Imaginary Line Forms Here!

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m nothing if not a patient human being. I work for the government and I’m raising a 4 year old… I have no choice. But sometimes my stellar patience wears thin, especially during the holidays. As most of us go through ‘just getting through’ the holidays, we are challenged by so many irritations that even the smallest of life’s challenges can become hot points at any given moment.

Let’s say, you just climbed into your car to leave for work on a cold Monday morning. You’re reaching for your jacket which is laying over the passenger seat and your arm knocks over your freshly brewed coffee from the cup holder, spilling the piping-hot, brown liquid across your seat because the lid popped off as if it had never been attached to the cup.

You shout profanities. You get a towel and you sop it up as best you can. The morning now feels assuredly destined to progress poorly and for a moment, you contemplate skipping work altogether but you must carry on because you have a meeting at 9:00 am and calling in sick isn’t an option.

Now you have no caffeine to get you going and you decide to visit the McDonalds of coffee purveyors, Starbucks. I call them this as I do Kaiser Permanente, the ‘Costco of healthcare’. I’m not an activist coffee buyer whom snobs away from Starbucks in order to withhold support for a conglomerate retail coffee chain empire. But I would rather there be a choice of places to get a cup a’ jo.

Unlike those who see Starbucks as the most evil business entity known to America, I see them as a place that employs people at better wages than other corporations and according to some of employees report they are usually treated well. My beef with them is far more mundane and trivial and Wal-Mart is by far way more evil.

To recap, you’ve just spilled coffee everywhere in your car, you had to go back into the house to change your pants and wash your hands, yet you still wreak of coffee. And it’s Monday – the scene is set. Now to move on to my point.

You walk into Starbucks and survey the wait. Oh my god (OMG!)! The line almost extends out of the far door! This is going to take forever! Then, you follow from the back of the line to the front and you realize that the line isn’t nearly as long as you’d thought because for some reason, the people at the front keep stopping miles away from the person conducting their caffeine procurement at the counter.

You think to yourself ‘Gee, if the people at the front of the line were to scoot a smidge closer to the counter, the line wouldn’t be extending out the door of the restaurant’. The door to the restaurant would not be open as long, the cold drafts that blow in wouldn’t cause the people inside to shiver their timbers and the restaurant could save on their heating bill (…and global warming would lessen!)

One by one, people observe an invisible force field that stands a good twelve to fifteen feet away from the counter. But here’s the interesting thing: This doesn’t occur at most other retail establishments. Even at Nordy’s, a line generally doesn’t consist of more than four or five feet of space between the person at the register. And Nordy’s is probably a place where the spacing tends to be even greater than say… the super market.

When was the last time you were at a super market and for some unknown reason, the person in front of you is waiting twelve feet away from the checker? How bout’ like… never? Unless you happen to be standing behind Me and once again, I’m immersed in Google News and didn’t realize the line had progressed, you won’t see this phenomena. Alas, a big space in front of the super market register is a rare event due to those people who are always the first to honk their horn when you haven’t started moving for a green light. “Hey buddy, the line’s moved” is almost sure to be heard in those “Aloof Danny” moments – within nanoseconds.

Yet at Starbucks, it’s not only acceptable to give a Grand Canyon of space between you and the counter, it seems to be an unwritten crowd rule. Some of you are saying “But Danny, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s better to have a defensible space while you’re at the counter”. And to you, I would agree with gusto. I don’t want someone breathing down my neck while I order my triple non-fat latte in my own cup.

No, what I find perplexing is: Why is this crowd policy in place here but almost nowhere else, excepting medical and dental offices (and banks –which I’ll discuss later)? Is buying a coffee a more personal, private experience that requires a generous space behind us? I’ve been inline at Costco and Sam’s Club and could easily fart and hit the person behind me with a direct blow (Useful during holiday shopping rushes).

The other day, I decided to try an experiment while in line at Starbucks. When I got to the front of the line, I completely bucked the unwritten, uncommunicated crowd policy. The line was snaking around the restaurant and was causing a human traffic snarl at the entrance. All the people in front me, one by one, left enough room to run a post pattern play before reaching the counter.

I had the power to effect change.

When it was my turn, I slowly crept past where legions of others that morning had been standing patiently and gained at least three yards, still managing to keep a healthy, hygienic, pleasant, non-privacy threatening distance from the person at the counter. All I had to do now was wait and watch the line behind me and see how they would react to my rebellious coffee house antic.

What do you think the people behind me did? Did they scoot up right along with me, then were followed by the people behind them, causing the line to take up the slack that was in front? Or did they hold back where the imaginary Line Waits Here sign was posted? The answer will follow after this brief commercially sponsored rant:

I’m a funky nutball who’s attention many times focuses on the meaningless details of how a system or organization works. One of those details is how lines are managed by businesses or organizations. I don’t know why but it’s what I do. One of the things that really chaps my… chaps, is when a line is present for food/services etc., and there is no clear place marked for people to wait to be next – a Line Forms Here sign always seems to do the trick. But when that sign is non-existent, things can get ugly and how.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a busy deli/coffee shop/cafeteria/restaurant/bar or the like, and they do not tell people where to start the line. This inevitably opens the door to mischief and hurt feelings as there is ALWAYS someone who will gladly cut in front of people, in order to be served faster.

The worst of these scenarios is when there are multiple cashiers. This sets up the customer for having to wait for an available cashier, only to have their hopes dashed because some jackass makes eye contact with the cashier first and ignores the fact that you were undeniably ahead of them. Some cashiers will call out “Who’s next?” Sometimes this works and other times, the jackass will shout out “I was” or will just walk up and steal someone else’s place.

There are places I’ve shopped where, over and over, people come to near blows over who was supposed to be next. Yet the establishment would rather this chaotic environment be continued before they put up a simple Line Starts Here sign. Why do they refuse to help establish order?

My theory is that it, in their eyes, it takes away some of the quaintness and personality of their establishment. “Oh we don’t want to be that kind of stuffy place that has ‘rules’ for everything. We like to play it casual and low key”. Well the El Problemo with that kind of thinking is that many people are greedy and careless of others. These are the people who cut you off on the way to work, won’t let you in when you’re trying to merge and who would keep the $20 bill that just dropped out of your purse.

I’m so used to being invisible at bars while trying to order a drink, that bars tend to get a free pass with me. I guess they’ve set my expectations accordingly and I have no hope of ever getting served in order of time stood waiting. Plus, bars are usually staffed by male bartenders, who rarely notice that I’ve just been passed up three times for a drink, while other people (hot women) have walked right up and been served. Please tell your favorite establishment to post a Line Forms Here Sign!

This rant was sponsored by Please bake responsibly.

Now, if you’ve made it this far into this blog, you are certainly dying to know what happened at the Starbucks when I attempted to change the way the caffeine starved humans stood in line. To my non-surprise, those that were behind me stayed exactly where they were supposed to stand – right at the imaginary far away Line Waits Here sign.

There was no changing these human’s behavior. It has somehow been engrained into our minds that while waiting for coffee at Starbucks, it is inappropriate to stand closer than 15 feet behind the person being served at the counter. These same people, who later will walk into a post office, Burger King, DMV, state fair, supermarket, Macys, Wal-Mart or medical office, will leave about three to four feet of space between them and the person at the counter. Banks. Those are the only other places where a greater distance is observed (Duh!).

What do I make of this? A hat? A broach? A terrible Airplane movie quote?

I’m not sure why we observe a huge distance at Starbucks but I see no reason why it deserves the same distance as conducting a financial transaction.

But we do and we can’t explain why. And that’s what makes our country so great. We do so many things for no apparent reason other than, we can and we will.

To this I say God Bless America! God Bless Unwritten Crowd Rules!

And… god bless caffeine! For America doesn’t run on Dunkin Donuts, it runs on a bevy of caffeinated product lines, which sometimes cause us to do weird things while standing in line.


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