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First Come, First Served

by Stephen Lautens

July 23, 1999

I firmly believe there is one thing that holds our society together, it's a simple rule we all take for granted ­ first come, first served.

Sure, the Golden Rule has its champions. That doing unto others stuff is all well and good until someone steals your parking space or gets in front of you with ten items in the "eight items or less" line at the grocery store.

The "finders keepers, losers weepers" rule is a good one ­ as long as you don't happen to be the loser.

"First pick, second pick" is also a rule that works well. When we were kids my mother used this rule to keep peace at dinner time. She was sick of hearing us complain that the other person got a bigger piece of cake, so she found a solution. One of us got to cut the cake, but the other got first pick. They don't cut diamonds as precisely as we cut cake.

But I still think that "first come, first served" is the best rule to base society on. Most of the time we already live by it. It has been drummed into us so much that we hardly even think about it. Growing up we were all told: "Wait your turn." Or at the dentist's office we wait patiently until someone calls out: "Who's next?"

And we constantly keep track of our place as we await our turn. You know when someone who came in after you is trying to butt into line ahead of you. These are things we learned at recess. Of course there was rough justice if someone tried to butt into line at recess. To a chorus of "no cutting in!" the offender was pushed back out. Try it again and you were branded a dangerous offender.

Some of our most noble sacrifices are when we voluntarily give up the "first come, first served" principle. Like the "Women and Children First" rule.

But respect for the "first come, first served" principle is not universal, as I found out travelling in Europe. It was the coldest, rainiest summer in fifty years. My rail pass entitled me to passage on an old boat from the southern Italian town of Brindisi to sunny Greece.

Other backpackers had the same idea, and we all found ourselves outside the boat ticket office waiting for it to open. Without a word, dozens of us lined up single file to get our tickets for a few hours until the staff decided we weren't going to go away.

At the time, Brindisi was listed in the Book of Lists as the 7th worst city in the world. I thought the reviewers must have been bribed to keep it out of first place.

As soon as the ticket office doors opened, a crowd of locals who had arrived late rushed the steps and fought their way to the counter to get the limited seats.

Breaking the "first come, first served" rule turned the polite line of North Americans who had waited for hours into a group of savage beasts that frightened off the local toughs. As soon as they were gone, we carefully lined ourselves back up in the same order as before.

If that's not civilization, I don't know what is.


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