Last Sunday saw the first annual Minnesota Cheese Festival. The event was heavily publicized and highly anticipated beforehand, then roundly trounced afterward. Over 3000 tickets were sold in advance and even more at the door. I have no idea how many attendees there were in total, but it was certainly too many for the number of vendors, leading to overcrowding and long lines. There probably weren’t enough volunteers to manage things, and those that were there weren’t easily identifiable. And only one vendor of beer and wine was nowhere near enough.
Criticisms flowed hot and heavy in the aftermath as disgruntled, fromage-famished ticket holders tweeted of hour-and-a half waits to seize a single sample. Valid complaints all. Cheesefest organizers have heard and already posted plans to remedy the situation for next year.
My purpose here is not to rehash what has already been well hashed. Instead I want to examine what I observed. My booth at the festival was at the front near the entrance. From it I could see the whole thing as it went down from promising start to ugly finish. What I saw was quite frankly one of the most bizarre things I have ever observed.
It all started quite innocently. A few people got in line at one of the booths, but rather than forming a line in front of the booth, they formed it parallel to the booth so that it curled around the side. As new people entered they simply joined onto the end of the line. More and more people meant longer and longer lines and eventually several long lines as new arrivals unquestioningly took their place in the queue. Before long the crowd had organized itself into multiple, intersecting, single-file lines that snaked at a snail’s pace past every booth. Each conversation with a cheesemaker slowed the whole procession down. It all formed spontaneously and organically. And it was the worst possible arrangement.
The whole thing would have gone more smoothly if people had been willing to leave the line and mill about freely from booth to booth. But once in line they wouldn’t budge. The initial line went right past my booth allowing me the opportunity to talk to people as they waited. Over and over I asked the question, “Why are you in line?” The universal response was, “I don’t know.” I usually followed up by asking where they thought the line was going. Again, “I don’t know.” I must have asked at least 50 people these questions. Always the same response. “I don’t know.” They just saw a line and got into it, and then complained about being in it.
Over and over I suggested to the stranded that the whole thing would go faster if people got out of the line. “You should get out of line.” I said. The organizers did the same. But again the reaction was always the same – cold, hard stares that suggested we were somehow crazy. Looks that said, “I’m in line, damnit.” It was like a Samuel Beckett play; Vladimir and Estragon waiting in vain for someone named Godot without knowing why, but unwilling to abandon the wait.
Adding to the absurdity, one of the cheesemakers shared with me that he had used the line to his advantage. As attendees snaked by, this vendor sold them bags of curds so that they would have some cheese to munch on as they waited in line for free cheese.
The craziness continued in the aftermath as the complaints rolled in. In a Facebook comment thread the suggestion was made by many that the organizers should have instructed people not to form lines as they came through the gate. “Next year specify no lines and that might help.” I can hear that conversation now. “You may walk in circles. You may form wedges in groups to push your way through to a table. But under no circumstances should you form a line.” Really? We need to be told how to navigate a festival. I go to eight or ten beer festivals a year, including one in the very same space. Never have I seen a crowd organize in this strange way.
I engaged in a twitter exchange with one angry cheesehead afterward. I don’t know why I kept the back-and-forth going, but I did. In her last tweet she said sarcastically, “entirely right- A group of 3000+ should direct itself…lucky #mnnice prevented looting.” Groups that large and larger self-organize all the time. In fact, this one did just that, only in the most inefficient way. As I responded, “the organizers can’t be blamed for attendees who act like lemmings.”
When I related this story to a friend of mine a couple of days after the event we could not stop laughing. The more I thought about it, the more absurd it seemed to me. We both came to view the Minnesota Cheese Festival as some kind of grand metaphor for the human condition. A metaphor for what, I don’t know, but certainly a metaphor for…something.