When a line forms, the learning begins

The more the world demands that I wait, the more I learn from my waiting library.

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I am a person who does not like to wait. I don't like lines, being put on hold when making a phone call, arriving at a luncheon date only to find that my companion will be delayed, and, of course, I don't like waiting rooms.

However, I realize that indignation will get me nowhere, as an increasingly crowded world can only mean one thing – more waiting.

In this light, I have taken the bull by the horns and decided to turn my frustration to productive ends. In short, I am constantly on the prowl for what I call "waiting in line books."

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These are volumes that contain material designed for being read in snippets, so there is no extended story line to lose track of. Another requirement is that they be small enough to slip neatly into my back pocket, so that at a moment's notice – when confronted with a long line at the bank, for instance – I can, with the practiced ease of a gunslinger, whip out my book and go to work.

The other day I went to the supermarket. Convinced that the rain would keep most people away, I was surprised to see that the place was crawling with shoppers. Every checkout was open – and jammed.

But no worries here, mate. I parked my cart behind five others and pulled out my vocabulary builder. Within a few seconds I was totally absorbed, and rather than seething at the 15 minutes it took to advance to the cashier, I learned that nankeen is "a yellow cotton cloth," or, in the plural, "trousers made of it" – and the time flew by.The acquisition of this new word, and many others, has made me want to emit a tantara (fanfare of trumpet or horn) at having found such a productive adytum (sanctum) in something so prosaic as a shopping line.

Once, at a yard sale, I found two small, compact volumes titled "Sidelights on American History" (copyright 1919.) The seller approached as I flipped throughthe pages. "You want them?" he asked.

"First I need to see if they fit," I told him. He watched as I slipped Volume 1 into my back pocket. "Perfect. I'll take them."

Fifty cents and 10 minutes later, I was at the carwash, where the waiting line was six vehicles long. Thank goodness for my books! By the time I was being soaped and power sprayed, I had learned about the Annapolis Convention, the early life of Robert Fulton, and the arrest and trial of Aaron Burr (who, the author wrote, "wept like a child" when he was taken into custody).

The more the world demands that I wait, the more I learn from my waiting library. Look at these titles: "One Hundred Things Every American Should Know" (the paper clip was invented in 1899); "The Poetry of Robert Frost" ("I couldgive all to time"); "Living Thoughts of Leading Thinkers" ("Geology gives us a key to the patience of God" – Holland); "Still More Toasts" (Inscription on a tombstone – "Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go."); "Dictionary of Eponyms" ("clarence" is a four-wheeled carriage with seats for four persons); and "Anguished English" (On an Indiana shopping-mall marquee: "Archery tournament. Ears pierced.").

Each of these volumes contains bite-size chunks of information that can be approached, digested, and absorbed on the fly, or rather, on the wait. I have learned interesting and enriching things from these books by utilizing time that I would otherwise squander by gritting my teeth, complaining to the person next to me, or simply staring blankly into the distance.

In fact, I have become so enamored of my "waiting" books that my spirits actually rise when I see a long line I must append myself to, or when I must "wait for the next available operator" in order to make some inquiry or other.

I sometimes wonder what people think of me as I read where others simply stand or sit.

On a recent visit to the general store, I placed my order at the deli counter along with six or seven other people. The one female employee seemed to have her hands full as she rushed about, filling orders. "Just be patient," she counseled as she gave me my number.

No problem. I quietly opened my dictionary of prose and poetical quotations. Perhaps the other customers regarded me as a bookish, lonely soul. But little did they realize that I was enjoying the company of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Homer, and Ben Jonson.

The minutes rolled by, as did the wisdom of these greats. And then I felt a presence very close by. Looking up, my eyes met those of an older man, bearded and wearing a Red Sox baseball cap. "You've got the right idea," he said generously. I smiled and nodded.

"Thirty-two!"

My number. I paid the woman as she handed me my bologna.

Everything comes if a man will only wait (Disraeli).

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