The Numbers Game

Days go by fast when you’re number 127 in a queue at the bank,

or 39 at the meat counter in the supermercado, or even 17 at the icecream parlor. Almost everywhere you have to take a number first to become a potential customer, a client, simply a person, who wants something. Otherwise you’re a curious spectator at best, a minor nuisance, really. Individual characteristics, personality, physical size or strength, beauty or wits don’t mean anything. To join the “flow of business” you’ve got to have a piece of paper with a number on it. Only then do you turn from Mr. Nobody into a respected person, only the 2 or 3 digits help you to acquire a real identity.

That was something I had to learn. Often enough, after having carefully assembled a simple sentence with my limited spanish vocabulary, I mustered all the courage available and stepped forward to the counter to ask or place an order. But even before I could pronounce the first palabra, the clerk looked at me slightly surprised, all other customers a bit annoyed. Some had even changed to an aggressively self-defensive stance. Only after somebody had waved a little piece of paper with a number on it, did I realize: wrong move – back to square one! But where do I get my identity from? After an intensive search I found the “dispenser” hidden behind the entrance door.
Once more to end of the queue!

Ok, learning takes time. In most cases 10, 15 minutes in line and everything is cool. But it can get worse, a lot worse. Like yesterday morning. Right after opening hour I came to the Registro Civil to apply for a “DNI” (documento nacional de identidad). Already ten people ahead of me! And where’s the roll with the numbers? I can’t find it. The next person arrives and asks: ” Good morning, who is last?” At first nobody answers, then I realize what he’s trying to find out: the last person to arrive was me! Duh! A different way to find out about ones standing in the ‘workflow’! But why, then, holds the guy across the aisle one of these numbers in his hands? After he’s finished with his ‘business’ here, he storms out of the office, down the stairs, waves his number and says something about “Banco Provincial”.
When it’s finally my turn, I learn, again. In addition to the copies of passport in triplicate, the 4 mugshots and all the other documents I also need a receipt for the payment of an administrative fee. And that has to be paid at the local bank. And at the bank you have to be a number. I storm out of the office, down the stairs and over to the Banco Provincial. A bunch of people is waiting outside the front door – doesn’t look good! I try to squeeze by to get to the infamous roll. And again I feel annoyed looks on my back, again I see this posturing for self-defense. What’s going on? After all I’m trying to pull my number and the dispenser is there, up front, right!? Then I understand: they’re all lining up to pull their number! Dios mios!
When I finally grab the piece of paper I read 361.


The LED panel says “turno 121” – and then I see a sign at the door which advises: today we close at 11, power cut!
The calculation is quick and easy: 240 clients for 6 counters in 90 minutes – forget it!

On my way out, an old guy points with his number at me: 237. And then, with a wry smile on his face, he stretches out his other arm, palm up. I see, he’s selling time! And over there, a number from the butcher store is being traded with one from the bank, and back there, looks like three guys are playing poker for a number in the high one hundreds.. Ah, all these numbers games.
For today I have enough. I need a coffee!

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