In New York, Waiting in Line Is a White-Linen Affair ; People Queue Up All Night for Free Shakespeare in the Park Tickets, with Mini-Bars, Lamps - and Tiffs between East Siders and West Siders

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Two young New Yorkers, Tira and Elyssa, are caught in an urban conundrum: They are used to getting what they want and getting it fast, but this time, the hottest ticket in town can't be purchased with corporate cards or connections. For free tickets to the Public Theater's "The Seagull" in Central Park, you have to wait in line.

So they grab their Ferragamo totes and set out for Central Park West - at 1 a.m. Laying out their white floral sheets and pillowy comforter on the sidewalk, they wait until the box office opens, in 12 hours.

Shakespeare in Central Park, the venerable free summer series started by Joseph Papp in 1957, offers some of the finest theater in the city. This year, Mike Nichols directed Anton Chekhov's play and stocked it with a star-studded cast, including Meryl Streep.

The ritual is also a window into some of the tribal instincts that make New York New York. Virtually every city, to be sure, has its summer theater staged under the elm and maple - from "Twelfth Night" this year on the Boston Common to "Julius Caesar" in Cincinatti.

But perhaps only in New York do the patrons spend the night waiting in line, the result, no doubt, of New Yorkers' love for the theater, but also of the high cost of normal stage productions here.

Of course, the waiting is done in true New York fashion - more Prada than L.L. Bean. One person sets up a battery-operated night lamp in powder blue. Another takes out an air pump and unrolls an inflatable mattress. A third unfolds a mini-bar, filled with ice, and a cutting board. He begins slicing wedges of lime.

But unwittingly, too, the long queue is a refresher in Gotham democracy. As the sun rises and the birds begin to chirp, a cop car escorts the line (numbering around 400), to the Delacorte Theater box office. From outside, the parade of theater-goers looks like a troop about to stake its claim - a fitting image since a battle between East and West is about to erupt. …

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