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— Is it on line or in line? At the bank, the post office, the DMV, are you standing in a line or on one? With the Internet, of course, online has come to mean something else entirely. Growing up in the Midwest, we stood in line. When I moved to New York, I stood on line. (In England it was in a queue, but then, their trucks are lorries.) The odds of standing front to back for anything at any given time in San Diego are increasing constantly. I will do almost anything to avoid it, but with everyone moving out here for the weather, it's become impossible.

Take grocery shopping at Ralphs in Hillcrest, because that's where I shop. It doesn't have to be Ralphs; it could be Vons or Lucky -- whatever. But if it is in San Diego, you will have a different experience than in Detroit, Chicago, or Philadelphia. The key adverb in these climes is "leisurely."

Here are some tips when you just want to buy a few items and get the hell out of a San Diego grocery store. Try to avoid lines with women over 45 (not you, naturally) especially if another woman of similar age is working the register. Recipes will be exchanged, news, gossip, observation and dissection of haircuts or hair color. Some item will invariably have no price, so that will have to be checked. There will be many coupons involved and much discussion about them (double? expired? Honey, you could save 19 cents if you use the Ralphs Club Card rather than the coupon), and then that female customer of a certain age will be suddenly astonished, taken aback, completely unprepared for the concept that she must pay for these goods in some fashion.

Here's where what I call the Peruvian Currency Factor kicks in.

This involves all of the above or merely the attempted purchase of a loaf of bread with an out-of-state check and no identification or expired identification or an expired credit card or attempting the $1.99 transaction with pesos discovered in the bottom of the purse from her visit to Tijuana. When this occurs, it is without exception when the woman (and sometimes a young man or young woman) behind the register is new and has to call the manager to see what the procedure is with foreign coins.

I think I have covered -- with sexism and ageism -- the pcf, but you can learn from this. If at all possible, get in the line with men, unaccompanied, buying frozen dinners and beer. The older the better. They pay cash and don't have much to talk about, with each other or a supermarket employee. There is no guarantee here, but you're better off. The snag, in this case, is a natural law of some kind, one I haven't named yet, which dictates that if a line is moving too swiftly, it will become necessary to change the cash register tape or remove and document the large bills while the manager flirts with the help over on (or in?) aisle number two.

Forget supermarkets in America's Finest and Least in a Hurry to Do Anything Except Drive Too Fast to or from Work in the Seldom but Occasional Rainstorm City. Another line I can't avoid is the cineplex for movies with my son on weekends.

Movie houses are a cash business. If you buy movie tickets with a credit card over the phone, you have too much time on your hands and you need more bran in you diet. No math problem should be involved in buying movie tickets, even with a family of eight. But we don't live in that world. We live in a mellow, chauvinistic society, as proud of its weather as if it were the end product of a long, hard-fought battle, similar to the Indian-fighting settlers of a hostile outpost in the Dakotas. We did something about it, goddammit! The weather -- and I am squarely blaming the weather, not my fellow San Diegans -- is responsible for numerous idiocies around the county, rendering a pleasant yet lobotomizing effect.

A family of four is at the box office. My son and I have been in line for ten minutes. The portly father in the Sea World T-shirt seems puzzled. Okay, that's one ticket for Timmy and one for Emily and...

"How much for each ticket again?"

"Five dollars; $20 altogether." The metallic voice of the ticket -taker is a little too fast. Perhaps she's been overdosing on Milk Duds behind that glass partition, tweaking on sugar, caramel, and chocolate.

"What?"

The girl repeats the price.

"Well, how much for adults?"

"Five dollars."

"How much for kids?"

"Five dollars."

"So it's five dollars?"

"Twenty all together."

"Okay, I've got eight dollars and...how much do you have, honey?"

"Huh?"

All right, you get the picture. It's not just me, everybody in line behind me within earshot of this -- I'm gonna say a dozen people -- are groaning inwardly. I can sense this with my inward-annoyance receptor. I ask my son to time me when it's my turn to buy two tickets. Nine seconds, he says. I turn and face the crowd, the line for this science-fiction epic that started ten minutes ago, and shout, "NINE SECONDS! It takes nine seconds to buy two tickets!" I receive a smattering of applause and a few muffled yuks. My son is giggling off to the side, having distanced himself, like an embarrassed Japanese businessman, from this example of Line Rage.

* * *

Unemployment lines, the DMV, Social Security, disability lines, lines at the post office -- these are universal and will always resemble U.S. propaganda films of the Soviet Union where people would supposedly stand in line for days for shoelaces or a head of cabbage or, at the end of the Cold War, a Big Mac. But lines in San Diego have a distinctive quality: joviality.

Take restaurants around town. Take La Jolla on a Friday night. Take Javier's (a phony name but a real place). Now, Javier's is a good place -- that is, good food, good people work there, you get an honest margarita for a decent price unless you insist on being an asshole. The question arises: Why would anyone stand in a block-long line for an hour only to be deafened by screaming morons, Don Henley or Smashing Pumpkins music, conversation shouted across the bar, sports scores on monitors, rabid fans throwing confetti on your otherwise well-prepared food, surf dudes shaking their Coronas over their heads, toasting El Niño for the benefit of the slinky, tightly fitted chicks across the bar?

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