Breaking the ranks at the bank

With the exception of the Dallas cheerleaders and Marine Corps drill teams, most Americans seem to dislike forming into lines. In fact, a lot of us appear to regard queuing up - as the English say (and cheerfully do) - as a personal insult.

''Stand in line? Me? What makes you think you can treat people like cattle?'' So goes the logic of the native rugged individual, if you can call it logic.

The American way to mount a bus or enter a subway car is not to shuffle obediently in single file. One runs for daylight, as Vince Lombardi used to advise his 220-pound fullbacks - knees pumping, arms wagging, shoulder lowered like a battering ram.

Every known exercise of force or guile may be applied in the interest of making oneself first, thus wiping out the very meaning of a line.

In the lines at banks and supermarkets the game used to require more patience , though not much more. The idea was to switch from one line to another, like a checker player advancing by moving diagonally. ''To win'' meant to be served ahead of those unenterprising customers who had been meekly standing in their one chosen line, long before you arrived, you nimble rascal you!

But then the supermarkets invented express lines and the banks designed little velvet-rope labyrinths where patrons tamely entered in response to the command, ''Wait for the next available teller.''

Some people know how to take the fun out of life - to say nothing of weakening the free-for-all competition so essential to producing character.

Then Citibank of New York did a really terrible thing. Not satisfied with fencing maverick line-jumpers into those velvet corrals, Citibankers decided to divide the world into two parts: savers with more than $5,000 and savers with less. The savers with more found a teller at the far end of their line. The savers with less came face-to-interface with an electronic machine.

Both richer and poorer will get through their lines faster, Citibank's social philosophers reasoned, and isn't that the whole purpose?

Well, yes and no. If there's one thing Americans dislike even more than a line, it's two lines that establish a class distinction.

The have-less customers, confronted with those stolid computers, complained, ''Whom do I talk to when my balance fails to agree?'' But this practical argument was, of course, beside the point. If Citibank had reversed policy and given the have-more customers the computers and the have-less customers the tellers, an act of discrimination still would have pertained - and been resented. The less-than-$5,000 crowd would have protested: ''Oh sure! The rich people get the fancy new $50,000 machine, and we're left with old-fashioned human beings.''

Once Citibank ordained two lines, whatever the excuse, a caste system was created and the revolution was on.

To its everlasting and revolving credit, Citibank recognized its gaffe, however innocent, and restored all services to all customers - who may, on their part, be touchy for the wrong reasons.

Americans who stand in long lines mainly for ''Return of the Jedi'' and the World Series should keep a scrapbook of photographs of Poles standing in line all day for food that, often enough, isn't there.

Americans who can't wait for a green light without beeping should employ those few idling seconds to estimate the number of adults in the world who lack even a donkey to honk with.

Americans get too impatient with lines.

But the double line, the double-standard line - that's a different matter. Never mind how trivial the distinction. All two-line arrangements that favor the status of one line over another sound hidden alarms in the conscience, and properly so. The coded message, whether intentional or not, signals: Here stand the elect, there stand the unchosen.

The double-standard line is one of those symbols so fraught with a false reading of mankind that we egalitarians are bound to overreact. Given the past destination of certain double-standard lines - the inquisition chamber, the concentration camp - are we wrong to err on the side of petulance?

We're just glad that Citibank seems to have understood all this. Now if only they could drop those velvet ropes and turn the open-field runners loose. That's what we think of as really free enterprise.

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