If you find yourself in China standing in a line, you can thank America. Not for bringing lines exactly, but for birthing McDonalds, which many attribute to China’s redefining que. Worldwide, standing in lines is as good a place as any to understand how or whether the country functions or has a McDonalds. Last weekend a friend’s dad was the one man act for her birthday luncheon, entertaining us with tales from his university days. One semester of his MBA they had a visiting logistics professor from America, distinguished for doing the math to discover winding lines like the airport kind move faster. How that worked evaded me, but I’ve taken a stance this year to just not question what other people say. I’m testing it out as a new attitude, no rebuttal, just acceptance, maybe even a melodic ‘Is that so’.
On a normal errand day in Grahamstown I will need to stand in a number of lines, all of which illuminate how its inhabitants think. My roommates say the people here are cooked. It’s not a compliment. Collective mental instability is then compounded by the emerging progressive and radical ideologies of a new democracy confronting cemented colonial ways of an all-but-dead minority, at least this is what I convince myself I’m witnessing in line at the bank. Behind 15 blue collars I stand with my rent, listening to their conversations in Xhosa. Mostly ‘it’s hot’ and ‘sure is, sister’, and the occasional comment about the person who just left the line giving up too soon. If even the post office in town is held up, the banks are definitely a target. The advanced security door system confirms this. One in, one out, and the out will not release the magnetized lock until the in door is closed. Just the entrance to the bank indicates every minute you spend there is a countdown to robbery.
Having just left the over air conditioned cell phone store where I stood behind two people pricing contracts for 45 minutes, at 3 minutes a transaction per person, the bank is at least a predictable wait. Shifting my weight to the other foot, counting down how many customers until I get to lean against the lobby pillar the line snakes by, I watch a woman in the complicated entrance push the door when the light turned green. She seems confused, like coming to the bank on the first of the month would reward her for not procrastinating bill paying with an open path to a teller, not the line she hovered at the back of. Now comfortably midway at the pillar, between tail and teller, I hovered between thoughts of what else my day held and how there is no way a bank in South Africa could secure a drive thru, in which case, no drive thru suckers. I’d memorized remainder of the line, but suddenly the woman stood firmly in front of two college-age girls looked beyond the cutter, completely indifferent.
I was beside myself. Nothing will ever change if people allow themselves to be treated this way! The nerve this woman had! Old or not, the front of the line is not your white right. Furious that no one else seemed bothered, no one else was puffing! Restraining from asking in the most polite way I could muster, ‘Excuse me, are you just asking a question, because the rest of us have been here for 30 minutes’. Nita would say something, I told myself. Glaring at her, searching for a reason to bring up her social no-no, her country’s past, her unforgivable actions- minutes passed, justice passed. The teller bell dinged. She and her handbag moved along the counter protected from my wrath by the nylon tether line divider and my new attitude to observe instead of rebuke.
Times like this I’m grateful for my new practiced reservation. Over the final 15 minutes in line I worked out someone had offered to save her spot. How kind, yet I’d assumed the worst. It’s not a cultural divide that causes me to miss such social cues, it’s from not having all the information. On the walk from home to school, any time of day there are men standing against the wall as if in time out. Still as statues. Were it not for my curious, insatiable stare I would have found this self-inflicted punishment perplexing. The men are just peeing. On the wall. In broad daylight. Why not. Another local ritual that would have been lost on me had I arrived in Grahamstown one week later is throwing ATM receipts on the ground where the designated ATM trashcan used to be. I assume someone stole it in the night, or after a pee on a sunny day, and claimed it for their own, repurposing it as a laundry basket or mobile fire pit. But a metal cylinder bin used to stand and receive all balances of passersby. Today out of habit people pitch the crumpled slip on the ground, as if compulsive muscle memory pops their right arm out to the side and releases the white wad without looking. One man’s receipt is another man’s kindling.
This degree of laziness astounds me, you see it everywhere, and understanding it cannot be rushed. In the school library, with no other students in line, if you walk to the counter to check out a novel the librarian retrieves her eyes from the back of her head and requests you use the machine. The machine does your jobs better? Is that so, well- ‘I really don’t like the machine’ I half complain/explain. Stare off. She picks up the barcode gun and begins the rote movements of her position.
Hands down the best customer service, therefore the best line to stand in, is at the liquor store. In Grahamstown, even wine has moved off grocery shelves and to the bottle shop. This cashier is worth the wait spent listening to 10 minutes of rugby highlights and recaps from Rhodes boys in shorts shorter than mine told through vocabularies consisting of little more than bru, yoh, and lekker. At the till with my bottle of pinotage, I ask if she’s ever considered putting out a glass as a tip jar, so everyone who came through her line could show their appreciation by pouring a little of their beverage in. She could even tart the cup up like baristas do their tip jars- ‘thanks a latte’ meets the liquor store’s –three tips to tipsy! She said it’s not socially acceptable to be drunk at work. Plus, she wouldn’t want to be drunk when she gets home because then she couldn’t do the sex good.
Is that so.