On Waiting

September 2001

What with modern electronics, high-speed travel, relentless competition—the pace of modern life is supposed to be frenetic, change incessant, everyone everywhere busier and busier. It is thus striking how many people these days are paid to wait. Bodyguards, security guards, limousine drivers; baseball pitchers waiting for games to be played, waiting while another pitcher pitches, waiting while their team is at bat. Journalists “staked out” waiting for statements from politicians or baseball pitchers, or for a snapshot of a celebrity, or waiting for their turn to say what they have to say to an anchorperson, waiting “live” back in the studio while a car commercial takes its turn. All over the world people are waiting for meetings to end or begin, for bosses to arrive or leave, for taxis, airplanes, telephone calls, instructions.

This is not to propose that ours is the great Age of Waiting. Sociologists may keep coming up with impressive numbers for how much of our lives we spend in traffic jams, on hold for the next representative, in between commercials, waiting while our devices download, but I doubt the average person spends more time waiting than he would have one hundred or a thousand years ago. Think of the young women in so many classic novels—waiting for a suitor. Children in many different eras and cultures must have experienced the particular boredom of childhood: waiting for something to happen, waiting for a friend, waiting to grow up. Waiting can be considered the most crucial part of the farmer’s task, and the hunter’s. In the good old days, a lobsterman had, above all, to wait for the lobster.

Similarly, for many of us today waiting is not one of the various annoying little things we find ourselves having to do; our success, or continued employment, depends on our willingness to wait. And, as with the lobsterman, often what counts is not the deference or alertness with which we wait, but simply the fact that we do. By waiting, the secretary, the vice-president, the executive assistant, the chief counsel and the high-priced consultant reaffirm that they have that most essential of qualifications: loyalty to the boss and the system on whom or for whom they wait. By waiting they make their most essential contributions: easing their bosses’ anxieties by assuring them that help is standing by; bolstering their bosses’ status by surrounding them with gentlemen and ladies in waiting.

Who—how highly educated, well-born or well-paid—the waiters are is important, and also the total number. Recall Louis XIV’s entourage if you wish, or note the hundreds of police, government agents, high-ranking diplomats and assistants of all stripes waiting with briefcases, in hallways, on motorcycles, in cars, in sand trucks and ambulances, while the President of the United States addresses rival political leaders inside the United Nations.

Like Arab grocers in many parts of the world, the Arab grocers across the street from my building wait 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for requests for cigarettes, milk, a sandwich. Jury service: waiting to be called or not. Firefighters wait on catastrophe; on park benches nannies wait for their charges to tire of playing; medical researchers wait to see the effects of diseases, drugs, diets, the environment. The astronomer waits for years to be able to use a powerful telescope for a few nights, and prays that those nights will indeed include that brief moment when news for which we have had to wait millions of years—the after-effects of some prehistoric astral phenomenon—will appear on their Earth-bound screens.

There is much talk about training children to work with computers, to abstain from sex or to use condoms, to not take drugs. Along the way, children might also be taught that drugs, sex and electronic gadgets—and superficial changes—are diversions.

And who is it, “Buddy,” who is in most in need of diversion?

The ways of denial being what they are, we can scarcely call ourselves “waiters.” Instead we use that word to describe the members of a very odd profession—people who are in almost constant motion, and berated when they make others wait.


The image, “Waiting for the President,” is a 1922 photograph of a young girl seated on the White House steps.  From a collection of old photographs accessible via old-picture.com.

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