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A many-legged organism winds its way through Soho, crawling the block at an excruciating pace. It strains the flow of New York sidewalk traffic, as ubiquitous as the Eastern gray squirrel, attracting the attention of an alien from Mars. The sound it emits is of low groaning boredom. Passers-by crane their necks, hoping to see all the way to its front.
“Why are you waiting?” they inevitably ask.
The answer, almost always, is a sneaker or dessert.
The sidewalk line is a beast of its own kind, native to the space outside whatever latest bakeshop or store selling limited-edition streetwear. Within the broader genus of lines, it differs from those inside the post office or Starbucks. (I’ll call those normal lines “normal lines.”) All types of lines are a product of math that expresses the rate at which people arrive and how fast a cashier can distribute some stuff. Normal lines are borne from a solvable fluke: too many people, too few cashiers. Sidewalk lines do not want to be solved. They are intentional — cultivated, managed, bred like show dogs. In certain types of luxury transactions, we’ve come to accept them as a predestined fact.
I used to believe that standing in line was a natural arrangement of human bodies, much like geese flying south in a “V.” But queuing is a recent and man-made invention. The first historical description of the line only appeared in 1837, in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. Describing a postwar scarcity of bread, he wrote: “If we look now at Paris, one thing is too evident: that the Bakers’ shops have got their Queues, or Tails; their long strings of purchasers, arranged in tail, so that the first come be the first served.” According to Carlyle, lining up was a uniquely French eccentricity. How earlier peoples distributed their bread is a fact that I’ve not yet been able to suss out. Before self-serve supermarkets, most stores relied on a deli-counter model. I can only assume that shoppers massed around a vendor, who granted his attention to the squeakiest wheel.
Whatever formation predated the line, it was likely as obvious as the line itself now seems. (Perhaps why so little on the subject was ever written.) In any case, by the 20th century, the line was no longer French, but British. In his 1944 essay “The English People,” George Orwell wondered if a visitor to England might be surprised by its citizenry’s “willingness to form queues.” Around that time, there was plenty to queue for. Housewives during World War II joined long lines for rationed goods, often without knowing what they might find at the end. These lines were a product of wartime scarcity, but soon became a symbol of bloated bureaucracy. Imagining Britain under socialist rule, the Conservative Party leader Winston Churchill coined the slur “queuetopia.” Later in the ’70s, in the United States, the gas station lines of the decade’s oil crises emerged as a symbol of the failures of the left. A line was the punishment for limiting the free market. Reagan was elected in 1980.
The typical lines of the 20th century unfurled when there wasn’t enough stuff or staff — either from natural or artificial scarcity, sometimes as an outcome of political unrest. These normal lines are both frustrating and timeless. One is forming in Caracas as we speak. On a less dire scale, they form daily in stores, eased by the fun of the impulse-buy display. But nobody waits in a normal line for fun. At best, they’re a dull obligation of consumption. Sidewalk lines are where we go to wait by choice. These are the lines of Christmas ’96, when adults camped out and likely pissed in bottles for a chance to put Tickle Me Elmo under the tree. Maybe I was raised on too much purple ketchup, but it seems such lines were brought into being by way of the fact that stuff just got cooler. Products in the late millennium evolved. What drives a man to sleep outside a Walmart is the spread between a wooden stick horse and a Nintendo.
The new millennium saw plenty of these lines. To fill dead air on the 24-hour news, queues for new Nikes were covered as events, thereby extending our willingness to wait. Black Friday had existed, but by then it had been consecrated. At first we lined up to buy $1 big screens, but soon we were waiting to pay more for less. Cut to July of the year 2000. The computers didn’t crash. The towers had not yet fallen. Sex and the City season 3, episode 5: Carrie told Miranda she had a crush on Aiden while eating a cupcake outside Magnolia Bakery. The West Village shop became a pilgrimage site, forging the mold for one sidewalk-line subtype. The sidewalk dessert line has predictable behavior:
- A novel foodstuff debuts, usually a play on a childhood staple.
- Consumers line up to taste it.
- The line becomes a fixture on the street (and object of scorn for eye-rolling locals).
- New shops open nearby to feed off the funds of the people who wait.
The cupcake line down Bleecker Street at one point kept six Marc Jacobs storefronts in business. It spread rhizomatic, fertilized by frosting, sprouting nationwide offshoots outside Sprinkles in Beverly Hills and Georgetown Cupcake in Washington, DC. Then the cupcake trend was over and soon only one Marc Jacobs store remained. The line itself never really disappeared. At first it moved outside Pinkberry in Koreatown, where I dragged my parents on a visit to New York to taste the bland tang of second-wave froyo. Several years later, I joined it again, for cereal-milk ice cream at Momofuku Milk Bar. By college, I’d heard the good word of Marx and shunned the false consciousness of waiting for dessert. By then, there were lines for something called the Cronut, a carbohydrolic fusion of doughnut and croissant. I never thought to eat one. (Dommage, Dominique Ansel!) The line slithered on to rainbow bagels, expensive egg sandwiches, maximalist milkshakes. Over the course of the years, I lost track.
Much like a Señor Frog’s or souvenir shop, the dessert line takes up space in a city but lacks contiguity with its residents’ daily lives. The line grows in length through the Instagram Explore tab and Facebook albums of family vacations. My own online friends are elitist snobs and ironists. The former would never stoop so low as a Cronut, and the latter would only ever deign to stoop lower. I’m left to keep up with the latest desserts through the Instagram posts of a random teen I’ve followed online for the last three years. This past summer, she visited New York and waited in line at a place called Dō, a “confection” shop near NYU that sells raw cookie dough in spoonable cups. A few weeks ago, I visited the shop, hoping to enjoy the society of its line and try its pasteurized (though questionable) product. But arriving at the shop on a weekday afternoon, the line I sought was nowhere to be found. Two French tourists dawdled out front, enjoying their bowls of uncooked dessert. I looked through the window at the empty café. It felt pointless to spend the $4 without waiting.
The sidewalk line incites emotional engagement beyond the marketer’s wildest dreams. Moving to claim your place in the queue, you enter yourself in a deeply felt story that ends in the triumphant conquest of goods. At first, you feel a communal sense of joy, that fizzy coalescence of being in the know: The product in question must surely be important — why else would it be that we’ve all agreed to wait? But waiting in line, we are not all created equal. After the initial solidarity fades, you remember that a line is just a hierarchy extruded. Toward the people ahead, you start to feel jealous. For the people waiting behind, you develop a sort of primal defense against butting, budging, breaking, barging, jumping in, and cutting. (In 2006, a teenager was killed for skipping ahead in line at the halal cart.) For me, the most visceral line-waiting feeling comes only once I’ve accepted my place. What’s the German word? It’s a line-specific blend of anticipation and disappointment. It’s the junior-high feeling of begging for a cell phone, pressed against the time-won knowledge that no earthly product can ever be as good as the fantasy of that product you’ve constructed in your mind.
All of this floats on a slow flow of boredom. Count the people waiting ahead. Try and guess how fast the line is moving. Waiting is a strain on the body and the brain. Is it better to lock your knees, or leave them bent? If you make conversation with people nearby, you might be forced to chat for the duration of your visit. In a normal line at the grocery store, an anxious waiter can choose to read the tabloids. In a sidewalk line, exposed to the world, people are left to fend for themselves. One holds the spot while another fetches water. At night, they lie down and sleep in the street, dreaming of brand new iPhones in the morning. Many are the ways we shoppers in the West pay to role-play conditions of developing nations. A sidewalk line is a game of endurance to heighten coming pleasure, like an orgasm deferred. The wait, a form of work, produces only meaning.
A long time ago, maybe cavemen times, nobody knew that a good should have meaning. A chicken had value because it satisfied hunger. A deer pelt had value to keep you from cold. Looking back in hindsight, this seems wonderfully straightforward. Save for the violence, disease, and starvation, one might even call it a simpler time.
But soon seeds were planted and empires grew and goods found a new source of value in trade. A chicken still worked to keep you from starving, but now you could swap it for two pints of mead. A girl might sell her hair for a pocket watch chain, and a man might sell his watch for an assortment of combs, but even so, it was still pretty straightforward. There was slavery, plague, and imperial conquest, but the value of goods was not that abstract.
Jump to the dawn of the industrial revolution. Tcki-tcki-tcki, chugchug, tsssssst!! (This is the sound of the assembly line increasing the standard of living, for some.) Starting in this age of abundant mass production, goods had value for use and exchange, but they also evolved as receptacles for meaning. A car could symbolize middle-class mobility. A Members Only jacket on the shoulders of your dad could signify that he was a true man of the ’80s. This meaning-for-sale was mostly superficial, but at least it offered an easy satisfaction. Maybe your career was going down the drain, but you could demonstrate success just by having the right It bag. This value was abstract, but it was still pretty straightforward. It didn’t necessarily apply to every good. The popular girls in my seventh-grade class signified status with Juicy Couture, but they still did their homework in normal yellow pencil. Meaning was an option, not yet a mandate. This was a peaceful epoch for the shopper.
But lately I’ve noticed that more mundane goods have committed themselves to a higher form of meaning. It’s not Coach wristlets and Tiffany heart tags, but tampons, toothpaste, barbecue sauce, eco-friendly mattresses, and ergonomic trash cans. A few weeks ago I went shopping for dish soap and came face to face with some Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. Its practical bottle and art-deco font conjured an image of scrappy resolve — the buxom waste-not-want-not maven, rouging her cheeks with the leftover beets. An aisle away, a bag of white rice promised itself as treasured and heirloom. A stick of 5 gum posed the question “Truth or dare?” For shoppers on the upside of globalized consumption, it seems that each next chance to buy has become a new chance for self-actualization. When this first started happening, I thought it was cool that each new purchase might progress my sense of self. Now I feel exhausted, less willing to believe. I’m better at expecting it, tuning it out.
And so, as meaning becomes harder to buy, and thereby harder for companies to sell, many begin the challenging task of transmuting their product into an experience. The source of meaning has overflowed the object and seeped inside the transaction itself. Companies mail us makeup and razors and brand the exchange as a like-minded club. Services like Instacart deliver more than food; they also sell the fantasy of busyness as a virtue. Lines were once a punishment for limiting the free market; now the labor of waiting is a treat. As goods become cheap and overabundant, a wait stills summon the meaning that is scarce.
Streetwear is the furthest extension of the trend. Every Thursday at Supreme, a new Tickle Me Elmo, a new line of shoppers filling up the block. A closet of limited streetwear drops indexes taste as much as time spent waiting. Buyers cherish winking nods toward products as pips in a new sport of consumption. They turn out in droves for ubiquitous trademarks, chopped and screwed in irreverent ways. (Every logo, a potential Peeing Calvin.) Streetwear loves a challenge to a classic status symbol. (A Supreme brick, a Supreme dog bowl, a Supreme collaboration with Kidd fire extinguishers.) A few weeks ago, outside Kith in Soho, the object on offer delivered as much. Shoppers who’d won an online raffle wound themselves around the block for a chance buy an Off-White x Nike collab. The shoe was sterile and translucent white, like the warm CPU of an old Mac computer. The bolstered foam sole was printed with “FOAM,” a nod to the whim that the sneaker in question was only meant to stand for the idea of a shoe.
The line was almost entirely young men. The women all waited on behalf of someone else. Two moms who’d each won the raffle for a son had driven from South Jersey at 6 in the morning. Another woman, in hospital scrubs, told me she came from her night shift at Mount Sinai and was waiting to get her boyfriend a pair. These women were focused on getting the sneakers. The men who’d come of their own accord seemed more intent on enjoying the scene. Making chitchat down the line, I learned that many had plans to resell. Some were undecided. It seemed to me a lot of work for something they weren’t sure that they wanted.
Brian and Juan waited off to the side. They didn’t know each other, but they spoke the common language of two dudes with the same hobby. Juan’s girlfriend had won the raffle in his name. Brian’s brother was inside the store. Neither had won a raffle before, and both said they’d come to experience the line. Neither was sure he wanted the sneaker.
“The cool thing now is the more you don’t wear flashy things,” said Juan.
“That’s true,” Brian agreed, adjusting the collar on his camel-hair coat. “There are way too many people who buy it just to buy it. They don’t understand why they’re wearing it.”
“Exactly,” said Juan, playing with the zipper on his blue silk bomber. “It’s kind of cool to not even wear it anymore, and just to know about it.”
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a writer in New York City.