This music is driving you nuts. It's so cheerful, it's depressing. It's so bland, it's offensive. Suddenly it stops, and you get excited: Could this be an actual human?
No, it's just that upbeat On-Hold Man again.
''Thank you for continuing to hold,'' he says. ''While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate.''
You've heard this message so many times, you've memorized it. You hate On-Hold Man. You want to strangle him just to hear his upbeat voice gurgle and sputter and beg for mercy.
You're getting surly. You've been waiting for the repairman all day. The company promised he'd be here between 9 and 12, and now it's almost 3, and you've called to find out what happened. But before you could even ask the question, they put you on hold.
Now that music is back again. It's supposed to be soothing, but you're not soothed. You're seething.
''Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call ...''
''Then answer it,'' you scream.
'' ... hold for the next available associate.''
You curse. You rage. But what's the use? You sigh and settle into the quiet desperation of waiting. Foolishly, you begin to contemplate how much of your life has been spent waiting.
Waiting at the post office, where the clerks seem to move in slow motion. Or at the supermarket, where everybody in the 10-items-or-less line is shooting death-ray glances at the guy with 12 items.
Or waiting at McDonald's, where you always choose the slowest line, the one behind the people who freeze when confronted with the question ''Do you want fries with that?''
Or waiting for elevators that seem to have gone AWOL while you jab idiotically at the already-illuminated button, knowing it won't do any good.
Or waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place so notorious for mind-numbing, soul-crushing torpor that the mere mention of its name brings a shudder.
Thank you for continuing to hold. ...
''Waiting is an insult to us,'' says anthropologist David Murray. ''We feel we're being put down when we're forced to wait. We sense that we've been disrespected; hence, the anger.''
Americans don't wait patiently. We are a busy people. We have day-planners and lists of Things to Do Today. We're highly caffeinated, and we expect life to be full of action, bing, bang, boom. We see waiting as time taken from life, Murray says, while other cultures see it as a part of life.
''We feel we are living only during an event -- the rest of the time we're hibernating,'' he says. ''It's a particularly American or Western attitude. In nonindustrial tribal societies, the rhythms are slower and waiting is part of life. In the absence of clocks and hard-and-fast punctual expectations, it's hard to be frustrated by waiting.''
Several years ago, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was stuck in a Siberian airport for four days, waiting out a blizzard, bored out of his skull. ''It is a dreadful sort of idleness, an unbearable tedium to sit motionless like this,'' he wrote. ''But on the other hand, don't millions and millions of people the world over pass the time in just such a passive way. And haven't they done so for years, for centuries?''
Kapuscinski recalled the countless scenes of waiting he'd witnessed during three decades of covering the Third World: ''Everywhere, everywhere the same sight -- people sitting motionless for hours on end, on old chairs, on bits of plank, on plastic crates, in the shade of poplars and mango trees, leaning against the walls of slums, against fences and window frames, irrespective of the time of day or of the season, of whether the sun is shining or the rain is falling, phlegmatic and expressionless people, as if in a state of chronic drowsiness, not really doing anything.''
You recall a statistic reprinted everywhere a few years back, attributed to a Pittsburgh research firm called Priority Management: Americans spend five years of their lives waiting in lines.
For a 75-year-long life, it comes out to more than 1 1/2 hours a day.
Can that possibly be true?
There are other statistics: On an average day, according to a book called ''On an Average Day'' by Tom Heymann, Americans spend 101,369,863 hours waiting in line. That's 37 billion hours a year.
And that's just waiting in line. But waiting is a many-splendored thing: Waiting for the weekend. Waiting for the Messiah. Waiting for the waiter. Waiting for your ship to come in. Waiting for takeoff. Waiting with bated breath. Waiting for a phone call.
There's the intense waiting of childhood: Waiting for Christmas morning. Waiting for the last day of school. Waiting through endless car trips: Are we there yet?
Waiting to grow whiskers. Waiting to grow breasts. Waiting to grow up.
... we have an unusually high call volume at this time ...
The poor wait more than the rich. They wait in soup lines and welfare lines and unemployment lines. They wait in emergency rooms and free medical clinics. They cannot pay with money, so they pay with time -- little chunks of their lives.
The poor wait for buses and subways while the rich zoom past in cars or glide by in limousines driven by chauffeurs who are waiting and ready to open the door for their bosses.
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