Bearing the Wait

Get in line behind 8.4 million other New Yorkers

By Audrey McGlinchy and Madison Hartman

It’s 5 a.m. and you’re awake. Not to go to work but to wait in line — for Broadway tickets, for Cronuts, for the food pantry. This is New York, after all, and nothing comes easy.

As New York City’s population continues to grow — it recently hit 8.4 million, according to Census data — the city’s most unbearable lines keep getting longer. It’s a situation that causes stress, anxiety and even violence in a city where time is always of the essence, according to Dr. Richard Larson – or Dr. Queue as he calls himself.

As a research professor at MIT, Larson has studied the psychology of waiting in line for more than 30 years, consulting for companies like the United States Postal Service and the New York City criminal justice system.

Larson said that in other places, like retirement communities in Florida, people actually enjoy waiting in line — it’s a chance to chat with neighbors and make friends. But New York is different.

“A lot of hurried New Yorkers try to do seven errands in one lunch hour,” said Larson. “Your tolerance for delay is really small.”

Some New Yorkers have no choice about waiting in line. Michael Tuff got to the Community Kitchen & Food Pantry on W. 116th St. at 8 a.m. on a recent rainy day to claim his spot for the afternoon. His number? Five. He left to run errands, and came back around 1 p.m. to get in line and wait for someone inside to call his number.

“In order to get the good stuff, you got to get here early,” said Tuff, as he huddled beneath the food pantry’s orange awning. The good stuff, said Tuff, is chicken, beef, milk and cereal. If you come late, he said, there’s a chance those hot commodities will be gone.

Tuff said the line has grown in the three years he’s been coming to the pantry once a month and now, often moves past the adjacent optics store.

Gelennys Frias got her number later than Tuff — she arrived at 10:15 a.m., and a food pantry employee handed her number 26 — but she said if it hadn’t been for the rain she would have gotten a much higher number.

“I would have been number 90,” said Frias.

One of the city’s most infamous lines is outside New York City Supreme Court at 9 a.m. on weekdays. Court officer Mike Bilello is in charge of the five lines that twist along the sidewalk in lower Manhattan.

“There’s five different courthouses and I have to make sure people get into the right one,” said Bilello. He directs people between Manhattan’s supreme, civil, criminal, family and surrogate’s courts.

On a recent Monday morning, he stood on the sidewalk outside the main entrance to the Supreme Court, watching a line of people that circled the stone pillars and snaked down the steps, past a bagel cart and around the corner.

Many flustered line-waiters came up to Bilello, wagging a white slip of paper. “They don’t read their summons right,” he said.

Elsewhere in the city, people voluntarily wait in line — the wait is part of the experience. At Tom’s Restaurant, a popular brunch spot on the corner of Washington Ave. and Sterling Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, employees hand out coffee and snacks to the patrons who queue up every weekend for brunch.

General manager Vasilios Tourloukis said the diner started giving out food to those waiting in line beginning in the late 1970s. On Saturdays and Sundays, when lines have been known to weave a quarter-way down the block, waiters hand out sliced oranges, cookies, strawberries with cream, fries with horseradish sauce, pancakes and waffles. They’ll also hand out mugs of coffee and glasses of water.

“People are waiting in rain and snow,” said Tourloukis. “In extreme heat, they’re waiting.”

Tourloukis, who’s been general manager at Tom’s for five years, isn’t sure handing out all this free food makes sense financially. “It’s extravagant,” he said, but customers have grown to expect it.

Bigger businesses have more structured techniques for managing their lines.

In order to keep wait time to a minimum, Trader Joe’s and Fairway Market now hire workers to manage the lines. At the company’s Brooklyn location four employees make sure the line moves quickly and efficiently. The EOL, or end-of-line employee, holds a pole with a red flag that reads, “Line Starts Here.” Customers wait in line until they reach the LB, or line-break employee, who breaks the single line into two. When customers reach the MOL, or middle-of-line employee, they are assigned to one of three lines.

Before the register, customers meet one last line attendee, the FOL, or front-of-line employee, who assigns customers to one of 30 registers.

Crew member Tucker Christon said each store comes up with its own strategy for hustling customers through the aisles and out the door.

Trader Joe’s system of managing single serpentine lines, said Larson, bolsters the customer’s sense of fairness. If there’s more than one line, customers choose which line they enter, and if one moves faster than the other, they feel duped.

“You feel like you’ve been victimized,” said Larson.

In New York, some people can afford to pay others to wait in line — rain or shine. That’s where Robert Samuel and his company SOLD (Same Old Line Guy) Inc. come in.

 Samuel, 38, and his team will wait in line for you for a price – $25 for the first hour and $10 for each additional half-hour. After losing his job at AT&T, Samuel put an ad on Craigslist offering to wait in line for people who wanted to buy the iPhone 5 on the day it came out. He requested $100 to wait as long as necessary. He was third in line and waited 18 hours.

He invited friends to join in and even rented milk crates from his apartment so others had a place to sit. By 8 a.m. when the store opened, he had $325 and an idea in his pocket.



Samuel found a conventional job afterward, but when the Cronut craze erupted last summer, he knew it was time to get back in the game.

“New York is a very fast-paced city obviously and some people are just too busy living their fast-paced lives,” Samuel said. “If there’s something they can cross off their list and outsource it like they do with Seamless or TaskRabbit, it’s just an extension of that.”

Now, Sold Inc. takes jobs ranging from waiting in line for “Saturday Night Live” tickets to sample sales and sneakers. Samuel said there’s camaraderie among paid line-waiters. “When it comes to the Cronut line especially, there are regulars so we chat it up with them,” he said. “It’s kind of like a subculture of line standers.”

Back to Overview

Population Density (per acre) in NYC