Standing in line, while not exactly the national sport, is an activity all Russians participate in. There is just no getting out of it, not in Russia of the 1990s, the land of no online banking or even putting a check in the mail, where all electricity, phone and water bills had to paid in cash, in person. Which meant long lines. As in thirty or more people, and hours to wait.
Usually the most exciting part of the wait was watching the puddles form under people’s boots as the accumulated snow melted.
But one glorious day it was different. I’d gotten busy, so showed up after lunch on the last day of the month, with all the other procrastinating bill-payers. Two cashiers were working. Two parallel lines of people, made bulkier by their heavy winter coats, formed that snaked around each other as over sixty people crowded into the tiny office.
After twenty minutes about I’d shuffled about four feet closer to the cashier when the other cashier’s register broke. This was a machine that printed a receipt for the payment in the customer’s payment book, so without that stamped receipt, there was no record of the transaction.
Most of the people in the other line resignedly took their places at the end of the line I was waiting in. Like those in front and behind me, I avoided making eye contact with the poor souls from the other line, not wanting to see their silent pleas to be allowed to cut in.
The cashier of our line took the first two from the other line. And then the fun started. The woman who was third tried to push her way in to our line. The next two women told her to go to the back of the line. The woman refused, and tried to jostle in front of them. They held firm in a way that would have made a football linebacker proud.
She raised her voice and began demanding that they let her in. She screeched. She yelled. The supervisor appeared from the back office, her henna-colored hair swept up in a bun and her high heels clicking on the puddle covered floor.
“Woman,” she said, in a quiet, patient tone. “What seems to be the problem?” she asked.
“They won’t let me in line.”
“Then go to the back.” The supervisor pointed toward the end of the line, which now extended out the door into the street.
The would-be line jumper’s eyes widened, she opened her mouth to protest, she raised her fist. All of us spectators held our breaths. Would she yell? Hit the supervisor?
Then, like a sail when the wind suddenly died, she sank into herself, defeated. She slunk to the end of the line. The show over, we resumed our silent wait, the only noise the shuffle of footsteps and the thump of cashier’s machine.