April 5, 2016

SUSSER | The Waiting Game

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote about pickles. But more importantly, I began with a story. The story was one of anxiousness, frustration and boredom: the wait for a sandwich at CTB — an indeterminate purgatory, where time hinges upon the complexity of an order. (If you’re lucky, a cream cheese on Long Island will cost only five precious Cornell minutes. But on a busy Sunday morning, you could stake out a spot at Olin before that Cali Sunrise is ready for pickup). Conventionally speaking, waiting on line is a bad thing. And specifically, for any Collegetown food establishment, waits should be minimized because of the unique customer base. That is, impatient type-A Ivy League students. But what happens when waiting becomes a part of an experience, something to be expected and cherished, or even, an unavoidable routine?

Everybody has to wait on lines. Lines can be consequential, as Arizona citizens have noticed more residents per polling location for minorities than whites — which can invariably influence voter turnout. Of all the things that could go wrong with a day, waiting on a line is down there with a buffering House of Cards episode. But it’s a part of life. Social conventions tied to the line have put food on the table for countless comedians. We hate it so much that we’d pay someone to help us laugh it off. But, it’s a refreshing wake up call when we notice others laughing along to a “what’s the deal with those lines at Walmart?” joke. We’re not the only ones. It’s humanizing to be in a situation that demands one to grapple with the idea that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

Cornell researchers in the School of Hotel Administration have found though, that in certain situations, waiting on line can actually enhance a given product, and be a sign of quality. But, this depends on three factors: preexisting knowledge, ability to evaluate the quality and an individual’s motivation.

Over spring break, while in Austin, Texas, I stopped by Franklin Barbeque. While only founded in 2009, this BBQ joint has quickly gained notoriety as serving some of the best brisket, ribs and pulled pork in the country. Anthony Bourdain even visited the place. Not surprisingly then, Austinites and tourists get in line as early as 7 a.m. for an 11 a.m opening, six days a week. Personally, I arrived at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, only to find a line extending halfway down the block with self-employed carpenters, unemployed educators and employees playing hooky, lounging on camping chairs. It was a very liberal line-waiting process, as bathroom breaks and coffee runs were encouraged, and chairs were shared amongst us barbeque aficionados.

There wasn’t all that much restlessness either. The time went by fairly quickly; harmless chit-chat ensued, Snapchat stories were recorded, live music recommendations were made, and the next thing you knew, I had two and a half pounds of Franklin BBQ in front of me on a cafeteria tray. I left the place happy as a clam, and as satiated as Joey Chestnut on July 4th.  Why was I ambivalent to such a ridiculous wait?

We spend two to three years of our lives on line. But we hate it and spend money avoiding it. Businesses such as Same Ol Dudes LLC have made a business model off lines, charging impatient customers to do the waiting for Shark Tank auditions and iPhone releases. Localities — amusement parks and airports — spend hard-earned resources studying methods to influence the waiting process. Disney wraps their lines around buildings to change the park-goer’s perception of the wait. Airports, finding that occupied time creates less frustration that unoccupied time, situate baggage claims further from arrival gates. More time spent walking, less time spent waiting.

There are some formal waiting preferences that have been discovered. For example, we prefer to wait with others than alone. And we like to be told why we’re waiting, rather than be left in the dark. It seems that this unavoidable social phenomenon is at the whim of our personal attitude.

In a sense, we are always waiting in life. And as a senior, I can’t help but feel a sense of “waiting” as I gear up for the next phase of life. But underlying the wait is a disposition for the future over the present. Maybe the wait at Franklin’s was bearable because the experience built a heightened sense of present. So instead of moaning at every line, traffic jam or elevator ride as a vacuum of time in between an ambiguous and undefined destination, remember to embrace the journey.

Philip Susser is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at pss226@cornell.edu. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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