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Life on the 'Star Wars' line

As the line snakes around the movie theater, a massive bulge builds up at the front of the box office, bringing to mind a boa constrictor swallowing a small pig. Clusters of teenagers dot the mostly adult crowd of couples on dates, husbands and wives, and those inevitable curlicues of random bodies arguing over exactly where they're supposed to be on the line. I reflexively grab my father's hand and ask him for the third time to define "movie." I am four years old. The explanation is accurate but misleading. "A big TV screen," he says. In May of 1977 I see my first "movie": Star Wars.

May rolls around 21 more times and I find myself sitting in the middle of the sidewalk on 54th Street in front of the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan.

"We're doing this to see Star Wars, but we're also doing this for charity, the Starlight Foundation," responds Robert Cartagena when asked why he is lining up by the throng of reporters (equaling the fans in number) who have descended on the scene just hours after the line began on May 1. Cartagena, 34, a telecommunications consultant and married father of four, is the lead organizer of the Star Wars line in New York. "It's a charity for seriously ill children and—" The TV news reporter cuts Cartagena short. She spots a guy dressed in brown Jedi robes holding a green plastic light saber. The other TV crews flock to the same character and ask him to swing his toy weapon like he's about to "kill a bad guy."

"Man, the media are really annoying," says one fan named Rob who is here for just a few shifts. "At least I can go back home and go to sleep," he says.

The organizers of the New York line have been able to devise a schedule of shifts for the 250 fans who signed up for the line through their Web site, countingdown.com. As long as everyone pulls two four-hour shifts, each fan is guaranteed a seat at the 1200-seat Ziegfeld for the first show, May 19, 12:01 a.m. Each shift earns the fans points, with certain shifts counting more than others. Those with the most points get to choose their seats first.

Later in the day, I'm sitting next to Yoda. He's come prepared: CD player and speakers (the John Williams score reverberates); plastic cups, bowls, and forks; Spaghetti Os; and folding chairs. Also known as David Creighton, Yoda is a 37-year-old fan from New Jersey who plans on pulling about 24 hours' worth of shifts; after the first two shifts he'll be around mostly "to just hang out." He offers me and the others sitting around bowls of his premade Spaghetti Os.

"What I can't imagine is the kids here," says Yoda of those fans on line who have never seen the original trilogy in theaters. "I mean, they grew up in a world where they always knew Darth Vader was Luke's father. What was that like?"

Seventeen-year-old Steven Leung, a student at Brooklyn Tech, explains. "It was weird," he begins. "I didn't realize what I knew until I really thought about it. So I guess it didn't have the same meaning for me. That's why I'm here. I'm ready to burst I'm so dying to see it."

Sunlight fades behind the tall towers of the buildings surrounding us. Some fans appear listless as the end of the day draws near. Clerks and Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith, rumored to be visiting today, never shows. Costumed aliens from Mars 2112 (a nearby theme restaurant that gave out free food in a promotion scheme) converse with a few fans as others nearby practice flinging their Yomega yo-yos (another promotion). Yoda and Steven are playing Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. The scene is so surreal it's hard to decide what to focus on. A middle-aged couple walks by.

"What are you doing here?" the woman asks, reciting the oft-repeated question of the day. The people on line tell her. She doesn't get it. Her husband starts playing with the yo-yos. She thinks they could better spend their time. They mention it's for charity. She puts some money in the Starlight box. Genuinely surprised by the dedication of these fans, she decides she needs to find out "what this is about."

I step in to offer an explanation, one of many being thrown at her. I tell her that it's one of my first memories but that more important it's an unbreakable memory, an experience that escapes evaluation. Star Wars, our first myth, will never be good or bad. I can't quite explain it, but she claims to understand. She leaves promising to view the movies again before May 19.

Later on, one of the organizers, who appears rejuvenated even after being on line for about 12 hours, remarks: "It would be great if that could happen every night. She really challenged us and it made the time go by." Just 18 more days to go.

 
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