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‘A five-day wait for $5,000’: the man who queues for the uber-rich | New York

At 5am, it’s as dark as it ever gets in Times Square, where massive digital billboards never stop blasting light into the sky, illuminating city blocks across midtown.

The square is among the most-visited tourist attractions in New York City, but at this time it’s deserted, save for five people standing outside the Winter Garden Theatre.

This is where the Guardian finds Robert Samuel, a 46-year-old former mobile phone salesman, whose job is now to sit in lines for other, mostly wealthy, people. It’s a strange career, but one which has given Samuel a front row seat at some of the biggest cultural events of the last decade – and a job which perhaps sums up the state of capitalism, and inequality, in 2022.

The job entails Samuel sitting, or standing, or sometimes sleeping, in lines: waiting for theater tickets, iPhone releases, and once for someone to die as part of a macabre French art exhibit. Depending on the gig, Samuel then relinquishes his place from him to his customer or buys them tickets for in-demand shows.

On this cold Thursday in April, despite the weather, Samuel is chirpy and energetic. Wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap, he unpacks a tiny tent and a camp chair, and settles in for what will be an hours-long wait to buy two tickets for The Music Man.

The show is the hottest ticket in town, largely because Hugh Jackman is playing the lead role of Professor Harold Hill, and to get a seat fans have to get down here early. Or they pay Samuel, who has been doing this full-time for nine years.

Samuel waited in line for tickets to The Music Man. Photograph: Adam Gabbatt/The Guardian

The weather is 46F (8C) but it’s nothing compared to what Samuel refers to, with a mix of dread and reverence, as “the Hamilton line”.

“It was zero degrees one day,” Samuel says. “And the inside of my tent was frozen with frost. I was able to scratch and write lines. That was, I think, the coldest I’ve ever waited.”

It was worth it though, because Hamilton, the wildly popular Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that has broken records since it opened in February 2015, is really what made Samuel’s line-sitting career.

“I feel like I need to cut him a commission check,” he says. He remembers those days with fondness.

Miranda with a mic
Lin-Manuel Miranda at the reopening of Hamilton last year following closure due to Covid. Photograph: Craig Ruttle/AP

Hamilton swiftly became a golden goose for Samuel, but when Miranda announced his departure from the show, it reached another level entirely. Samuel had to hire people, initially friends and acquaintances, to sit in line with him, as theatergoers scrambled to catch Manuel’s final performances.

“You have those theater purists who have to see the original cast, no matter the cost,” Samuel says.

Resale tickets were available online, but for $15,000 or more. Samuel’s method meant his clients were receiving rush tickets, often in prime seats, released on the morning of the show. The tickets came at a knockdown price, but Samuel’s labor did not.

“The wait was four, maybe five, days. We were charging $5,000 to get you two tickets. But compared to buying one resale ticket, we were the best deal in town.”

At the beginning of Hamilton’s run, Samuel would buy two tickets, the maximum allowed, and hand them over to clients.

The theater soon changed its policy, however, requiring the buyer of the tickets to see the show themselves. “I’d politely tell them: ‘Hi, you’re going to have a date,’” Samuel says. It didn’t seem to bother Samuel’s customers, who would commission him or his team to buy two tickets and invite them along to see the show.

“One of the benefits of line-sitting, for me, has been rediscovering my love of theater,” Samuel says. He grew up in Brooklyn, across the East River, and a trip to Broadway, in Manhattan, was a rare treat when he was a child; his first show by him was Evita, which he saw with his mother by him – but he has seen Hamilton 10 times and seldom misses the most talked about plays and musicals.

hamilton raked in tens of thousands of dollars for Samuel, who eventually formed his own company called Same Ole Line Dudes.

That wouldn’t be the only pop culture wave in which he played a role. Through his job he Samuel has been present at some of the defining retail and cultural moments of the millennium.

As the iPhone became the hottest consumer item on the planet, Samuel was there, waiting in line outside the company’s flagship New York store.

long line
Customers queue up to purchase iPhones outside the Apple Store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Photograph: Peter Foley/EPA

As the street fashion brand Supreme built a cult following through its limited-edition drops, Samuel was at its SoHo store buying newly released T-shirts and hoodies. (His Supreme gigs prompted Samuel’s one attempt to buy sought-after products and resell them online. “I lost money,” he says, shaking his head. “And I’m like: ‘This isn’t for me, let me just stick to my lane.’”)

The cronut? Samuel was a regular presence outside the Dominique Ansel bakery that created the portmanteau delicacy before that day’s batch sold out. Saturday night Live? Samuel’s worked that too.

When Omega, the luxury watch brand, soared in popularity and began to dabble in the world of limited edition releases, Samuel was there to scoop them up for clients with thousands of dollars to spend, but without the time, or inclination, to do the dirty work.

samuel smiles in front of winter garden theater
Robert Samuel has waited in lines for everything from cronuts to high-end watches. Photograph: Adam Gabbatt/The Guardian

But the jobs aren’t always about making people happy. And the work, especially in recent times, has posed some moral dilemmas.

Samuel was paid by two different news organizations to hold a spot in line for the weeks-long Ghislaine Maxwell trial, which culminated in Jeffrey Epstein’s longtime associate being convicted of sex trafficking in December 2021. And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Samuel waited in line for vaccines, enabling New York-based clients – who frequently did not live in the area where the shots were being administered – to swoop in and get their vaccinations.

Pre-pandemic, the job was enough for Samuel to earn up to $80,000 a year. But the job has exposed some of the ugly sides of society. Samuel says the worst part of the job is the racism that he and his team, many of whom are Black and Latino, have experienced.

Samuel recalled how one of his colleagues had fallen into conversation with a woman and her young daughter as they all waited for Hamilton tickets. The daughter asked Samuel’s line-sitter about the last show he had seen.

“Oh, don’t be silly, they don’t go to see shows,” the mother interjected.

Another time, a colleague was waiting for tickets for Macbeth. He got talking with a white man in line and told him about line-sitting.

“’He was like: ‘Great idea, that’s awesome. But are there any white people who do this?’” Samuel recalls.

That was before Donald Trump was elected. After that, Samuel said, “it just exacerbated it to a whole other level.”

“A lot of tourists come from red states. And they bring those attitudes with them. And it’s like: ‘OK. This is a blue state. This is a blue city. You need to just shut up.’”

Still, Samuel is happy with his job and – pre-pandemic – made a good living. But in a country where wealth inequality has exceeded the extremes of the 1920s and the gig economy has created precarious working conditions for many, Samuel’s role is another example of the wealthy exerting their financial power.

To Sarah Damaske, a professor of sociology and labor and employment relations at Penn State University, the dynamic is reminiscent of “very old forms of labor”.

“When we see really extreme income inequality, this ability to outsource personal tasks becomes more possible. It becomes more possible for someone who’s at one end of the extreme to purchase the labor power of someone who is at the other end of the extreme when the minimum wage is stagnant for as long as it has been,” Damaske said.

“Which is why it makes me think of those days gone by when people were afforded opportunities via birthright, in kind of a manor-born type of way.”

Most of Samuel’s work is based in New York City, but his role has enabled him to travel. In July 2018 he was hired by the artists David Brognon and Stéphanie Rollin for their show Until Then. An exploration of attitudes to euthanasia, the exhibition involved Samuel, whom the artists found online, sitting, alone, in an 11th-century church in France.

Samuel sat in the church, waiting, for 26 days, the period of time between an unnamed patient in Belgium having informed their doctors that they wanted to die, and actually dying. At the moment the patient died, Samuel stood up and walked out of the church.

“My eyes swelled up, and when I walked out of that church, even though I didn’t know that person, to know that I was waiting for them to end their life, it just touched me in such a way that I had never expected,” he says.

The experience still moves Samuel – “I still get a little emotional thinking about it now,” he says, his eyes watering slightly. As for his regular work from him, waiting for tickets, gadgets and clothes, Samuel simply sees it as part of a “convenience that has taken over society”.

“You can get people to literally do everything for you,” he says.

“They can watch your kids, they can watch your pets. They can clean your home, you know, they can pick you up from A to B, bring you your food. So this is just an extension of that.

“You can get people to do just about anything, within reason, as long as it’s legal and you want to pay.”

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