I had an appointment for something at 5 and when I got there, the line wrapped around two sides of a largish school campus in queens.
For all the truly bad things that have happened in the last 12 months, waiting in line has been consistently the most frustrating image and worst symbol of failure. The other stuff isn’t always within our power to fix; the lines 1000% are.
I recently talked to a journalist friend who’s covered refugee camps. The host country gets international resources to operate the camps, which in some ways become towns, but aren’t incentivized to really lay down infrastructure. The people in these camps are waiting in line for resources that don’t exist.
A few hundred people waiting in line for 2 hours isn’t a human rights crisis, but it’s a symptom of one.
It was raining; the institution that runs the scheduling warned people not to show up before 5 minutes early – to me this implies ‘you be on time, we’ll be on time’. I wasn’t the only one who thought this. People weren’t properly dressed.
It’s not a human rights crisis but it’s an unforced error, and enough of those add up to a complete lack of institutional capacity to do anything.
It wasn’t all bad. Honestly, it wasn’t at all bad. The camaraderie was incredible – something between the ‘you can talk to anyone’ vibe on a ski lift and the ‘we’re in this together’ of summer camp. My only other experience of public life in nyc this year has been the subway, and that has been awful – no interaction is the best case, and various kinds of harrassment or mutual endagerment are normal.
The line reminded me that it’s possible to trust strangers.
I scouted a deli and bought an umbrella on my way there, and on a hunch got a second one. I lent it out instantly and made a new friend. Later I told someone else where to get one, and we held her place in line while she went. She told another person where to go, and he brought back 4.
I stepped in a puddle and thought about Lt Dan harping on dry socks in Forrest Gump.
I thought about Georgia, where it’s illegal to give people water while waiting on line. That’s political violence. I was able to give out umbrellas here, but the water rule isn’t the political violence – it’s the line itself, it’s creating barriers that shouldn’t exist.
As always, you wonder about the boundary between incompetence and malice. These lines are incompetence, not malice – I think. I’ve learned a little about Pam Herd’s ‘administrative burden’, the concept that badly administered systems are a way for administrators to undo legislative policy. Even if these lines aren’t intentional, I’m prepared to believe that the lack of institutional capacity to administer a statewide queuing system is related to other intentionally under-managed systems. If someone has a project of turning government administration into tentacle porn, today I got a taste.
There were people with soggy legal pads going up and down the line offering people appointments in the morning because they suspected they had booked more appointments than they had supply. They said they ran out yesterday. There were few takers, I think because people had no faith that it would be any better in the morning. When I left I met a mom + daughter who had waited for 3 hours, put their names down, and were hanging around because they realized they had no confirmation that their appointment had changed. The mom said ‘I can’t come back if it will be three hours again’.
Even getting this appointment took some kind of nightmare, refresh-heavy interaction with three different websites. Everyone who was able to show up today pounded on the system until it worked.
I’ve heard stories from friends who lived in the soviet union or have parents who did; navigating scarcity was a key skill for living in that system. I hope we don’t have to learn that here.
The guys with legal pads said they were reliant on the state’s scheduling system and that they weren’t intentionally overbooking. They were hostages to a bad system just like everyone else waiting in the rain.
I understand overbooking; airlines do it for a reason. But when I left in the evening, they had run out of the thing they were giving out. They had enough left for 30 people (according to the door guard, who grain of salt could have been misinformed). There were easily 300 people still there, waiting in the rain, hours after their scheduled slot. Nobody was telling them to go home.
The person in front of me was a game designer who also worked in a restaurant and we had an awesome conversation about VR food and the philosophy of project management. The person behind me was an ex metals trader who sells a pricy PDF now. She lives in an off grid cabin with her dude + kids. We talked about supply chain. labor, deadly strikes, and shortages – highly appropriate for hour 2 of a long line. We talked about inflation, to which she said something like ‘you can print more cash but you can’t print more molybdenum’.
I wanted to offer my jacket to the person two spots up who was shivering, but didn’t know how to navigate that interaction.
I thanked everyone I came into contact with today.
in a larger sense I was grateful for the experience, as I’ve been grateful to have lived through the many disruptions of last year (but emphasis on ‘lived through’). 2020 radicalized my generation against useless government. Today I was further radicalized against waiting in stupid lines. I think that’s a good thing.
Everybody working the site was there past their shift end. None of this was their fault. They were having as much trouble navigating the system as I was.
I don’t understand why lines are so hard to get right. Is it about trust? Shortages? Is it incompetence? Malice? Or secretly a much harder problem than I think. I don’t understand what’s going wrong but I’d like to. If you know, write me.