Back when the world was new and I was still in college, I got stuck in a summer traffic jam just outside--or, rather, just beside--New York City. I don't remember which freeway it was--it might have been I-95--but we were on our way to Provincetown, Mass., and passing under signs that promised bridges and tunnels and assorted exchanges when traffic came to a halt.
I don't think we ever learned the cause of the jam--it might have been an accident, or it might simply have been New York--but I had never experienced anything like it, nor have I since. This was not gridlock, this was lock-down.
This was the kind of traffic jam in which you run out of cigarettes even though you had two brand-new packs when you left New Jersey. The kind of traffic jam in which you turn off the engine and stick your legs out the window in hopes of getting a tan.
The kind of traffic jam in which you get out of your tiny Ford Fiesta and walk back to your friend's broad-beamed Lincoln because she has air-conditioning, Tab (this was pre-Diet Coke) and more cigarettes. The kind of traffic jam in which you eventually turn off the Lincoln's engine because you're worried about gas, and flirt with truck drivers enough so they hoist you up to their still-cool cabs where you can see the shimmering river of cars, but not enough so they expect you to have sex with them.
The kind of traffic jam in which--were you traveling with someone you loved, or even liked--you might be tempted to have sex, just to prove in later years exactly what kind of traffic jam it was.
Amazingly enough, no one got terribly angry, no one pulled a gun, no one even honked much after that first half-hour.
Instead, the freeway gained a party-like atmosphere, what with the flirting and cigarette sharing, and when, three hours later, traffic began moving, people seemed reluctant to leave.
Coming from a small town, I had never been part of a line of any kind for that long. It was my first experience with the lifeboat mentality that accompanies long periods of waiting.
Now, of course, I live in the big city, and I wait all the time--in traffic, at the airport, at the doctor's office. And I have noticed that people who are waiting behave in ways that differ extremely from people who are not waiting.
By waiting, I mean any period of anticipatory non-activity that lasts longer than half an hour. For that first half-hour, most of us remain as God made us--grumbling, impatient, prone to long, pointed exhalations of displeasure.
But after 35, 40 minutes, something miraculous begins to happen. The grimaces give way to expressions of blinking calm, the biting tones to murmurs of mutual support and growing intimacy.
People begin talking to one another about subjects deep and personal--in the Phoenix airport, I heard the horrifying story of a woman's abusive marriage; in the lounge of a car dealer's service department, I spoke at great length with a young woman newly sober and seeking employment; while waiting in line at the Santa Monica DMV, I was treated to the blow-by-blow tale of an elderly man's recent bout with kidney stones.
Waiting for the ladies' room--whether in a department store or at the Mark Taper--I have been told, and overheard, countless tales of medical and sexual escapades, the details of which I would have paid large sums of money to have never known.
In a way, it's easy to be intimate with a stranger--like a priest in his darkened confessional, a real stranger is faceless in his or her anonymity. And waiting imposes on us a stillness that is infamously missing from most of our daily lives.
Standing in line may be the closest many of us get to meditation. The things that rise to the surface in such a stillness--the memories and thoughts, the longings and regrets--are often the things we try to submerge in our ongoing everyday lives.
But in waiting, there is always a moment of surrender, and with surrender almost always a sense of release. A buoyancy that transforms an airport gate into a consciousness-raising session, or a freeway into a block party.