in line”) long enough to read the Sunday paper, someone will appear from up the block and walk to the front, where a co-conspirator has held a place for them. I will inevitably end up sitting in the theater’s front row, craning my neck to see the screen, while the late-comer corrals the best seat in the house.
Besides being sleazy, this maneuver discriminates against single people like myself, who do not have an always-available line holder to work with—a disadvantage that also makes it difficult to have my seat held for me while I get popcorn.
• Register Line Roulette: many fast-food restaurants and pharmacies have customers form lines in front of each of their multiple cash registers. I have a talent for choosing the line where the cashier abruptly leaves to get the manager to cancel a sale for a nitwit who thought the toothpaste was three for $2.99, when it was toothbrushes that were on sale. By the time the ritual of drawer opening and form signing is complete, people I saw walk into the store after I got on line have left with their purchases.
I have contacted Al Sharpton about organizing a boycott against multi-register stores that refuse to adopt a single-checkout-line policy.
• The Supermarket Scramble: in this scenario, only one register is open for a line that backs all the way into the produce section when a second register opens, usually without announcement. A Darwinian rush to form a new line ensues, without consideration for the place customers held in the original line. Most maddening is when someone behind me gets to the second register before I do, and holds the place on line for someone who appears with a stuffed shopping cart.
There is a more civil approach. The first time I went food shopping while visiting my brother in Los Angeles, I was shocked to hear the cashier of a newly opened register say “next in line,” before anyone could rush from one register to the next.
Some stores have addressed the city’s checkout outrages by having employees direct customers to the next available register. But line monitors are so suburban.
We New Yorkers have always taken pride in policing ourselves in the public square. I would rather get trampled while racing to an open register than have a college-aged kid from someplace like Idaho tell me how to conduct myself in my natural habitat.
There is one situation, however, where I wish the authorities would exercise greater line-control. That is when I am told by a restaurant maitre d’ that my name is next, only to watch some big macher roll in off the street and get seated ahead of me.
Ben Krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the Upper East Side.
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