In New York, ‘Happy Lines’ Have Returned Post-COVID

Waiting in line without complaint to see an exhibition or a show, but also to dine at a trendy restaurant. Some call it “waiting culture.”

In line in the January cold to see the Edward Hopper exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum. In line at dawn with 50 other gourmands to fight it out for the “exclusive” croissants out of the ovens at a Brooklyn bakery and celebrated on TikTok. In line to capture tickets for the theater or a concert that you weren’t able to get online (snapped up as soon as they went on sale). In line to lunch at a restaurant that has no notable dishes but has become trendy and doesn’t take reservations. From airports to Disney World, Americans have a tolerance for lines unknown in our part of the world. But in New York, the line has undergone a transformation from an inevitable inconvenience to an elemental part of the urban landscape, physical proof of the desirability of what you want to acquire, even a place to socialize.

Habits upended, along with many other things, by the pandemic: a half-empty city with lines that, in 2020, were somber ones with people waiting for COVID-19 tests and in 2021, for vaccines. Now, the “happy line” has returned, celebrated even by The New York Times.

It’s a phenomenon called “waiting culture,” long studied by sociologists and even by economists such as Tyler Cowen, who developed this theory eight years ago. It arose from the fear that 50 years on, America was replicating the lines that Soviet citizens had been forced to stand in, “lining up for eggs or winter coats.”

However, he then concluded that, in advanced capitalism, the phenomenon has a completely different nature. In the iPhone era, even the impatient will line up more willingly as the capitalist line is not the result of actual scarcity but of acquisitional scarcity — creating niches of luxury consumption, keeping people in line outside restaurants or half-empty stores just to give the impression that it’s a popular venue — and is not necessarily egalitarian: Often those with memberships or passes to an exclusive club skip the line.

Of course, eggs are scarce even in America at the moment, with prices doubled due to the flu that has decimated tens of millions of chickens. However, the well-heeled West Side denizens standing in line to buy Knoll Krest Farm eggs or organic potatoes starting at $11 a kilo (approximately 2 pounds) and beans starting at $2.50 per ounce, not per kilo, hardly resemble the Soviet babushkas.

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