Thursday, January 18, 2007
Codgers on the line
Tuesday January 16, 2007
Heathrow Airport, London
When we got off the flight from Toronto at Heathrow we were instantly dismayed. There were probably 80 people waiting in a queue (note the British lingo) for no apparent reason other than to enter Terminal 4, where we were also destined, or doomed, to go. Then we stepped round a doorway to get in line and saw several hundred more travelers waiting. I laughed out loud, as is my wont when helpless, absurd situations arise. It took a couple of minutes to walk all the way to the back of the line, and it kept growing after we got on. I stepped out at one point and looked back and forth; I would wager 1,000 people were waiting. A girl with a North American accent wondered aloud if this was hell.
Then the jockeying began. I saw this old codger come walking up the line, his mouth gaping a bit in disbelief, as everyone’s did when they saw this monstrosity. He seemed confused – seemed, I say, because after he got over his whinging and trudged to the back of the line, he returned with a woman – his wife, I think -- and somehow stopped beside us, to talk to the Dutch woman who we were following.
I know a graft when I see one, so I angled my body between the interlopers and the queue, using not-so-subtle body language to let them know I was hip, I knew what was going down and I wasn’t born yesterday.
But I was Canadian. Maybe they could smell it. They were Americans, white folks from the mid-West by the sounds of their accents. Their intentions were obvious to everyone standing nearby. Initially the codger wanted to know if he would be allowed to bring the little bottles of cheap white wine he had pinched from the plane (British Airways hands the grape juice out in 500 ml bottles, if you didn’t know!). “Will they make me throw this out?” How the hell should we know, was the answer he should have gotten, and I must say that at 7 a.m. in the longest lineup in the history of Heathrow, I wasn’t the only one feeling moody. Nobody knew what we were standing in line for; presumably security, so yes, in this day and age of air travel “they” will likely confiscate your wine, and will likely drink it with their friends later on. To the Dutch woman’s immense credit, she did not lambaste the codger — far too polite for that — but she did mention that we had all had to go to the back of the line at one point, and there was nothing for it.
We moved forward, actually fairly quickly. The interlopers were complaining that they had gone back and forth and did not know where they were to be, which was bogus, because officials would periodically walk by hollering about the lineup being for Terminal 4 only. The codger and his wife had it figured out all right. The moment of truth came in the form of a little fenceline, you know, that fat elastic tape the airport runs between waist high standards, to separate us all into functional, flowing rows like mice following a trail of cheese nibs, all the way to the X-ray machine. The codger’s wife, a bleached blonde doing a better job of preserving the illusion of youth than her husband, let the Dutch woman pas through the opening of the taped-off area, and cut in, right in front of us. “Bert!” she hissed at the codger, who was staring down the line at something with his mouth hanging open.
I stared at her. It was so obvious. The people behind us knew what was going on too, we all knew it. Everyone was tired too, and irritable, not falling for the disoriented senior bit and not apt to be forgiving for this transgression of etiquette. I stared at her, but she just looked past me, at Bert. Finally I turned to Bert, stepped aside a half-step and said, loudly, “Would you like to come in here, sir?” That got Bert’s attention. He stepped in, and offered me a mini-bottle of Chardonnay. I declined, and started taking notes.
The airline queue is the great equalizer, the one situation where gender and race and creed and even age don’t matter; everyone is treated the same. You’re old? So are a dozen other people standing behind you. You’ve got a flight to catch? So does everyone else. Yours is right away? So was the Dutch woman’s, and you didn’t see her cutting in line. One would hope that a pregnant woman might get different treatment in the airport queue, but I didn’t see any pregnant women at the Heathrow line, and so can’t confirm.
Is it being Canadian that prompted my cynically polite tolerance? Or was I just too tired to fight? In my analysis, it was thus: the antagonism that would have been necessary to tell this old couple to go to the back of the line was not worth the negative vibe it would have brought to me, at that moment, after seven hours on a plane and forty minutes in a lineup.
But not twice, dammit. A moment later a trio of small elderly Indian women dressed in saris tried to cut in just behind us. The first one went to pass me, perhaps thinking her diminutive stature was small enough to slip beneath my radar. I threw and elbow out there and she made some sounds about having a plane to catch. I shook my head and said, loudly, that we had just let the people in front of us in line and we weren’t about to do it again. The fellow behind us wasn’t having any either; if their situation was urgent, he said, they should locate an official, and not simply try cutting in line.
They wound up just behind him, though, and I’ve no reason to think the folks who did let the Indian women jump the queue were Canadian or any other nationality. They were just people like me, willing to let the rules get bent out of either sympathy or a desire to avoid confrontation, sine we are unavoidably all in this together. G.