Wasting Time

It’s August, the time of year when everything seems to move a little slower. Even here in New York, business quiets down, people leave town in droves, and those who stay even walk just a little slower in the heat (or maybe it’s just that the only people here are tourists, who walk slowly anyway). August would seem like the perfect time to waste time.

But even during these dog days, when I’m here in the city, I just can’t get down with that. As you can probably tell from reading this blog, there are no small number of things and people in the world that irritate me. But there’s not much that seems to make me more frustrated than when I feel someone or something is wasting my time. 

Being a New Yorker is full of weird contradictions when it comes to the concept of time. We are always overscheduled, trying to do many different things at once, going from appointment to appointment, in a hurry. We are the fastest-walking city in the U.S. (although a surprising 8th worldwide — I mean, seriously, how much could they have to rush to in Copenhagen?). We squish our way on to packed subway cars rather than wait for the next one and steal each other’s cabs. We are extremely impatient about service, especially at restaurants, and get fed up when our server is gone beyond the acceptable five to ten minutes. Overall, we simply hate to wait and feel simultaneously like we shouldn’t have to and that there’s so much going on at any given time that we can’t afford to — NYC has got to be the epicenter of FOMO. But at the same time, most New Yorkers are still famously willing to wait in crazy long lines for certain things. Pizza, Clubs and concerts, certain food trucks, the Shake Shack, a Cronut, a Cronut at the Shake Shack, art exhibits like the Rain Room at MOMA, or, rather ironically, Christian Marclay’s The Clock or the Rain Room at MOMA, etc etc etc. If people think it’s worth it — aka it’s trendy enough — New Yorkers will wait for it, for extraordinary amounts of time. 

This is where I draw my own personal line though: I really hate to wait. There’s pretty much always something else worth doing, that I could be doing, with my time. I do have a couple of exceptions. I’ve never been disappointed with a show at Shakespeare in the Park at the Public Theater, and waiting for that is kind of a summer ritual — you bring a blanket and brunch and something to read and you sit in the park (max time I will wait: three to four hours), and it’s actually somewhat pleasant. Then also, I’ll wait for the ferry to Governor’s Island for the Figment festival, known to some as the Festival of Hippies Doing Kooky “Art” While Biding Time Until the Next Burning Man, because it’s another fun summer thing to do and the line is never too long if you get there in the morning (max time I will wait: half an hour). So essentially, if it’s a unique experience and it’s free, I’ll consider it.

But if I feel like I’ve been cheated out of my time, beware, and this is fresh on my mind because this summer, it’s happened twice — TWICE. The first time, some friends were here from out of town to visit, and my other friend who lives here, on the Lower East Side, really wanted to take them to the new Russ & Daughters restaurant in her neighborhood. I get it, it’s something of an institution, and even though the hostess said the wait was going to be 2.5 hours, my friend was friends with the manager and he reassured her that it would only be half an hour. Well, it was 2.5 hours. They gave us some free food and a lot of free Bloody Marys and apologized profusely, but it still drove me absolutely batty. Not only were we all starving by the end, but I, at least, was acutely aware that my friends were only here for a short time and there was just so much to do. Plus, while the lox was excellent and varied and certainly a unique New York experience, I just couldn’t fathom food of any sort, let alone fish, being worth 2.5 hours of anyone’s time, let alone 2.5 hours of the time of six adults and one small child — a waste of, oh, 16-17.5 hours total, depending upon how you value, relatively, the time of a six-year-old. The second time just happened last weekend, when my husband and I went with a couple of friends and their baby to see St. Vincent at Celebrate Brooklyn. We arrived at the end of the very long line to enter CB at around 6:15 pm for the 7:30 show, and even though doors supposedly opened at 6:30, we didn’t get inside until around 8:00 — at which time, while the opening act was still performing, the lines for the bathrooms and the food were fully formed, and it was kind of hard to find a spot to place our blanket where we could actually see what was going on on more than one half of the stage. Again, the whole experience made me crazy. I couldn’t believe that this had happened to Celebrate Brooklyn, one of my favorite local series, which had never been this crowded before — who were all these people invading my borough and coming to my shows? But in addition to that frustration, and in spite of its being a beautiful night, it was hard to enjoy a show, despite my being cheap and its being free, when I had to ask if it had been worth nearly two hours of wasted time.

Of course, when you really think about it, you start to realize that this whole concept of having my time wasted that makes me so angry is somewhat arbitrary and bizarre. I mean, in both of the cases I mentioned above, I was with friends who I hadn’t seen in a while, hanging out, talking, enjoying their company — really, we would have been doing the same thing inside the venue that we were doing outside. And no matter where you are, even if you’re waiting for something like the food or the check at a restaurant, it should be the same: you’re there to enjoy the experience of being there, with the people you’re with, the food, the drinks, the atmosphere, and if there’s nowhere else you need to be, what’s the hurry?

I don’t think everyone in the world has this concept of wasting time, and certainly not with the intensity to which we – or at least I – cling to it here. I get a window into this sometimes when I travel. Of course when you’re traveling for pleasure, time hopefully means something different anyway — if you can get to that mindset. You have to shed not just the worries of work and home but the feeling of having to do things at particular times and cramming them all into a schedule, so you don’t miss anything, and that is not easy. Believe me, I’ve had those vacations too. But I think the best ones are the vacations when time loses its meaning, when you have some things you’d like to do, but you don’t care enough that you can’t also leave space for whatever just happens. And if you’re one of those people who has a really hard time letting go of time, sometimes it helps to go to places where you’re kind of forced into it. If you’ve never been to Europe in August, you haven’t seen a city really shut down. Plus, when you’re in Paris, or London or Rome, the layers of history you’re walking on top of are so apparent, it makes you realize what a small fraction of time the city of New York’s very existence composes, let alone one day in your own lifetime. Or if you stay on our side of the Atlantic, you often hear people talk about Island or Caribbean or Latin time, which basically just means that everything moves slower in those places and happens later in the evening, and lateness is more normal than not. This could be partly because people think of certain places as vacation spots where people drink piña coladas all day long, or because, in the Third World, transportation and bureaucratic infrastructure just don’t move with the same efficiency, and therefore everything that might depend on them just isn’t going to happen on time. But even in places where it could, like Buenos Aires for instance, people don’t seem to expect it to. And when you’re there, you start to wonder, why should you? What’s the point of worrying so much about something that isn’t, in fact, a currency, but really just a construct? In these places, you can start to feel like time isn’t, actually, something you need or want or use, but just something you live in and experience. Imagine that.

So when did time become my most precious commodity, the thing that I’m always trying to manage, that preoccupies and frustrates me continually? I’m sure it has something to do with getting older and realizing, in a real way, that my time is finite. But on a day-to-day basis, I am just always in a hurry, doing five different things at one time, having a hard time accomplishing any one of them. Between the work I do for money and the work I do in pursuit of future money and the work I do in pursuit of something else, there’s never really enough time. Then I have a husband, family, friends, Facebook friends, errands, chores, Carcassonne, all of which demand attention at least occasionally. 

But sometimes it’s good to remember that it’s August; that for the next couple of weeks, lots of people are on vacation and very little important is really going to get done; that the biggest waste of time is worrying about it, and that we’re all going to sweat if we walk too fast; and that somewhere in the world, for somebody, right now, time doesn’t mean what you think it means.

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