I was gazing at the empty shelves of a huge London superstore in frantic disbelief. Usually overloaded with dozens of types and brands of any given product, the aisles with long-life foods were chillingly bare. “Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to remind you that new restrictions allow the purchase of only two units of each item, and high-demand products like toilet roll or eggs are limited to one pack per customer,” a silvery, pre-recorded female voice announced.
As a person privileged enough to have never experienced anything even slightly resembling a shortage of consumer abundance of any kind in my lifetime, I was walking through the superstore in awe. These visible effects of this coronavirus-triggered, nationwide exercise in stockpiling made me ponder on how this is a stress-test for the land of plenty that we have been taking for granted for too long in our secure Western democracies.
Then, various social distancing measures were introduced that inevitably resulted in long queues of customers, lined up two metres apart outside of shops. We all knew that this temporary shortage would revert to normal after a week or two – and it did. We weren’t in a war; food factories hadn’t collapsed, there were still millions of essential workers delivering stock and stuffing shelves. If the sight of people leaving supermarkets with full suitcases was rather amusing, watching them form lengthy lines made me realize that this was my peculiar chance to experience a tempered variation of what I’d known only from history and anecdotes – the queuing and rationing that constituted a huge part of my parents’ and grandparents’ experience of living in the socialist Polish People’s Republic (PRL). I wondered if the current situation could even remotely compare to what they went through back then.
Food rationing is nothing new, nor Polish-specific – it was introduced in most European countries following World War II, including the UK. However, the permanent lack of stock and extensive social interactions in queues gained such prominence in the Polish collective memory that it has become embedded in our national identity. Queues and rationing systems of different kinds prevailed throughout the existence of the PRL until democracy was restored in 1989. The period that my parents and grandparents remember the most, from 1976 onwards, began when the government raised the price of sugar and introduced rationing ‘tickets’ to buy a limited amount for the old price. Perpetual economic difficulties led to extending rationing to other products. In 1981, the government introduced rationing cards for meat, followed by butter, flour, rice, groats, formula milk, soap, toilet roll and washing powder later that year. After martial law was declared in December 1981, rationed products included chocolate, alcohol, shoes and petrol.
The cards didn’t guarantee a purchase. “Queues to shops could go on for hours. Dozens of people would huddle in a line so dense that even a child couldn’t squeeze through. They were often hungry, tired, determined, but supply was extremely limited. Those standing towards the end of the line would most likely find the shelves empty when it was their turn to enter the store – there was never enough,” my dad remembers. The rationing system for the staple and most desirable products was complex. Meat rations were allocated based on nine different demand categories, estimated by assessing the age and profession of the buyer. Miners were entitled to up to seven kilograms of meat per month, an average blue-collar worker’s allowance was around four kilograms, while a white-collar worker would get two and a half kilograms. Each allowance was divided further by the type and quality of meat. “I knew a director of a meat production facility really well,” reminisces Hubert, a family friend. “He had a room right next to his office with the best ham, sausages, mincemeat, everything you could imagine, all freshly made.” People lacking connections or struggling with financial difficulties could purchase cheap, non-rationed but low-quality products in designated shops called Tania Jatka (‘Cheap Butcher’s’). They sold meat from animals slaughtered due to mobility issues or minor health problems.
Most people would spend hours queuing, often without even knowing what for. Any purchase could be exchanged on the black market, so “as long as you left with something, it didn’t matter what you bought,” Hubert told me. All ‘standers’ had an implicit agreement that their time investment would be returned in the form of a desirable product and kept reassuring one another that there was reason for waiting in the same line for hours. Queues for breakfast food would even start at around 2–3am. Shop assistants became the most desirable acquaintances: with their inside knowledge of delivery schedules and quantities, they could inform others on effective queuing strategies. “My friend who worked on a local supply chain would tell me when they were about to get a shipment of vodka. I would then gather my most trusted neighbours and we would all wait in line to finally spend our alcohol allowance,” remembers Janusz, who lived in a town in eastern Poland. Although buying butter, sugar or bread was a matter of a few hours, waiting in line to get furniture, appliances, or a TV could take days or even weeks.
The concept of queuing for a few days required sophisticated logistical arrangements. “It was shift work for the whole family. If you were lucky enough to have a car, you would park in front of the shop and queue from there during the night,” recalls Janusz. “I had been trying to buy a freezer,” remembers my granddad. “I drove to the shop and joined the line on a cold night. The car had no heating, so I brought a small gas stove, turned it on and put it on the floor of the car to keep me warm while I waited for hours.” Family members would swap every few hours to ensure that someone was in line for when the lista kolejkowa (‘queue list’) was read. This was a numbered list of people queuing for a given shop, used to check the order and progress of the queue, and particularly popular with longer queues for appliances or furniture. Failure to say ‘present’ when the list was read would usually result in losing your place in the queue immediately.
Jumping the queue was out of the question. “It wasn’t a calm, friendly line where everyone waited patiently. If anyone tried to go to the front, they wouldn’t take it lightly,” recall my grandparents. A famous line from What Will You Do When You Catch Me?, the 1978 Polish comedy film by Stanisław Bareja, perfectly reflects the mood in the queue: Pan tu nie stał! “You weren’t standing here, sir, were you?!”, angrily exclaims one customer to another, who has pushed in ahead of him. Their argument escalates so much that they are banned from the shop as a result. Similarly, any attempts to cut the line in real life could spark physical reactions. “People were screaming klinem go [‘push them out the side’] as soon as anyone tried,” recounts my dad, who as a teenager spent hours in various lines. Such a status quo resulted in the emergence of professional ‘line standers’ commissioned to queue on behalf of others, or queuing on their own initiative to resell the products afterwards. It was a popular activity among retired people with plenty of free time.
Hours and hours of queuing, especially for high-demand products, such as good quality shoes, were not always as fruitful as anticipated. My grandad was hoping to get new elegant loafers before a business trip to Warsaw. “It was the middle of July, a sweltering summer. By the time it was my turn, there were only beautiful, brown loafers left, made of shiny leather and one size too small. I decided to risk it. By the time I arrived in Warsaw, I couldn’t walk at all. I had to bend their backs and wear them as slippers, they were immediately ruined.” A scarcity of quality goods resulted in a boom in the wider exchange market. People swapped cards and products – for instance, cigarettes for high-quality meat or chocolate. Janusz recalls how he was able to trade petrol. “I had two cars, as well as a work car, so I received a petrol allowance for three cars, which was more than I needed. Petrol was distributed very carefully – directly into the car – to prevent its reselling. I would refuel three times, pump some out to a container, and then sell the excess to a neighbour for a small profit.”
Walking around London now, amid the coronavirus lockdown, I recall the words of George Orwell from his 1944 essay “The English People”, so strikingly different from what my parents and grandparents remember from their time of queuing in the PRL: “Our imaginary foreign observer would certainly be struck: by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues.” This contrast might be due to cultural differences, the knowledge that this is only a temporary arrangement, or a social agreement that by queuing two metres apart we are protecting ourselves and others. I watch people patiently waiting for their turn, listening to music or reading, and I change my mind – despite the common act of standing in line to the shop, this doesn’t even slightly resemble the ordeal my parents and grandparents experienced in the Poland of the late 1970s.
For the younger generation, born and nurtured by booming consumer capitalism, indulged by the seemingly endless supply of goods and choice of shopping outlets, pampered even further by the speed and convenience of online stores and same-day deliveries, the concept of waiting for hours to get bread or butter is rather obscure. Throughout the first month of lockdown, there has been enough outrage about how shipping takes much longer these days, the fact that online grocery providers have temporarily stopped accepting new customers, and how you can’t even buy toiletries without wasting half an hour in a ‘virtual queue’. Before the crisis, the only products that we would ever willingly queue for were highly desirable seasonal accessories, or clothing lines with ridiculous prices inflated by the social media celebrity culture.
Here, the principles suggested by a 1989 Polish study on the psycho-sociological dimensions of queueing in the PRL become surprisingly accurate, perhaps even more so than back in the 1970s and 1980s when queuing was a matter of necessity, rather than choice: “The relative attractiveness of the product was determined by the length of the queue, rather than the product itself, and proportionate to the total waiting time. The longer you stood in line, the more you had to justify this activity to yourself.” Nowadays, the limited release is a smart marketing strategy to increase the appeal of a product and emphasize its uniqueness, rather than a genuine supply issue. In the pre-lockdown world, the sight of a long queue in front of a store indicated that something special and hyper-desirable had suddenly become available. I wonder if the fact that this has slowly become an intrinsic part of our routine grocery runs will make us reflect on the bizarre subtleties of modern consumption habits.
The study cited in the article is:
Z. Czwartosz, B. Szymkiewicz, Psychosocjologia kolejki, „Kultura i społeczeństwo” t. 33, nr 1, s. 112. 1989