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Penkava: How to be a successful wait watcher

Published: Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 11:58 p.m. CDT

I’m not a very good waiter.

No, not the food-serving kind, but the my-life-is-slowly-slipping-away-because-this-stupid-line-isn’t-moving type of waiter.

Have you ever felt that way?

Well, get in line as we spend a few minutes whining about the unavoidable and we acquiesce to the inevitable.

Well, first of all, I’ve found out that there’s lot more to the waiting game than I thought. Evidently there’s a whole field of study about the psychology of waiting in lines called Queueing Theory that comes complete with its own vocabulary. For example, a “queue” is a line of people waiting for something. A “node” is where you get taken care of. So, if you went to Walmart and were waiting in line to check out, you actually were in a queue that led you to a node that took your money.

But all that scientific mumbo-jumbo doesn’t really make waiting in line any more enjoyable. And it doesn’t help when we learn that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in a line. I know where that line is because that’s the one I always find myself waiting in. And I think I saw you there, too.

What makes line-waiting so frustrating is that there really isn’t anything to do. You just stand there. Waiting. I mean, if there was something productive to do during that time, it would be much more bearable. Operations researchers know this, and they’ve actually done something about it.

For example, at one airport, they were receiving tons of complaints about the long waiting time at the baggage claim area. So, to solve this problem, they didn’t need to speed up the baggage service. All they did was move the baggage carousels as far away from the arrival area as possible. Then the people had to walk for several minutes to get their luggage. By the time they got there, they hardly had to wait, and the complaints disappeared. Why? Because the people were given something to do. They walked. And, let’s face it, we’d rather walk to get somewhere than just stand in a line going nowhere, right?

Well, that gave me an idea. Why don’t the stores give their customers something to do while they wait to pay for their purchases? Sure you can peruse Star magazine for photos of celebs without makeup or scan the National Enquirer to read about how Hilary Clinton adopted an alien baby that survived a UFO crash in Arkansas. But that’s too passive and unfulfilling, unless there’s an article about Dr. Phil and his wife in a public screaming match.

No, what I mean is that we all get a number and then are assigned a real job to do. Like, if we’re at Jewel, then we’re sent to stack the cans of green peas on a shelf. Then they call your number, and you go right to the front and boom, no waiting. Maybe they’d let you drive a forklift at Home Deport. Or bus a table at Chili’s. Or set up a video game display at Best Buy. The possibilities are endless.

In this way, we’re never waiting. We’re always doing something. Gone is the aimless standing and rocking on our heels, the dawdling shuffling of our feet, the wistful gazing at the extra large Snickers bar.

Instead, time seems to pass faster because we are actually accomplishing something. Plus, you will be helping the Jolly Green Giant give peas a chance.

Until my idea is implemented, however, chose your queues wisely. Remember that long lines moving quickly are not always better than short lines moving slowly.

Know that there is no justice in the world of multiple queues, otherwise we’d all be in the fast lane. And never forget that sometimes it’s just better to take it easy, stay at home and remain queueless.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He endorses Steven Wright’s concept of “speed waiting.” With practice, you can wait for an hour in only 10 minutes. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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