We Came, We Saw, We Waited in Line*

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The line for Ample Hills Creamery, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, April 2013

If you’ve been to New York City lately, you might have noticed a disconcerting sight reminiscent of Soviet Russia. There are lines for food–lots of them: block-long lines for kooky, Insta-ready milkshakes; lines for Play-Doh-esque rainbow bagels; lines for pizza; more lines for pizza. Wait times for well-reviewed items have been a mainstay for years–think Di Fara, Shake Shack and Katz’s–proving that we want to be seen as  “connoisseurs among connoisseurs,” according to New York magazine. Now, however, there seem to be altogether separate motives for wasting, I mean waiting three hours for a milkshake made from supermarket Blue Bunny ice cream and Chips Ahoy! cookies. (But if that’s your thing, you do you.)

I think the explanation is four-fold. First, photo-sharing apps like Instagram have given us the newfound ability to tempt family and friends, in real-time, with photographic evidence of our food adventures. Who cares if the taste was mediocre? The pictures are beautiful! And on that note, which memory is more likely to last–the taste-bud related one or the visual one, which you can revisit any time?

Second, there’s a shared-experience element to the misery of waiting hours for something. You and your fellow line waiters survived that misery together. “Can you believe we did that?” you’ll giddily say to one another once the whole thing is over. “I waited five hours in the cold rain,” you’ll recount to family and friends. The subtext here is: I’m determined and I’m patient and I don’t give up easily. And aren’t those prized virtues in a world where human attention spans have fallen to an average of eight seconds thanks to smartphones?

Third, everyone seems to have FOMO, as the kids call it; the acronym stands for “fear of missing out.” The line itself is reason enough to stand in it, the thinking goes. Why would people wait if there was nothing worth waiting for? My mother used to tell me about an oft-repeated directive in the U.S.S.R.: If you see a line, join first, then ask about what’s at the other end. In a country with constant scarcity, this was smart. In modern-day NYC, it doesn’t make much sense.

Fourth, it’s about making the most of every vacation or outing. Who knows when you’ll be here again? This sentiment points to another acronym, YOLO, “you only live once.” (Is now a good time to start a countdown to a dystopian future where all our communication will be reduced to acronyms?)

I try not to judge all the those waiting in interminable lines around the city. They’re enjoying themselves, I’m sure, and they’re creating lasting memories. I just hope those hours-long waits don’t keep them from experiencing some of the city’s true gems.

My rules for waiting:

-Never in bad weather

-Almost never for brunch

-Not more than 30 minutes or so

-Maybe for the taste, never for the photo, sometimes for the view (ahem, Grand Banks)

-Long restaurant waits are fine if I can leave, and they’ll call or text me when my table’s ready.

What I’ll wait for:

Ample Hills Creamery ice cream. The line moves fairly fast and it’s usually warm out when I crave ice cream.

Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s an institution–a delicious, delectable institution.

Totonno’s. It’s worth a wait, but I’m still only up for it if the line is shorter than four or so parties.

Absolute Bagels. The line is rarely longer than about 15 minutes, and the bagels, my god.

Clinton Street Baking Company. Only during Pancake Month and only for dinnertime pancakes. It’s a years-long tradition with a friend, and I make no excuses.

What foods would you wait for?

*New Yorkers generally use “on line,” but even after nearly a dozen years in the city, I still can’t bring myself to say it. The New York Times wades into the debate.

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