On Punctuality

by Kevin D. Williamson

Wasting somebody else’s time is a great sin.

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.

Besides newspapering, I suspect that my libertarian sympathies have something to do with this. Libertarians tend to be very rule-oriented people, which is only a paradox if you do not think about it very much. If I agree to a set of rules, I will follow them to the letter. If the menu says “no substitutions,” I do not ask for an exception. If Delta asks that I be there two hours before my flight, I will be there — even though I know from long and bitter experience that Delta is going to screw me.

Zurich, where I am at the moment, is a little slice of heaven for the punctuality obsessed. If the ticket says the train will depart at 8:07 a.m., the train will depart at 8:07 a.m. You can literally set your watch by the trains here, and in fact I did just that today. In my traveling arsenal of punctuality I have a Mondaine pocket watch whose makers allege that it is the official timepiece of the conductors on Switzerland’s SBB railways. The face of the watch is a miniature of the iconic clocks found in Swiss railway stations, a white face with fat black dashes and a red second hand that ends in a disk inspired by old railroad signals. After setting my watch against the afternoon trains in Zurich, I checked it against the clocks in the station. A local, observing that I was setting my little clock against a larger version of exactly the same clock, came over to where I was standing. I was expecting an eye roll, but he produced precisely the same watch from his pocket and checked it against the clock. It is a brotherhood.

Swiss efficiency of course extends beyond punctuality. Just outside Zurich, a train conductor asked me if she had checked my ticket. I told her that somebody had checked my ticket, but I didn’t remember who. She asked where I had got on. I answered that it was at Mannheim. “This is not possible,” she said. But it was possible. Somebody else had punched my ticket, invading her conducting turf. The look on her face was, I’m sure, a perfect expression of whatever is Swiss German for existential despair. If that is what is considered a managerial failure, then God bless the Swiss.

There is a joke that in heaven all the cooks are French, all the lovers are Italian, all the police are British, all the mechanics are German, and the whole thing is organized by the Swiss, whereas in hell all the cooks are British, all the lovers are Swiss, all the police are German, all the mechanics are French, and the whole thing is organized by the Italians. Sure, those are crude national stereotypes, never mind if they’re true. I don’t know about the Swiss lovers, but the locals are not playing when it comes to matters temporal. So seriously do Mondaine and SBB take their clocks that they threatened to sue Apple over the presence of a digital copy of the iconic Swiss train clock on the iPad. The Swiss being the Swiss, a licensing deal was worked out, proving that it is possible to be a fanatic without being unreasonable.

Louis XVIII called punctuality “the politeness of kings,” while Evelyn Waugh dismissed it as “the virtue of the bored.” Evelyn Waugh had many virtues, but I wouldn’t let him run the trains or immigrate to Switzerland.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.