The Sacred Bond of the Line Buddy


Image: a large group of people in line.

We are all in this together now.

Trina shook my hand. Her flight left in 30 minutes, mine left in 40.

We were both in the depths of the sprawling monstrosity that is the Houston Airport, a space designed by Daedalus utilizing the kind of alien geometries that typically characterize HP Lovecraft novels. We had just passed through the hour-long immigration line required of those squalling unfortunates and huddled masses seeking entry into the United States, and were trying to get through the customs area of baggage claim to make our connections. Things were slow moving, we were tired, and everything sucked.

I didn’t learn much about Trina beyond her previous location (Costa Rica), and her eventual destination (L.A.), nor did she get much beyond my parallel travel facts. She was a woman, maybe in her 20s, and blonde. Perhaps she was a nuclear physicist, or maybe an ice cream flavour designer. One or more of her limbs may have been prosthetic. She was maybe secretly a KGB agent? There are a few gaps remaining in my understanding of her biography. But I felt an instantaneous connection with her, a sweaty-browed union of souls that bespoke our mutual desperation and our shared disgust for this godforsaken airport.

Freed from the clutches of immigration, we charged down a hallway and made it to the next line-up to be molested by the TSA. Elderly succubi screeched at the prone, quivering crowd to remove their watches and wallets, to rend their flesh from their aching bones, and to prepare their tired, weakened anuses to be prodded by the slovenly hands of a 300-pound wage-slave named Gus who probably hated his job.

I hated everything about this airport, and this process, but I didn’t hate Trina. She was about the only entity within the entire facility that I could mentally process as a human. I advised her to stuff her belt into her carry-on bag so that she could simply jog on once she had passed the screening, and she scouted out which direction each of us would need to sprint after our mandated proddings.

Many of my experiences in lines have been characterized by these kinds of quick connections, of two friendships passing in the night. In Bangkok waiting for my plane tickets, or in Mexico staggering through immigration, or in Rajasthan securing bus tickets, I cannot help but feel some unique tie to my fellow linemate. They understand me in the way that someone in an identical predicament can understand a person, and this finely-tuned empathy means I allow them to surmount my otherwise powerful barriers against interacting with strangers.

The connection forged between linemates grows stronger as the wait time increases. With prolonged exposure to tedium, muzaak, and the obnoxious weary sighs of dozens of impatient weirdoes, humans become highly receptive to any nearby providers of kindness, or even basic pleasantries. Weakened and ravaged by boredom, people suddenly open up. They become amiable, extroverted, and far more willing to talk to people from completely different walks of life. As animals commonly experiencing the peculiar phenomena of line culture, we are all subject to the same pressures and stresses, and as such we become all the more real to one another. The other people in line are no longer blobby sacks of meat occupying so much precious volume of air that you could otherwise be breathing, but are actual people, with lives and families and mortgages and colonoscopy appointments.

This is particularly true of people stranded in the same strata of a queue. Stripped of age and race and gender and status, the only identifier comprehended to the long-suffering liner-upper is their current position in line. Those people who are shouldering the same suffering, who are also enduring the line at roughly the same location and thus also the same likely wait times, are comrades in arms. People who are in the same place in line are brethren in the truest sense, and they share an existential connection deeper than blood or war or marriage. They share fate. They share identity. They share equal linehood.

Part of what brings them closer together is shared misanthropy directed towards those clods elsewhere in the line. Everyone before you in line is a wretched, cheating jerk. These people probably managed to fill out the Portuguese-language version of the paperwork, or didn’t bring enough stamps, or plan to pay in pennies. And everyone further back in line is a forlorn sucker, someone so stupid to have actually shown up after you. Still worse are the Machiavellian fiends who established the line in the first place, who set up the horrific velvet switchback, who pump in all the Shania Twain, who have never used the software they are tasked with using and also are about to take a three hour lunchbreak and also only speak the language of bureaucracy, a tongue so beguiling and foreign it was likely constructed on a moon orbiting Jupiter.

But the greatest unifier, the thing that unites all linees, is their mutual, vitriolic disgust with line-jumpers.

Someone who jumps the queue, after all, is upsetting not only the social contract and our dainty sense of formality and politeness, but also the entire universe. We allow ourselves to fall quietly into line, to stand idly and feel our fingernails grow through the aeons, with the understanding that there is order. That others around us will fall into a similar order, will coalesce into the harmonious, delicate beauty of an elegant, timely line. An interloper, an invader, disrupts that balance, and throws our temporal and special sense out of whack. If just anyone can slip forward into the line, then so can we all, and these precious minutes you’ve been wasting back here are moments thrown into the void. The fabric of space-time rends open, the cast of Quantum Leap emerges, and your brain pops in frustration.

And you find solace in your line buddy, the only other person who understands how much you hate the person who has jumped the line. Sometimes the bonds themselves emerge totally out of someone else cutting in front of you and needing to vent. As it is socially unacceptable to simply break the jumper’s coccyx with a lead pipe, the only available outlet for your emotions are those around you. I remember going to see Rilo Kiley at age 18, having shown up at the venue hours early so I could plaster myself right against the stage. Only one girl had appeared before us, and she quietly slunk around the door. The line built in the following hours, and just as we were about to go in, a cadre of preening 14 year-olds slammed through the crowd to meet their friend at the very front. While we couldn’t, as we desired, lead the assembled crowd in a ghastly re-enactment of Lord of the Flies, we certainly could make friends with the people just behind us in line, and unite based on our futile rage.

And ultimately, while the line buddy is sometimes simply an exhaust vent for our curdling emotions of frustration, of anger, of idle contemplation of the cold and desolate nature of the universe, it is this cathartic function that makes them so vital. The line brings people together, and in turn the brief swell of human interaction allows us just enough emotional sustenance to survive the trauma of being in the line in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “The Sacred Bond of the Line Buddy

  1. 1. Hey! A chance for me to inflict my musical recommendations upon you guys. Will have to find some more segues so I can jam youtubes up in these posts more often.

    2. I couldn’t find a way to work in the anecdote, but Houston airport also saw me gain allegiance from a few other line buddies. The massive main line for immigration had taken an hour, and we were finally divided into our sub-lines for the immigration officers. Ours had apparently never used a computer before, and was personally embroidering portraits of each person’s unique fingerprint rather than just scanning them. My flight was leaving soonish, and she was spending approximately 15 minutes on each person. Every other line was zipping through, but all of the Canadians had been shunted here.

    I had been making friendly talk with the people ahead of me, some 22 year-olds from Vancouver, all returning from Mexico. I was unseemly bored, and turned the charm up to eleven, and began making jokes about the line, and how I imagined I would die there. When they found out how tight my connection was, and how likely it would be that I’d miss it if our officer continued her cretaceous pace, they allowed me to skip them in line. Line buddies!

    Wherever you are, 10 young Vancouverites, I salute you.

  2. I’ve been the beneficiary in that sort of exchange before, and so I always try to pay the favor forward. If me spending an extra ten minutes in line will save you from unexpected hours of airport hell, then by all means, pass me by. After all, when it comes to airports, we all need all the good karma we can get.

    I’m less experienced with line buddies, but I have had an airport buddy before. We’d apparently arrived in Beijing on the same flight from Chicago and had about four hours until our connection to Ulaanbaatar, and so we found ourselves in the utterly inadequate waiting area, unable to pass through to an area with anything other than uncomfortable plastic chairs until an hour before our flight. So we hung out in our plastic chairs, exchanged life stories (or at least, stories of what brought us to Mongolia), got food when we could, and generally just enjoyed having someone we could talk to during our long wait.

    • I’ve never had the chance to put that thing the other way, but I definitely will if it comes up in the future. My flights always tend towards obscenely long layovers rather than short ones.

      That sounds like a good way to while away the time, particularly since Beijing airport sucks. When I went to see Cambodia I was also stuck in Beijing for about three or four hours, so my buddy and I plaid about 10 consecutive games of Backgammon.

  3. i’m glad you added the music video. it provides casual, calm listening to a seemingly innocent post, that’s seething with irritation for line jumpers.

    i like how you ended the post, about the line being a “brief swell of human interaction.” i never though of airport lines in that way, but i definitely would use that same analogy to describe hospital or doctor waiting rooms.

    Strangers wait, sometimes a long, agonizing while, hiding their heartbreak & hopes, until a small piece of news breaks the floodgates open.

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