One of the principal reasons I moved to Canada was to be able to line up in a queue. A queue permits one to read a book while waiting as opposed to having to shove one’s way through a crowd toward a scarce resource while secreting stress hormones and maneuvering one’s way around other people’s elbows. In the Darwinian world I had previously inhabited, only the fittest managed to board the bus – or to get off it - and only the strongest made it all the way to the teller before the bank closed for the night. The bus in particular was a daily source of agitation as its arrival inevitably saw two hordes – those wishing to penetrate inside and those hoping to exit – facing-off like warring sides before the invention of gunpowder.
Over the years, I had become accustomed to making aggressive interventions in the face of mustached grandmothers who used their age – despite being perfectly fit and healthy – to advance their way toward public services, as well as arguing with all manner of folk trying to cut their way to the front of a line with sly excuses such as I only need to ask a question. We all do, buddy, and the queue begins about five blocks from where you’re standing. After decades of training in these hostile environments, I was capable of overwhelming men twice my size with the shrill of my voice alone. Nor did I ever shy away from conflict as the only way to assert one’s rights was to gouge someone’s eyes out.
Alas, it was no way to live. It was stressful. Vigilance was required at all times, even at the pharmacy where people feigned illness to get to the service counter first. The resources in question weren’t even scarce: there were enough buses and bank tellers and drugs to serve the needs of the entire population, but the members of the population did not seem to care for one another in the way that civilization required.
I routinely give gratitude for the queues lining up to board the bus in Montreal. Sometimes, they are very long, especially on the 55 and the 108. The people at the back often see that there is no hope for them: they will have to wait for the next bus - and there is no ensuing pandemonium. Those who wish to exit, moreover, are allowed to do so before others enter. It is understood that this is the sensible way. At Service Canada, you take a number. Sometimes at the butcher, too. Hallelujah! Armed with such a number, one can exhale – and read.
And yet, there is a paradox at the heart of this queuing civilization. In this magnificent society where strangers show respect for one another, those who are not strange are routinely abandoned. Why are there so many homeless people on the streets of Montreal and so few – if any – on the streets of my queue-less Balkan hometown? Why is there a wait-list for old-age homes here but no such institutions even exist over there? And why do people over there, who have so much less, part easily with their spare change, while a musician on the Montreal metro blows his horn for hours with an empty hat? Admittedly, the horn is a terrible instrument.
There is one more thing: life in Canada has made me weak. I am no longer fit to survive in a jungle, pockets of which survive even in this tame city. Case in point: my loony tunes neighbors recently stuck a big dollop of dog poo underneath the seat of my bicycle. I sniffed it out as soon as I approached mon vélo and I could hardly believe it: this was not what queuing members of society did to one another! The poo was retaliation for a minor neighborly altercation. I faced a difficult choice then: to burst through their door with a boulder or turn the other cheek. I went back upstairs to get a bucket of water and a bottle of bleach. I no longer had it in me to wage war.
Photo credit: Laura Pedersen/National Post