Thursday, May 12, 2005

Pressure to part

It was 1978, at the end of two summer months tramping through Europe. At the time, the cheapest way to get back to the US was via "Laker's Sky Train" from London to New York City, for $100 one-way. The only difficulty was: no reservations, and no ticket pre-purchase. You had to wait in queue, at Victoria station, and when you got to the front, you'd pay your fare, jump the train to Gatwick, and grab your flight. But the wait was averaging three days.

An amazing communal response emerged to deal with this commerical laziness. The "flight queue" had naturally self-divided into cooperative groups, where two people would keep the place in line for a dozen or so others. The idea spread from the people earlier in line, and the people later in line naturally adopted it. It seemed to be working quite well. And was quite fun.

I clustered with a dozen strangers in line, and we made a schedule. One couple lived in London, and volunteered their flat for the group. A Canadian girl, about my age, signed up, with me, for the difficult night shift on the queue, two days hence.

After arrangements were made, we both had nothing specific to do, so we decided to go off together, to explore London. We had tremendous fun, and grew quite fond of each other. We took in a play at the National Theatre (Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard" with Albert Finney). We spent the night at the couple's flat. The next day, we explored some more, and prepared for our night shift at Victoria Station.

Which was no big deal. We settled in, on the sidewalk, talking about what we would do in New York together. And then we cuddled and fell asleep.

Until just a few minues before sunrise, when people were shaking us. "They've added an extra plane! The line's collapsing!" This seemed both horrible (what about our comrades?) and wonderful (we're leaving today!) As the sleepy night-shifts from a hundred ad hoc clusters shuffled forward to get their tickets, it slowly became clear that we might not make it onto the plane. Then we were inside the station, where Laker had set up an airport-style ticket queue & counter.

Then something stranger happened. We were very close to the head of the queue. Ticket agents were conferring with people at the front. And couples were shaking their heads and stepping aside, without tickets! What?

Finally it was our turn to hear what was going on: "we have one ticket left", said the ticket agent. "Do either of you want it?"

Well, we weren't exactly a couple, but we were starting to be, even if it might be fleeting. I was actually in queue before the Canadian girl, by maybe 10 minutes, so she said to me: "look, my mother is waiting for me in New York, and if I'm a good daughter, I'll take this ticket so I can leave a day earlier. However, if you want it, you were in queue first, so you deserve it."

Everyone heard this: the ticket agent, the couples standing aside, the people behind us seeing if we would step aside ... and they were definately pressuring me to make a quick decision.

"But," I said, pleading, "we could both step aside, and stay together!"

She looked down, thought pragmatically, clenched her jaw, and said "no, I want one of us to go."

"Your lucky day, son", said the ticket agent -- and he handed me the last ticket voucher of the day. Dazed, I said "bye" to the girl. And then she disappeared into the queue. I never saw her again. I can't remember her name.


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Blogger Patrick Talley said...

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