CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK CITY. The streets are never completely silent or empty, even at dawn. There are garbage trucks and delivery trucks making their stops, and subways rumbling down below, and the unfortunate vagrants sorting through trash bins, and the sirens of ambulance and police, and many walkers and joggers and bikers on their way to Central Park.

A few weeks ago, after a long flight from China and filled with the energy that jet lag sometimes provides, I set out for a jog in the park very early in the morning. Seldom in New York over the years, though my wife and I lived here right out of law school, I enjoy watching the things around me that are new, and things that seem never to change. As Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra would muse: “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

As I trotted slowly along the park trail that very early morning, I observed a line of people along a narrow road closed to traffic: a winding collection of hundreds of people extending for several hundred yards, standing, sitting in light beach chairs, lying on blankets or towels, some with coolers of drinks, some reading, some lying down on mats, many with earphones, many were texting.

They all seemed quite content to be waiting there, but what were they waiting for — at this very early hour and in this particular place? Were they waiting for a parade? Preparing to protest? Applying for a job? The composition of the line, the absence of signs, and again the place and early hour, made all these possibilities seem unlikely.

Then my wife reminded me. Of course! It was the ticket line for Shakespeare in the Park. The Delacorte Theater, with its open-air semicircle of 1,800 seats, was close by. Summer evening performances at the Delacorte, often with famous film stars in the cast, and often with very contemporary “takes” on the plays (this year’s Taming of the Shrew has no male actors), are a very popular New York experience.

The tickets are only available on the day of the performance, and only at the theater starting at noon, and each person only gets two tickets, and the tickets are free.

These few conditions create a ticket line in the image of a decent society.

Most fundamentally, for those in line, custom and tradition are crucial. There is a common conservative sentiment among the people that certain things have “always been this way” and other things are “just not done.” There is, for instance, no cutting in line, and no holding a place for others.



There are also liberal exceptions made when these rules are seen as harsh or unfair in practice: for instance, for quick visits to the bathroom, or for family emergencies.

There are precedents for dealing with certain typically encountered situations, such as portions of the line that would otherwise force people to occupy rocky ground or stand in mud or puddles. These precedents are a kind of common law.

There is some higher authority in the form of theater staff and park police. That authority, even though not elected, is generally respected when it is seen to be competent and fair. But for the most part, government of the line is local and based on shared intuitions of fairness.

A free market has developed to support the people in line: food vendors come and go, musicians play for coins and a man rents chairs. Since tickets are rationed, and since some people in the society outside the park have more time, or money, than others, a grey market has developed for “professional” line sitters, who will obtain tickets for others, for a fee that can exceed $100 per ticket.

The line is egalitarian. Anyone can join it. Each person is entitled to one pair of tickets, and seats are randomly assigned.

The line is also meritocratic. Those who get up early, and are willing to suffer more rain or sun, occupy the front of the line.

Because these rules are simple, reasonable and transparent, those finding themselves farther back in line do not resent those closer to the front. And when noon arrives, everyone starts to move forward together. That helps a lot.

Finally, the people wait for hours in line because they want to be uplifted and inspired, beyond the day to day, beyond mere getting and spending, beyond mere entertainment.

And the lucky ones, later that evening when they are watching the play and their ears have grown accustomed to Elizabethan cadences, will be startled to observe a society not terribly unlike their own — in its drama, its politics, its romance, its intrigues, its comedy, and its notions of justice.