It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.