When someone asks me what I do for a living, I give a different answer every time.
Simply put, I’m a professional queuer. There are queues everywhere in Hong Kong: for restaurants, bubble tea, concert tickets, comic con, food festivals. For the latest iPhone, Chanel sales, Happy Meal Snoopy toys. Even queues for kindergarten interviews, public hospital emergency rooms, and the sale of new apartments to be built in three years’ time.
I’m a thirty-year-old man, married, with two kids. I advertise my services on an online marketplace under “Q_er88”, tucked between posts like resume builder, math tutor, or cheap like-new leather boots. Sometimes, I queue and deliver the product to my client. Or else, I keep the client updated on their turn, so they know when to show up. Run-of-the-mill jobs like banking, renewal of driver licenses, and buying groceries for old ladies are interspersed with eyebrow-raisers like funeral-goer, or subway-rider. (More on this later.)
When I’m feeling altruistic, I say I help the needy. Cheeky: I help the rich invest.
People here love queuing. For necessity, but mostly, curiosity. Either way, at the finish line they pocket a reward for their patience or pride, to justify those three (or ten) hours they queued for. When people tuck limited-edition Manga under wet armpits, or clutch three boxes of Australian abalone to their chest, I’d often hear: “At least now I know what the fuss is about.” Or, yelling into their phones breathlessly like sports commentary, “The line was crazy, really, you should’ve been there.” I guess what people love most about queuing, is the idea that they aren’t potentially missing out on something.
The lines are usually very orderly. When Cheesy Tea! first opened, the queue snaked from its third-floor location at a mall down to the first floor, leaving polite gaps for escalators, toilets, and storefronts. If someone cut the line, the queue would unite in taking the person down. I’d never seen a more upright community with a stronger sense of justice. I bought five drinks for my client (who was shopping) and one for myself (might as well). After a 176-minute-wait, the swig of bubble tea topped with cream cheese froth felt like a solution to all my problems, the elixir that would help me finally write a queuing App and sell it for a fortune. Sadly, the shop has since closed down.
The best queues are when I’m given an allotted time to come back. Otherwise I make friends to take turns going for bathroom and food runs, or to share tents when it’s 3a.m. and pouring and we’re queueing for some underaged pop star’s concert tickets. Once I had a stomachache and wasn’t in a mood to chitchat and suddenly had to go, in my spot, near the front of the line. It was my greatest failure at work, and I couldn’t even remember what I was queueing for. But, hey, don’t judge. You think Formula One drivers don’t submit to the urges of their bodies when they’ve been stuck in the car for two hours, in tight fireproof overalls, speeding towards the finish line? I like to think of myself as something resembling a F1 driver.
I use my phone to pass time. Home videos of animals used to be my favorite: a mastiff desperate to get rid of its glasses, a cat scared by a huge plastic spider, a kangaroo nervously squeezed between an old couple watching television. I laughed and laughed to the looping of these videos until I was overcome by sadness for finding joy in an animal’s fears. Recently I watched a film whose name escapes me. It was about a day in a life of a Mongolian goat who had two elegantly curved horns, a white cashmere coat, and a deadpan face that looked like it was either very wise or completely clueless. It trotted from yurt to yurt in the plains, trying to keep up with the herd, but mainly just chewing grass. Most people, my wife included, would have fallen asleep, but I was entranced by the contentment of this goat, going about its daily business, not knowing it had made it into my palms, where I cradled and gently rocked its happiness. That film made me want to become a filmmaker, after years of bussing tables and truck driving and now professional queuing.
During my days off, I don’t spend any time in queues. I don’t have the desire for it. At work I often see these men in suits outside restaurants, shifting from one foot to another, glancing at their watches despite having the time on the phone they’re browsing, and I want to ask them, “What kind of food is worth sixty minutes of your time?” But I never ask them, or the clients I’m queuing for, because they’ll think I’m hard selling my services, and no one likes being told they’re not a good judgement of their time. Besides, where does that leave me, making a living off wasted time? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is when I’m not working, I feel empty. Fulfilling other people’s wants has exhausted mine. I’m not in the mood to watch animals. I watch instead the blinking cursor on an empty code line for my non-existent App. My wife asks why I don’t go to the bank.
I enrolled in a nighttime film class once. I was the only one on time. Everyone else trickled in from work. The teacher, a former film production assistant, said, “Everything in this industry is about connections. Without it, you won’t make it.” That didn’t scare me away; I was good at connecting with fellow queuers. But my wife was scared, even though she wasn’t in the class. “You think I’m going to wait six years for you like Ang Lee’s wife did until you make a gay cowboy movie? You’re out of your mind. At least your queueing jobs pay. Not much, but it does.” I guess that was her long-winded way of expressing support for my job.
My wife teaches piano. She was my client once. A once-in-a-lifetime splurge. “I’d feel less guilty about waiting hours for a limited-edition handbag if I wasn’t there,” she’d said. She literally bought me. My job was interesting and cool, until she expected me to grow out of it after marriage. “What’s next in line after becoming a queuer?” I’d joked. She was not impressed.
I appreciate my wife’s job. Teaching piano to kids whose parents all believe are future Mozarts must not be easy. Our two children don’t play piano. They take French horn and double bass, I think, because they’re the most sought-after orchestral positions for high school bands, meaning extra points for admission. They also swim, do Taekwondo and Kumon math, go to leadership camp. Their schedule is busier than mine. It’s my wife who deals with these things because I can’t. I just can’t. I appreciate her, I really do.
As you can tell, I didn’t do very well in school. Those who didn’t question the relevance of algebra and covalent bonds were rewarded with a college degree and a well-paying job. It didn’t help that the college acceptance rate in Hong Kong was 25%. Or that I didn’t play the French horn or piano. Opportunities are limited for late bloomers, those still jumping from queue to queue, figuring it out. Persistence in math is a litmus test for persistence in life. I think I understand it now, that’s why I’m persisting in my queues, I tell my wife. I don’t give up when I’m in one.
This year, there was a career day at our kids’ school. Can you imagine anything more depressing than asking kids what they want to be when they grow up? My wife had to teach piano, so I got sent in to talk about my career. Turns out, I was a big hit. I told my son’s third grade class I bought video games. To my daughter’s first grade class, I said that I queued to take pictures with princesses at Disneyland. “I wish I had your daddy,” a little girl said. I had the coolest job that day––well, either me or the fireman.
Right before the group photo, Jack, the financial analyst, adjusted his tie and said to me, “Tough crowd.”
“Leave it to the kids to know what’s cool,” I joked.
He took it personally. “What do you do again?”
Since he was already helping the rich invest, I said, “I’m a professional queuer.” He looked at me like I’d said something crazy, like music can cure cancer. In the group photo that came back, Jack wore a perplexed expression, his doubt of me forever suspended in frame.
The photo wasn’t the only thing that came back. Turns out, my kids are naturals at making connections. They talked. The video games and Disney princesses didn’t match up. Liar, they called me. As if a person could not be more than one thing. I told my son to go do his math homework. My wife looked up at me, impressed. My son was not. That was the end of cool dad.
A scan of my wife’s breast reveals a shadow. I’d always liked shadows: a momentary respite from the heat in the queue; a chance to see myself exist alongside my body, however pulled, squeezed, and skewed. But doctors don’t like shadows. The public hospital’s follow-up appointment is in a year. It’s impossible to wait that long, my in-laws agree. My father-in-law pays for a private hospital. The appointment is in a week.
I have long stopped feeling sorry for myself, whenever my father-in-law steps in to save me, to save his daughter from me. There’s a price to pay in persevering, in carving out a space for yourself, a place in line where you know exactly where you belong and no one is going to cut in. I’ve learned to swallow the looks that people like my in-laws and Jack give me, the looks that my children are learning to give me too.
While others busy themselves giving me looks, I accompany my wife to her appointment and take her hand in mine, a racing pulse in a damp palm. I tell her that, worse comes to worse, I can cut back on my queueing jobs. “What you need are more jobs, not less,” she says, the corners of her mouth lifting into a suppressed smile. I am determined to annoy her, every day, whenever I can, until I can’t anymore.
I’ve started filming my own videos, mostly of queuers, their impatience, but also their energy. Like that subway-rider job: an overnight queue to ride the maiden Tuen Ma train, a new East-West line involving a decade-long drama of scandals, ancient wells, and a WWII bomb casing.
I got there at midnight and was third in line. The queue began at the street-level entrance to the station, filed along a dark alley of shuttered stores and restaurants, and curved up the stairs of a covered footbridge like a row of dominos. The guy I was queuing for got there with ten minutes to spare, before the iron gate to the station was raised at 5:20am. My job was done, but for some reason, I decided to join the back of the queue. Miraculously, I made the first train, not the car with the VIPs and the reporters where my guy was, but I still made it. I whipped out my phone, but it didn’t do justice to the bright clean carts, the cold draft slicing the air, the armpit-to-armpit energy of clutching overhead handles in the swaying train, and the loud cheers as we burst out of the tunnel and approached the first station, a station that looked like any other station except to the travelers who were arriving.
At night, my wife comments how stupid people are for queueing overnight for a train that runs 200 times a day. I don’t blame her. She is understandably testy. The shadow appears benign, for now, but needs to be closely monitored. Frequent follow-up scans are necessary. Biopsy is optional. In other words: wait and see. Wait to see what cards we’re dealt, what surprises are lying in wait, whether a tired, erratic cell will make a mistake and grow and summon the body to launch an attack against itself. Wait and then wait some more, because a bad scan doesn’t mean the end, and a good scan doesn’t mean there won’t be one.
I’m going to take my wife on the Tuen Ma train, even if it runs all day, every day. I want her to have the experience, too, of losing oneself in the renewal of bursting out of the dark tunnel like a birth canal. What I realized on that train, staring at a stranger’s armpit, is that I don’t queue to help the needy or rich, I don’t queue for necessity, curiosity, or the fear of missing out. I don’t even queue for my job. I queue for a glimpse of that blue meteor burning through the silent sky, for moments where I feel as content as the Mongolian goat, for the belief that there are still good shadows out there. And I know if I keep waiting patiently, if I keep getting in at the end of those lines, something good would come out of it.