Opinionista Mark Barnes 30 October 2019

Don’t take your cue from Queues

I hate queues! The life advice I give to my children is simply this: “Life is about long stories and short queues”.

Live a life full of adventure, but work hard enough to get to the front. I’m naturally impatient and I suffer from that premature onset of grumpiness that seems to attack men of my age. 

It will therefore not surprise you that I woke up in an apprehensive mood yesterday, knowing that I’d have to spend a while in one of those tedious, compulsory queues that you have to do in person. I’d made an appointment, but I knew damn well that wouldn’t count for much. It didn’t.

The first challenge is to know, for sure and in advance, which documents you need and whether you need certified copies of this or just a photocopy of that, whether they only take cash and whether you need to take a black and white picture of yourself with you, whatever. You’ll have to prove to them everything that they’re supposed to know. 

When you arrive and see the makeshift photocopy machine under a tree on the pavement, attached to a car battery lying in the sand, you somehow know that you’ll be back for that service, at an extortionist price. You’re never quite sure whether to have your photograph taken,  just in case, in the makeshift booth on the same pavement. I took a chance and didn’t, and this time I was right. 

Into the building for less than one minute and I was given the form to fill in manually (they couldn’t pre-print it, complete, knowing that I’m coming and being the source of all my information?) and sent off back down the road to get a photocopy of my ID Card from the tree stall. Will I need a photo, I asked? She simply scowled. I did as I was told, you don’t really have a choice. 

Everything in order (for now) I was told to join the queue. I have an appointment, for a specific time, I proudly pointed out and I’ve done all the pre-tests. That’s good, I was told (by what I must admit was a kind, sympathetic, friendly face). Now, sir, would you like to join the queue? I did. 

As you find yourself seated (at least there were chairs) between two complete strangers, moving, one space at a time towards the service point, some amazing dynamics begin to unfold. 

First of all, you realize that you are totally powerless. Your turn will come when they’re good and ready for you and not a moment before. Suck it up.

You are at the lowest common denominator of gatherings, but, amazingly, you’re all equal, no matter what your individual circumstances are outside that queue environment. A strong camaraderie and sense of common purpose start to form between you. You discover that you have the same frustrations, criticisms, expectations, and ambitions, and sharing them on this total equal footing brings with it an extraordinary sense of comfort – perhaps even peace. 

As you read through the various photocopied notices and instructions untidily sticky-taped against the wall in front of you, you start comparing notes, making sure that you’ve got everything, looking out for and looking after each other. 

One of the notices was No Cellphones! We took turns watching out for the security officer to give each other a chance to catch up on our phones – ready to stand together and fight against this authority if that’s what it took. We were reduced to being naughty children – it was quite fun in the end. Borrowing pens, keeping each others’ places when nature called, even sharing sips of water, between complete strangers. The code of the long queue.

I finally got into the makeshift cubicle where the application processing was to take place. Other than a scanner which refused to work (we both tried – then input the data manually, risking error), the procedure worked like clockwork and within minutes I was photographed, fingerprinted and sent off to counter two, to pay. That’s where I discovered I had outstanding payments due which had to be settled in advance, in another building, far enough away to have to drive to (after paying the self-appointed car guard for the lesson he gave me on how to reverse – he should’ve known I had a license, given where we were?). Off I went to the next building, the next queue, this time to pay real money. 

I’d so had enough of this by now! The only solace was that I bumped into one of my new best friends from the morning’s first queues and we were able to whinge together, lamenting our plight, until we both ended up laughing out loud. 

After that we talked everything from the state of our nation to politics, to business opportunities and, finally, family, just as we got to the front of the queue, paid our dues and headed back to building one, counter two, to nudge the process one step further.

I was done in about four hours, with a process that will one day be completed with face recognition technology in a matter of minutes, in the comfort of your own home. 

But I won’t make new friends doing that, and I won’t have experienced that extra-ordinary bond that equality and common purpose brought us yesterday. 

We need to talk to each other more, we like each other more than you think. DM


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