at first one could stand in line almost anywhere people didn't really mind too much if one cut in front of them though there were always some who objected when overtaken particularly those who were under the impression that they stood near the head of the line but even these people did not object too vehemently since the line was not moving very fast or for that matter often hardly moved for long periods of time and since no one could tell where it was going but people waited anyway patiently and goodhumoredly and more were coming all the time in endless processions after all it was a good line a pleasant line a decent line even though in places people allowed gaps holes in it looseness and laxness as the line weaved stretched meandered out of sight thicker here thinner there single or double file here triple even quadruple there in fact in various places it was more like a social gathering or a human press as people crowded around in circles as if preparing for a town meeting or a debate or getting set for a choir or a game after all with such little progress forward and so much time to wait people moved about the line up and down in and out casually and freely stopping along the way to chat with neighbors old friends or distant relatives cousins or uncles they had not seen in years all sorts of people with whom one had had dealings or commerce as the saying goes before joining the line but also to chat with the new acquaintances made in line as one moved about leisurely from place to place up and down for indeed the mere fact of being in line seem to create a friendly atmosphere a sense of sincere congeniality and solidarity among the liners as they were called therefore those who made a fuss when someone squeezed past them would be sneered at and even booed by those being by-passed since the line was endless in both directions and it was impossible to determine where it started where it originated and where it ended therefore it was ridiculous on the part of anyone to want to claim a legitimate place in it or insist on any priority of standing for what would be the point of declaring oneself ahead of anyone else that would certainly be futile yet some people kept moving up the line overtaking others squeezing in front of them or by-passing them but without any hurry or sense of urgency these people were merely moving up or giving themselves the impression of moving from one place in line to another nearer to the head simply for the sake of moving forward without any specific reason or purpose hoping perhaps that eventually they would be first in line a vain hope of course because the more people there were moving up the line the further away the head would be for obviously as these people squeezed in front of others the further away the head would be pushed so that in fact a step forward in this case really meant two steps backward for while certain people moved forward others moved in the opposite direction falling back in line so to speak away from the head because frankly they did not care where they stood in the line and so they would loaf about or mill around in groups in and out of the main stream forming circles to gossip or tell jokes or listen to the stories which were circulating up and down the line funny stories about what people did in line to pass the time or how others had forgotten why they came to the line and yet continued to wait simply because they had nothing else to do or how some people truly believed they knew where the line was going groups could be seen standing around laughing at the curious objects people had brought with them to the line for instance the bed on wheels on which an old man was lying in his nightgown and which he pushed along with a cane as if paddling a canoe just to keep up with the line or the little desk and chair and even a calculating machine an accountant kept lugging along so he could continue to do his numbers as he waited in line ah what dumb things people do while waiting in line one could hear muttered all over but it was the jokes especially that attracted most attention and caused the greatest hilarity one joke in particular kept being repeated up and down the line the one about the fellow who sees a funeral procession going slowly down the street with two hearses and a gentleman holding a huge muzzled dog in leash and behind them a long line of men all wearing black the puzzled onlooker asks the gentleman with the dog why are there two coffins in this ridiculous funeral oh replies the man with the dog the first coffin is my mother-in-law and the second my wife ah I see says the curious man okay but why the dog oh the dog answers the gentleman pulling at the leash he killed both of them ah exclaims the inquirer could I borrow your dog for a few hours well you better get in line mister the mourner with the mean dog retorts with a large grin on his face some of these jokes were not very funny but this one kept being told over and over because it seemed so appropriate to the situation though some people claimed they had heard it before probably those who had been in the line from the beginning and heard that joke when they first arrived for it was said that the joke was as old as the line itself and it was indeed a very old line some people had been in the line so long they could not remember when they first joined as a matter of fact the line had been going for such a long time that many died while waiting and had to be buried on the spot special crews were appointed to dig graves and perform the burial rites but there were also happy occasions on the line for instance people falling in love and getting married or children being born or birthdays and anniversaries being celebrated it was very interesting to observe how the line not only changed shape constantly but also changed mood how it fluctuated from sad to happy or vice versa and this as a result of the many activities that were going on in the line so that it could be said that the line changed moods as often as it changed shape sometimes it was joyful lively full of playfulness and other times it was sad gloomy somber anguished but in general the line was calm and uneventful simply moving along in its ordinary but disorganized fashion becoming thinner here or thicker there and usually this because someone had stopped to tell a story or a joke and a crowd had gathered or elsewhere someone had just finished telling a story or a joke and those who had been listening were now moving on or sometimes if there was a tree or a wall along the way or some other such natural or man made structure that cast a shadow on a sunny day or gave a bit of protection from the wind on a cold day or from the rain on a stormy day then people would gather under that tree or line up near that wall or huddle next to that structure and wait consequently the line would become thinner and lax in that spot lazy as it were for there was no great urgency or unnecessary impatience in the line even though arguments would sometimes flare up about nothing in particular and even occasional fist fights for no apparent reason simply that someone's foot had been stepped on and no immediate apology offered and quickly a shove would result followed by an even harder retaliatory shove and then a fist would strike someone's ribs or someone's nose and for a few moments there would be turmoil and agitation in the line until the people around the disturbers would restore a semblance of order and calmness with insistent pleas of please let's keep the line moving and gradually the line would resume its careless progress as casually as before the disturbance quickly forgotten and the disturber politely forgiven in general then one could say that it was not a bad line on the contrary a good decent honest line perhaps a bit too chaotic but nonetheless adequate a line to which people could come without apprehension and once in line without having to complain too much about being stuck there for the main concern in line was civility and generosity many had come to the line quite unprepared not having anticipated the fact that it would be a slow endless process so that waiting would be in vain just as progress would be in vain therefore they had not brought with them the essential in food and clothing to last or continue to last in line so that food drinks and clothing would be shared generously among the liners it was not unusual to see groups of people who had never met before eating from the same picnic basket or drinking from the same bottle or handing pieces of clothing or blankets to people who suffered from the cold more than others especially during the night after sundown but particular care was given to the young and the very old for there were people of all ages in the line male and female of course and of all ways of life educated and illiterate rich and poor this was apparent from the clothes and manners of certain people many races and colors were also present in line but usually these people preferred to stay together in bunches in remote parts of the line naturally there were also people of different religious beliefs this was evident from the discussions and arguments having to do with questions of morality for one of the major concerns of all the people present was the morality of the line and when disagreements occurred on this question the line would become extremely agitated though it should be noted that not all discussions had to do with morality or theology in some places people would get together to sing songs in unison while in other places someone would suddenly stand on a box to make a speech or deliver a lecture and people would gather around to listen to the speaker or argue with him there were always people ready to argue about anything for the sake of a good argument while others who did not care to listen to these impromptu speeches would shout keep the damn line moving but since no one really payed much attention to these dedicated liners they would simply by-pass those gatherings and move on but usually most people preferred the one-to-one conversation moving with the flow of the line two people would casually talk about anything in particular where one is from what one does in life talk about the family about the wife who didn't want to come to the line or talk about the children or reminisce about one's childhood in other words the usual banalities of life occasionally one could hear an intellectual discussion or a critique of the latest artistic fad but it should be stated that not everyone in line was willing to engage in conversation many preferred to remain silent facing the back of the person in front extremely serious in their waiting quietly performing their role as liners of course since the line moved extremely slowly and in no apparent direction many people would drop out if not permanently at least temporarily sometimes simply to rest along the way and watch the others in line go by or else to take a nap many could be seen stretched on the ground soundly asleep during the day and naturally at night too however there were some who complained all the time saying that it was hopeless that we will never get there but in general most people seemed resigned to the slowness and indeterminacy of the line in fact some people who had previous experience with other lines said that in spite of its disorganization and purposelessness this was a rather good pleasant line perhaps the best line they had ever joined and this because of its casualness and lack of regulations for indeed in spite of its disorder this line was remarkably smooth and easy going and as such acceptable to most though many feared that one day unexpectedly out of the blue so to speak it would be announced that everyone in line should stand in alphabetical order and this would immediately cause an incredible mess a frightful state of disorder for the commotion that would result from the fact that one would have to change place and move either forward or backward depending on the spelling of one's name would create not only chaos but irritation and anguish and consequently the line would turn ugly full of animosity as people would not hesitate to ask others with whom they had had a friendly relationship for their identification cards in order to ascertain that they were in the correct place according to the first letter of their last names and one would probably hear people shouting to others your name begins with a T get the hell back or someone would say in a somewhat embarrassed tone of voice my name starts with a B I have to move ahead of you and it would not be rare nor sunrising for some people to accuse others of lying about their names or of using false names just to be ahead of them therefore this line which had been so good and so flexible would rapidly degenerate into an angry state of mutual suspicion simply because of alphabetical ordering for there would be order now in the line oh yes indeed order unhappily


Copyright © 1996 Raymond Federman