Seattle loves waiting, in private life and public process
by Roger Valdez
Ferry line. Credit: Sue Frause/Crosscut Flickr group
“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
–Yogi Berra (attributed)
Seattle loves waiting in line. People here are willing and prone to be standing, somewhere, waiting in line. Consider the lines at Hempfest and at this year’s Bumbershoot Festival. When it comes to food, movies, and even to politics, Seattlites are a patient sort, willing to stand in line and wait. We even have a monument to waiting in Fremont.
Our line waiting is a symptom of a local cultural pose; people here wait their turn, preferring slow incremental change big leaps forward. We lack impatience. This is true of big civic issues that affect sustainability too. While the planet heats up from carbon emissions created by cars, we are debating a billion dollar buried highway. Isn’t there a cheaper, faster solution consistent with a city that wants to be green?
I hate waiting in line. If there is a long line I opt out or arrive ridiculously early to avoid a wait. A preference or peeve, line waiting is also about supply and demand. Increased demand means reduced supply which means higher price. As the demand goes up, often so does supply. As supply goes up price comes back down. Eventually supply, demand, and price reach predictable levels. Sometimes the price we pay for something is the time we wait for it—an opportunity cost. Some things are worth paying more for than others at different times. We’d pay more for water in the desert than in the rain forest, for example.
But what about pizza? I decided to try getting in line. Delancey —a hip happening spot in Ballard — seems to break the rules of supply and demand and get away with it. Like a culinary BD Cooper, Delancey inspires hope among foodie outlaws: sell something people can usually get cheap and quickly for a lot of money and make them wait for it. Delancey gets away with it.
My Wednesday night wait at Delancey, the earnest host said when I arrived, would last an hour. “You’re welcome to sit outside and drink wine or you can go across the street,” she said pointing out the sidewalk patio in front of the restaurant and the Mexican restaurant across the street, Tarasco. She told me that some nights the wait is two hours. But people keep coming. And Delancey has gotten smart about lines — they don’t have one. Instead, the waiting becomes almost like an entirely separate experience.
Unless I’m mistaken, a frozen microwave pizza costs five bucks at any convenience store. And the wait is five minutes if the store has a microwave. Why would anyone wait an hour — or more — for a $15 pizza? There is lots of cheap, easy, and fast pizza in Seattle. And not all of it is bad. Pagliacci —a Seattle standard—is fast, affordable, and satisfying.
But is it pizza I was buying and waiting for at Delancey? Or was I buying Delancey? The Delancey story is an interesting. one. It all started on a blog called Orangette run by Molly Wizenberg. (Wizenberg’s blog was named the world’s best food blog by the Times of London.) She met her husband through the blog; they were drawn together by their food fetish. They fell in love, got married, and started Delancey.
So the restaurant is now a local legend with homemade sausage, and bragging rights for those that brave the line. And the world has noticed as well. “Guess where I went the other night? Delancey!” I can say. The response is inevitable: “That’s the pizza place with the two-hour wait, right?”
Demand is about what we consider to be important. Buying sand in the desert says as much about the buyer’s wealth as it does about the skills of the salesman. Waiting in line for pizza (Delancey’s pizza is fantastic), breakfast (Glo’s, Julia’s), ice cream (Mollie Moo’s), or movies (Seattle International Film Festival) indicates an extravagance of time. At Delancey the wait becomes early 21st century temporal rococo — waiting in one restaurant for dinner in another.
Waiting can be cool. Waiting in a line for things that are cheap and abundant makes the ordinary precious, the mundane important. Seattle waits because waiting means we’re important — we’re worth it. I’m no fast food junky and I will pay a lot of cash for a great meal but I hate waiting. And I know I am not the only one.
Seattle’s liturgy of lines is analogous to the way we deal with civic issues. Making simple questions complex makes those of us who talk about them seem important. Saying a civic issue is complicated is a way of getting in line, dragging it out, and luxuriating in it.
Tunnels, taxes, land use, and transit all seem so complicated don’t they? We can’t fix these things. It’s just too hard. So let’s talk about them — forever.
The longer we wait and worry, the more important we are. What leads us to a protracted debate on a 2-mile, $4.5 billion dollar buried highway? It’s the same patience that leads us to shivering, hour-long waits on the sidewalk, drinking wine so we can pay $15 for a pizza. It’s not too late to walk away and head over to Pagliacci, which, for the sake of the analogy is the surface option. The answer to the viaduct conundrum is not to wait for consensus on the tunnel, but rather get out of line, walk down the street, and do the thing that makes the most sense for our principles and our pocket books.
Someone once said “eternity is two gentlemen in a doorway. The phrase could be eternity is two Seattle drivers at a four-way stop.’ It isn’t “Seattle nice” that slows us down but our ethic of patient waiting.
As a city we lack impatience with the status quo. We don’t use our car horns. We don’t boo our pathetically bad and poorly managed sports teams. And we don’t mind waiting in lines. But our times call for impatience on big issues like climate change — we shouldn’t be building more new highways. Along with the money we’re squandering a resource of which there is precious little: time