10/25/2012 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Lessons I Learned Waiting on Line

For tourists willing to brave monsoon-level humidity and odorous subway cars, summer in New York City offers many pleasures -- including that beloved theater tradition, Shakespeare in the Park. For a Sondheim fan like myself, this summer's revival of the Broadway musical Into the Woods set outdoors sounded like just the ticket.

But how to get the ticket? Fortunately, when it comes to discounted arts events, New York City lives up to the ideal of egalite its famous statue proclaims. For those who can't afford to purchase tickets to Shakespeare in the Park there are two options that don't involve money -- a lottery and a line. Of the two, line waiting is the one that really levels the playing field, awarding tickets not to those with the most luck, but to those who give the most time.

The free ticket line for the evening showing of Into the Woods began forming at two o'clock outside the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It was a glorious day -- warm, but dry, golden sunlight dripping from willows, a pastoral masterpiece straight from Cezanne.

I sat next to a pleasant Dane and a nice Floridian, enjoying the camaraderie that came from close quarters and excitement at seeing a show. We watched the line lengthen behind us, holding each other's places when we stepped out.

The free ticket line was open to all, but that did not mean that it was a free for all. The line had two managers, who I will call Tina and Matt. Both looked about 30, and both possessed the booming voices and extroverted personalities common to theater people. But if the line managers seemed a bit Puckish, they also had learned a few things from Richard III. They told us the line had rules, there were no exceptions and anyone breaking the rules would be kicked out of line. Past five there would be absolutely. No. Additions. And. No. Substitutions.

I was in line not far from a woman I will call Curly, and her husband, I will call Gray. In front of them was a cute couple, Harvard (his alma mater) and his girlfriend, Radcliffe (so as not to have two Harvards).

At five-thirty, a half hour after Matt and Tina had declared no substitutions, a well-dressed man ahead of us was joined by his long-haired daughter. Like most teeny boppers of her generation, she was wearing a backpack and texting into a smartphone. A vocal buzz rose up around me.

"Did you see that?" Curly asked.

Harvard and Radcliffe turned to confirm that they did.

The five of us watched Long Hair smacking her gum and texting next to her father.

"The manager said no additions," Gray said.

Curly put up her hand. "I'm not getting involved."

I ventured, "A rule is a rule. I'll say something to Matt if you back me up."

A few minutes after I spoke to Matt, he confronted Rich Dad and Long Hair. When Rich Dad told Matt his daughter had been there "a while," Curly jumped in.

"She wasn't here at five!"

"That's right!" Gray echoed.

Matt's conversation with Rich Dad continued until the girl was asked to step out of line. As she did, she shot us a powerful, withering glare that only a teenager could.

After our success confronting Rich Dad, the five of us were not only emboldened, but bonded. We insisted we weren't normally sticklers for rules, but the point of a free ticket line was that we were equals. Rich Dad's cheating attempt was egregiously wrong -- like stealing food from an orphanage. And, we agreed, we had not spent hours waiting in line to watch someone cut in and snatch up our tickets.

Therefore, when just a few folks in front of Rich Dad, a well-dressed, middle-aged blonde woman was joined by her well-dressed, but sour-looking husband, our reaction was swift.

"Look at that!" Curly said.

"He wasn't here at five!" Harvard confirmed.

They all turned to me. I walked over to Matt, said a few words, and, just as before, Matt approached.

But Blondie, unlike Rich Dad, had an excuse, and really wanted to be understood. They weren't cheating, she insisted, because she had been standing with a placeholder at five with whom her husband had traded.

"You have to understand. Numerically, there is no difference. If you count the line number it's exactly the same with the previous man as it is with my husband. No one in line has been cheated."

"So entitled," Curly said under her breath.

"But don't you see," she continued. "If you look at it mathematically..."

"It doesn't matter," Curly shouted, our success with Rich Dad having turned her into Emma Goldman. "They said no substitutions."

The line managers did deal with Blondie, but it took a while -- a long while, involving a heated argument, a storming-off-to-talk-on-the-cell-phone and a near-altercation before Sour would step out of line. We high-fived as Blondie glared, angry and hurt, while her husband stormed around near the tree.

After these two victories, we were empowered. The line managers had done their jobs. The rules won out over special treatment. Justice was done.

But it wasn't long after Blondie that our righteousness began to veer towards paranoia. We started watching the line as if we were prison guards. When a friend joined a group of cheerful 20-somethings, first hugging, then sitting with them on the grass, we took turns walking past them, listening in, ascertaining whether the friend was staying or going, assuring each other we'd act if he didn't get up.

A man on crutches came back from the bathroom. I had not seen someone with crutches before, and remarked that the man looked suspicious. Gray thought he had seen the guy sitting down. Curly said she wasn't sure. When Long Hair walked over to chat with Rich Dad, Harvard and Radcliffe drifted their way, circling them like vultures awaiting a kill.

But while we were growing hypervigilant -- what about him? What about her? We were oblivious to the real danger -- the fact that the line wasn't moving. Though Tina and Matt had been optimistic that many of us would get into the show, the standby tickets had been handed out, and our line had not budged an inch.

Then, just as we were awaiting word on the ticket count, a full-body blow. To our horror, Long Hair came back from the concession stand shrieking with glee. Someone had given her a ticket -- just freely handed it over as if to a pigeon a torn crust of bread. She waved it in front of her father and us triumphantly, as we glared.

The next 15 minutes would hold still worse news. The last few tickets were distributed, none reaching our place in line. Blondie, closer up front, got into the show. So did Sour, who, we concluded, had purchased from one from the overpriced scalpers next to the tree. Rich Dad, further back, bought one from a lottery winner -- confirming our guess that they could buy tickets and didn't need free ones. We were the 99 percent, and they were the one.

"That's it!" Matt called in a voice that chilled our hearts. "No more tickets!"

The five of us looked at each other in horror. We had waited for more than four hours in line with nothing to show. We did have a victory -- one that increased our view of revolution and justice and unemployed actors who work afternoons -- but at best it was Pyhrric. The cheaters took their scalped tickets and entered Joseph Papp's hallowed gates while we stood looking on.

As reality sunk in, we remained in line, unwilling to leave the spots we had clung to. Curly and Gray said how nice it was to meet us. Harvard and Radcliffe said they'd learned how to fight for their rights. I wished my line comrades the best as they rushed off to catch a free show at the Met. But I wasn't ready to leave.

At the side of the theater, several ticketless line waiters sat on a bench. From there we could hear the opening number -- I want to go to the festival! The festival! -- and oh, how we could relate. At this point, we were too tired and sad to fashion rapport, settling for shared pathos as we strained to listen to secondhand sound.

At intermission, an opening. A kindly staff member I had recounted my tale of woe to (Four hours! Cheaters! Cutting in line!) brought me a discarded ticket. I was so grateful, though, that particular ticket would go unused. Husbands in business suits who found they couldn't sit through another act of a singing fairy tale ("about cows for Christ's sake") were leaving in dribs. I ended up with four tickets and chose the best seat, several bleachers away from the stage.

The production, featuring film star Amy Adams, was good, if not exceptional. It would later be famously dissed by an actor's tweet: "How can you f&%? up Into the Woods?"

But the evening was gorgeous, the weather was warm, the moon shone brightly, and I leaned back in my seat and reveled. It wasn't just the show I enjoyed -- though the lyrics of journeys and risks echoed my own voyage into the park that began many hours ago.

It was being inside the theater along with Rich Dad and Blondie and Sour and Long Hair, representing my side of the line. Like Harvard and Radcliffe and Curly and Gray, I had showed up on time and played by the rules and finally got what I came for. Now that we were all equal again I'd be damned if I didn't enjoy it.