New York City is a tough place. It's a place where pregnant women stand in subways, people battle for cabs, and parents enroll their children in school before they're weaned. Competitive doesn't begin to describe it. Frank crooned, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." Hobbesian. It's not a place where you can expect people to look out for you in any way. So what was I to make of the 81st street bus queue?
Yes, a queue for the bus. To be specific, the cross-town M79 - that reliable behemoth that treks from Riverside to East End and back all day. I first spotted the queue about six months ago on my daily trip across the Park. It started at the bus stop at the southwest corner, just up the drive from the Planetarium, and wound down the block. I know that there are bus queues in the city - often for express busses - but, frankly, west side bus stops are usually populated by irritable commuters, pushing, shoving and trying to psych each other out to find the exact point on the pavement that will correspond to the bus's door. But not this one - this one had a queue! In New York vernacular - people were standing in line. A lovely, single file line. The people in line were calm, reading their newspapers, and quietly drinking coffee from Starbucks containers. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a fluke. Where was the Candid Camera team? But the queue persisted day after day. What was going on?
To me, queues bespeak England, order, decorum. The 81st street queue is the kind you see at every bus stop in London. Queues are civilized. The presence of queues means that people are playing well together even when unsupervised. Voluntarily standing in a queue means that you accept certain guidelines - you agree to wait your turn. It could mean that the person ahead of you gets the last seat, the last cookie, or the last movie ticket. If you are in the queue, you accept those possibilities. The whole thing warmed my heart. Was this a west side sea change?
Perhaps it was just something about THAT corner. I wracked my brain - could it be related to the museum? To a particular denizen of the bus stop? To the ride through the heart of the Upper East Side? These ideas seemed far-fetched and irrelevant. When I passed the 86th street bus stop, it still had its unruly mob. Was 81st street an island of politesse, or could it be replicated?
I pondered this off and on every time I passed the stop, forgetting it once I got to work and began my day. Until one day when I took the M79 westward, beginning at 79th and Park. It was a wet day, with intermittent mist. I approached the bus stop. One man stood there, waiting. There was no bus in sight. I approached the curb to peer down the street. No bus. I stood there next to him. He smiled. Then I thought - what if I stand behind him? What if I start a queue? What would happen? So I moved. It seemed odd, standing there, the two of us, in a line. It felt vaguely like we were in 4th grade, waiting to buy three-cent milk, or to begin a fire drill. But then it happened. The next person filed in behind me, and then the next, and the next, until a fine little queue had formed. By the time the bus arrived, we were seven strong. Like calm, orderly little ducklings, we filed into the bus and took our seats. I had the vague sense that something important had happened - that we had somehow changed the rhythm of the city around us. I decided to write it down.
Did we in fact change anything? Is it important to wait in line? Can we change the behavior of the people around us by changing our own behavior? I don't know. I do know, however, that my decision to wait my turn, to behave in an orderly, respectful way prompted others to follow suit. Can we change the world one queue at a time? Who knows -- but perhaps it's worth a try.