One of the great texts of the early days of the discipline of Sociology is the essay, The Metropolis and Modern Life, by the great nineteenth century German sociologist, Georg Simmel. I was reminded of it during the trip Susie and I took on Monday to Washington D.C. to see my sister and my son, Tobias, who was in town for the Tuesday Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage cases. An odd conjuncture, you might think. The connection is this:
Tobias was eager to introduce us to one of his favorite restaurants, Rose's Luxury, which is on 8th street SE in the Capitol District of DC. The restaurant is very popular, and does not take reservations, so it was agreed that Tobias would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as his teaching duties for the day were done at UPenn Law School, arriving in time to get on line outside the restaurant at about 4:30 p.m. Barbara, Susie, and I would show up at about that time and have a drink in a nearby bistro while Tobias [and a lawyer friend] stood in line. A minute or two before 5:30, when the restaurant opens, we would join him and go in together. All this went swimmingly, and we had a delicious dinner.
While driving to the restaurant from Barbara's apartment, which is in the NW area of the city, we passed the Supreme Court building. There was a long line of people camped out, prepared to spend the night in order to get into the hearing at ten the next morning. The room in which the High Court meets is small -- maybe six hundred seats -- and there are no reserved seats, not even for someone like my son who has been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar and had written the lead amicus brief in the second case to be heard that day, on the question of whether the "full faith and credit" clause requires states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. For a case of this historic importance, there would be many, many more people eager to listen to the oral arguments than the room could possibly hold.
How could Tobias possibly hope to get in, when people were already in line eighteen hours before the doors were due to open? A trifle embarrassed, he admitted that he had paid a professional line-standing company to supply a line-stander, who had in fact been on line since Sunday! Apparently, professional line-standing is a recognized métier, with enough demand to make it profitable for a company to hire line-standers and make them available when needed.
It was at this point that Georg Simmel came to mind. In his classic essay, Simmel gives, as an example of the extreme division of labor in modern [i.e., nineteenth century] Paris, les quatorzièmes. It seems that ladies hosting formal dinner parties were superstitiously averse to having thirteen at table. Enough dinner parties were arranged each evening, and the unlucky number came up sufficiently often, to make it worthwhile for a number of socially presentable men to dress in full formal evening clothes at the dinner hour and hire themselves out as "fourteenth at table" to hostesses in need.