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‘It’s almost like an endurance sport’: How long would you wait in a drive-through line?

Dozens of vehicles waited in line to pick up food at the drive-up window at a Chic-fil-A on Route 53 in Hanover as a police officer kept order.
Dozens of vehicles waited in line to pick up food at the drive-up window at a Chic-fil-A on Route 53 in Hanover as a police officer kept order.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When Matt Hausmann took his spot in the drive-through line at the Waltham Starbucks earlier this week, he knew exactly what he was getting himself into.

A few days earlier, he had pulled into the same parking lot, shocked to find a line of cars snaking around the building. That day, he had waited 45 minutes to get to the window, with little more than his cellphone and some music to pass the time.

This time, however, he came prepared. Upon joining the line, Hausmann pulled open his laptop, fired up a data-visualization program, and spent the next 30 minutes working, looking up only to ensure he was keeping pace with the line’s slow crawl.

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“I only got honked at once,” said Hausmann of Lexington, chief marketing officer for a Concord-based start-up called SchoolCNXT.

As America’s routines and simple pleasures have been slowly stripped away in recent weeks — goodbye morning commute, goodbye neighborhood bar, goodbye April evenings at Fenway Park — people are flocking to one of the few they’re still permitted to enjoy.

The welcoming din of the drive-through window.

In recent days, astounded coffee-seekers have reported as many as 75 cars waiting at a single Starbucks. Some lines have become so arduous that businesses have been forced to enlist police to help with traffic control, even as gourmet coffee seems to be a loose interpretation of “essential” business. And across social media, it’s become almost impossible to scroll too far without coming across a photo of a drive-through line you’d swear had been doctored if there weren’t so many others depicting the same thing.

But what would once have spawned untold expletives, Twitter rants, and I’d-like-to-speak-to-the-managers has become, in these upside-down times, a kind of cherished daily ritual, one small dose of normalcy in a world increasingly devoid of it.

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“When all of our routines have just been completely destroyed,” said Hausmann, “there’s something comforting [in this] right now.”

Indeed. Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Bagel World. It doesn’t seem to matter, so long as the drive-through speaker is still crackling.

Take Stanley Forman, a longtime news photographer at WCVB Channel 5, who has grown to look forward to his regular coffee expeditions, sometimes bringing his wife, Debbie, and their dog, Sophie, along for the ride.

“What else do I got to do besides watch TV?” said Forman, speaking from the McDonald’s drive-through line on a recent weekday morning, one of two drive-through stops he’d made that day. “It’s an outing.”

Even so, for those unaccustomed to this new normal, the first sight of a current drive-through line can be jarring.

When he pulled into a shopping area on Elliott Street in Beverly one morning this week, for instance, Drew Moholland, morning news editor at WBZ NewsRadio, was initially confused by a long parade of cars in an otherwise empty shopping center parking lot until a police officer walked over. Then it began to dawn on him.

“That’s the line for Starbucks, isn’t it?” Moholland asked.

Instead of heading home, though, Moholland stayed, willingly subjecting himself to what these days constitutes a relatively reasonable drive-through wait time of 30 minutes.

“I had to do it just for the experience,” he said.

Which is not to say that it’s always pleasant.

Will DiTullio, a civil engineer from Reading, recently sat through a 45-minute wait at a Starbucks on Commerce Way in Woburn with his two young children, ages 7 and 2, who each wanted one of the chain’s bacon gouda sandwiches. The kids handled the wait well enough, DiTullio said. And when they arrived at the drive-through window, they learned that the car in front of them had paid for their order, a good deed that DiTullio was happy to repeat for the car behind him.

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Still, he seemed to appreciate the fortitude required to spend nearly an hour in a single drive-through line.

“It’s almost like an endurance sport," he said.

And that’s with a car, a luxury not always available.

One evening earlier this week, Cory Blamire was on a city bus from his place in the North End to his mother’s home in Roslindale. For days, the 37-year-old pharmacy technician student had been seeing commercials for the fast-food chain’s free-taco promotion, and when he realized that the bus would be passing (marginally) close to a Taco Bell near the West Roxbury/Dedham line, he made an executive decision.

He hopped off the bus, made the three-mile walk down American Legion Highway to the restaurant, and took his place in the drive-through line, inching forward on foot along with the cars.

All told, the detour took him two and a half hours, and, admittedly, he’d failed to dress warmly enough for the unexpected excursion.

But, as Blamire later explained it, “This was kind of a can’t-miss promotion. I had to find out what the Doritos Locos Taco was all about.”

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Whether drive-through windows will remain open through what state officials are predicting to be a brutal month in the fight against the coronavirus is something of a mystery.

But while the masses can still get their iced mochas and their soft tacos, it’s safe to assume they will — inching slowly forward, one car-length at a time.

“You would think, knowing there’s a line, that I’m just going to avoid it,” said Hausmann, the laptop multi-tasker. "But here I am, still going a couple times a week.”



Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.