Mad Queue Disease

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It is not hard to make a case against q as the least friendly letter in the alphabet. Most of the words it begins give one the heaves: queasy, quake, quiver, quinsy (as in tonsillitis), quitter, queer in its original sense, querulous, quicklime, quisling or quidnunc (a gossip). It's true that the quoll and the quokka are friendly little Australian marsupials, handy for Scrabble, and that to be quixotic is quaintly attractive. Few would deny that quinquereme is a smooth name for the ancient craft in John Masefield's wonderful poem Cargoes, its five sets of oars "rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine," quibble though one might that today this sad territory is more hell than haven. But the few friendly Q words pale against the one schoolchildren quail to spell, and which Americans don't even attempt: to stand in line, to queue.

Queueing — probably twisted into today's use from the Latin cauda, as in the tail of a beast — is even harder to do than to spell. It is a beast that is steadily trampling our lives. We queue in cars in traffic jams, at supermarkets, at the bank to pay bills, to go to the lavatory at the football stadium, to get the dole. I've even seen hearses queued up outside a crematorium. Talk about dying to get in!

With many lines you can throw your hands in the air and storm off in a fury. The killer queue, however, is the one where a functionary at a distant desk has the power of a paper or a stamp. Anyone who has arrived at London's Heathrow Airport with a non-E.U. passport knows the feeling: after an embolism-forming night on a jumbo, you must smilingly try to convince the immigration officer that no, you are not a bagman for Osama bin Laden, with a dose of dengue fever to boot.

But if the tea-breathed condescension of the Heathrow "non" counters can leave one feeling a right quat (a pimple, an insignificant person, origin unknown), spare a thought for those would-be European residents who must form lines at police stations. We are more alien than Alien and all its sequels. We are fingerprinted, tested medically, made to fill endless forms and produce a deluge of documents in duplicate if not quintuplicate. I once had to provide a letter stating that I did not have a criminal record in my own country, Australia. (Fortunately they don't ask about ancestors.)

The first time I applied for a Tarjeta de Residencia, a little card that allows the bearer to live in Spain for five years at a stretch, was in the main police station of Barcelona in 1990. The queue spilled down the stairs, into the street and more than half way around the block. If any of us didn't have the right paper or photocopy when we finally reached the desk — and the chances are quinella-slim — it was off to get it, and back to the end of another line, another day.

The tension in these queues is palpable, partly because many would-be residents haven't mastered the local language and must hope for the help of a volunteer from the Red Cross or a local human rights group. I have seen a young Moroccan man nod affirmatively to every curt question he was asked. He had no idea what was wanted, what missing paper meant he was turned away. He just went back to the end of the queue. At stake for so many like him is the hope of a job, one most locals wouldn't take. To remain among the estimated 3 million people-without-papers living in Europe can mean no basic rights, and exposure to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Last month I lined up again to collect my third tarjeta, this time in Cáceres, a city in the Spanish region of Extremadura. I'm privileged in that it is pretty much a formality: I'm married to a Spaniard, pay tax and lately haven't been caught drug smuggling or child molesting. But formality is bureacracy's synonym for queue. The policeman on the front desk proffered a piece of paper numbered 50, saying it was a good day, not many in the queue. It had been much longer when I'd stood in line to make my solicitud, or application. That was on April 24: to "process" it took almost seven months. The catch-22 is that there are only two ways to find out about an application's progress, or lack of: to telephone, or to queue again. The staff at Cáceres are courteous but rarely answer the phone ... because they are always too busy facing a queue. Meantime, as the bureacracy grinds, along with your teeth, all you hold if you need to travel is a flimsy yellow paper confirming that you have solicited. It makes their day at Heathrow. "Kindly take a seat while ..."

Finally I got my plastic-covered card, fingerprint in fine detail, precious X number — as in extranjero, or foreigner — under a cheesed-off photo. I quickly slid it into my wallet, embarrassed that the line of Africans behind me would undoubtedly have a tougher, longer time getting theirs, and thinking that there must be a more humane way to welcome, or reject, those hoping to live in Europe than this quintessential torture, the queue. No wonder so many jump it.