On Punctuality
Wasting somebody else’s time is a great sin.


Kevin D. Williamson

New Yorkers, contrary to the popular belief, are not on the whole rude people. But their characteristic pedestrian habits — avoiding eye contact, marching through scenes of pathos or comedy as though they had seen nothing at all — give that impression. That impression is belied when a tourist stops to ask for directions, at which point New Yorkers become as briskly helpful as Americans of any other city, explaining for the eleventh time this year that the Lexington Avenue subway line does not follow Lexington Avenue below Grand Central, its entrances being found on Park Avenue, that, yes, Saks is in fact on Fifth Avenue, that the Statue of Liberty is not within easy walking distance of Times Square, etc. The no-eye-contact thing is not about denying the fundamental humanity of fellow pedestrians — it is about not wasting their time. Ignoring you is a New Yorker’s way of being considerate.

If you happened to be walking down the street some afternoon in downtown Amarillo, Texas, you might very well make eye contact with a passing pedestrian, perhaps even offering a nod, simply because passing a pedestrian is an unusual occurrence. Likewise, the single-finger wave (no, not that finger) that Texas drivers offer each other on country back roads is an acknowledgment that there are, after all, not a hell of a lot of people out there. Doing that in Manhattan would make you crazy, and make everybody else crazy, too. There is a reason that doffing one’s hat to ladies went out of style.

Time-wasting is a great sin. These are busy times, and we have tweets to tweet and statuses to update and texts to read, which explains the suicidal-seeming habits of Amsterdam residents who blithely mind their smart phones while riding their bicycles along the city’s scenic canals. I did not see a single accident, but of course my sample size is small. Clarification: Wasting somebody else’s time is a great sin; wasting one’s own time is a different matter. And it is in the nature of modern institutions that sometimes we have to waste a little of our own time in order to facilitate general timeliness for others.

I am a great admirer of the economist Tyler Cowen, and the only time I ever have wanted to wring his neck and stomp him into pink goo was when he approvingly quoted the economist Umesh Vazirani to the effect that if you have never missed a flight, then you are wasting too much time in airports. The last-second traveler is a bane of airports and trains, disrupting processes such as check-in and security screening — both of which already are annoying enough — insisting that he be rushed through because he could not be bothered to show up with sufficient time for the admittedly sclerotic process. My morning subway in New York’s financial district, which runs every three minutes during rush hours, is invariably held up by somebody holding the door for himself or a slow-going companion — who is not in such a hurry that he can be bothered to precede the train to its stop but in such a hurry that he cannot wait three minutes for the next train. Civilization means voluntarily enduring some small inconveniences to facilitate order. (Small inconveniences, Herr TSA Gropenfuhrer — small.)

There is, I am told, “on time” and “New York on time,” which means give or take some arbitrary period, allegedly in order to account for the city’s chaotic subway system and unpredictable traffic. I do not practice “New York on time.” I use the same unreliable transit system as everybody else, and I rarely am late. I am informed by knowledgeable people that the man I should support for mayor of New York is one Joe Lhota, formerly chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I would sooner strangle myself with my own intestines. If the entire city ran with the punctuality, hygiene, reliability, and good humor of the MTA, it would be indistinguishable from Port-au-Prince, which is for my money the worst city in the world. (You can find more about this via my Twitter #committeetohorsewhipjoelhota tag.)

I am a puritan on the issue of punctuality: 15 minutes before the movies, 20 minutes before theater, two hours or more before a flight, 30 minutes before an intercity train, etc. If I have to leave myself some extra time on Joe Lhota’s account, so be it. (I have been known to cancel dates over a 15-minute lapse.) This is, I am willing to admit, a pretty poor strategy in some ways — e.g., I do not remember the last time I was on a flight that took off on time. But the prospect of being late fills me with anxiety, a fact that I attribute to having spent my formative years working in daily newspapers. A production manager once informed me that missing the paper’s deadline cost us several hundred dollars a minute. I once had a candidate for a reporter’s job show up for the interview a half an hour late. I did not even come down the stairs, but yelled at him from the landing, emphasizing that the newspaper is a deadline-oriented enterprise. Perhaps he’ll be a senator someday.


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