Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Mysterious Practice of “Who’s last in line?”

I was at Kmart (I know, I shop there way too much) this past weekend, gazing forlornly at the lack of staff at the checkout counters—only one line was open—and watching the zombie consumers waiting for their turn. I wasn’t happy at the prospect of losing crucial minutes of my life while the easily distracted cashier waded through the queue slower than shi-at rolling uphill. But I conformed and took my place. Periodically the person at the customer service counter would shout “Next person on line IN ORDER step to the customer service desk.” This resulted in momentary mayhem, as the more anal variety of customer staunchly refused to move from their position, while the annoying customers jostled to steal the spot. The line undid and redid itself accordingly.

Suddenly a multitasking woman approached (she was juggling items in her hands, fishing her wallet out of her purse, and talking on her cell phone by using her shoulder to hold the phone to her ear. “What am I supposed to do?” she whined at the cashier. “Which line?” The cashier repeated that IN ORDER people could switch to the newly opened check out. “But nobody is moving!” she complained, all a flutter, in a self-important voice.

“You’re in Kmart,” I reminded her before shaking my head and moving up one place in line. As I watched the line slowly crawl forward, I was impressed by how, despite a few hiccups, it stayed in form. While my fellow Americans, and perhaps the Brits reading my blog, may take for granted that a line (or queue) is generally an organized formation of people who stand one right after the other in the order they arrived, there is a strange and chaotic alternative system that people use in Catalonia, Spain, where I lived for much of my adult life.

The system has no name that I’m aware of, but I like to call it ¿Quien es el ultimo? (Who’s last in line?). This is how it works: you walk into a store, bank, bakery, post office, doctor’s office, etc. Instead of a line, you see a shambles–people all over the place, some sitting, some standing, some sneaking a cigarette outside. You shout “Who’s last in line?” A few people answer at once and you determine who’s telling the truth. You then remember that you go after that person (I’m after the teenage girl with her buttcrack hanging out of her unreasonably tight pants, for example).

I learned about the system the hard way my first year living in Barcelona. I had gone to the post office to mail out chapters of my novel to some publishers (I was still optimistic back then). There I was with stacks of huge heavy envelopes, waiting my turn for over a half hour and antsy about getting back to work. Just as I was about to place the envelops down on the counter, an old lady jumped up and c-blocked me.

“Hey, it’s my turn,” I shouted in Spanish.

“No, I was next.” She insisted. “It’s just that I was sitting.”

“You snooze you lose,” I said. Well actually, I don’t think you can translate that into Spanish, but it was something along those lines.

“No. I was next. I was after her,” the woman said, pointing to the person who’d just finished in front of me. Baffled and about to go postal (no pun intended), I left in a rage and had to ask a local friend to explain the bewildering concept to me.

The system gets even more confusing when in a doctor’s office and you have to take a number as if at a deli counter. Instead of quien es el ultimo, you have to check your number and then ask who has the number before you. So basically you walk into a waiting room and shout “¿quien tiene el numero 36?” for example, while everyone digs in their pockets to find their crumpled number and someone finally shouts “yo!” (Ok, I’m after the barrel-like woman with purple hair.)

Problem with the practice: there’s a specific type of person who takes advantage of the system—defies it, lies, and usurps you every time: the old, rotund, Catalan woman. These elderly women are large, in charge, as wide as they are tall and don’t take crap from anyone. They are not fragile, vulnerable grannies who get their purses snatched on the street. They’re not frail—they can and will knock you on your ass while trying to get on or off a train and they’ll pretend to be the “ultima” even when they’re not.

So while I was annoyed to be waiting on line in Kmart, and even more annoyed at flutter woman and her stupid cell phone, I actually cracked a smile at the prospect of standing in an organized fashion, and not having to submit to the chaos and mysterious inner workings of the phenomenon quien es el ultimo.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thanks, But No Thanks

Lately I’ve started thinking that I’m going soft. My anger towards fellow commuters, children and humans in general just doesn’t seem to be up to snuff. At first I thought perhaps in my "old" age, I was starting to chill out and be “tolerant.” Then I pondered that maybe commuters are just getting better (boy was that wishful thinking). I began to panic: what the crap will I blog about if not my general distaste and angst with the world?

But just as I was trolling through the New York Times on the train for something to spark an observation—while reading about how sloths have an extra few vertebrae in their necks (wtf?)—annoyance struck. How could I even doubt it would?

I’d chosen the “three seater” because sometimes you get lucky and the seat between you and the other passenger remains free. I glanced over to see what I was dealing with. It was a bleached blond, middle age, rotund woman with furrowed eyebrows and a pair of chins pulling down the corners of her lips. I rolled my eyes and opened my Nook. She pulled out her traditional “book” and started reading. Every time a passenger around us spoke, moved, shuffled or tittered, my seatmate would tsk, shake her head and even get up to stare the person into submission. Apparently it was “reading time at the zoo” and she didn’t want to be interrupted.

I immediately put my phone on silent and turned down my music so that I wouldn’t get the stare down. The train was filling up, and just before we pulled out, a teenage girl hovered over me and asked if I could move in a seat.

Admittedly, I was annoyed. I even sighed in passive aggressive anger. But before I could consent and slide over or deny her, my angry seat partner opened a can of whupass.

“Are ya kiddin me? That’s just great. Haven’t heard that one befoa. Who the hell do ya think you are?” she said in a horrible Long Island accent. The teenager, clueless as they tend to be, blushed.

“What?” She asked timidly.

Chubs continued to shake her head uncontrollably. “You neva ask someone to slide in. She was hea first. That’s RUDE.”

“Um, why is it, like, rude? The train is packed.”

“Why is it rude?” (More twitching, make-up laden eyes opening wide) “Because it’s common knowledge that the middle seat is the worst seat on the train. And this girl…” (pointing to me) “…is too nice to say no, so she’s just gonna move ova and suffa.”

Half of me wanted to tell her to F off and mind her own fartin business, that I’m certainly not too nice, just too tired to care, while the other half of me reveled in the apparent discomfort of the poor teenage girl—teenagers having long been on my list of people I don’t like.

“Well what am I supposed to do? Stand?” the sulky teenager whined.

“No, YOU sit in the middle,” my defender said, leaning over into my personal space and using my legs as a boobrest.

By this time the girl was close to tears and I was tired of being silent. “Oh just sit down,” I said sliding over next to my aghast neighbor. “Jesus none of the seats are good anyway.” I sighed loudly a la Napoleon Dynamite, cranked up my iPod, and shut my eyes to block out the indignant look of the angry woman who'd tried to plead my case. So now not only am I going soft, but I am defending the very species (the annoying commuter) I abhor so much.