On my first day living in a small town in Morocco, where I would be studying Arabic, my host father briefed me on the bus schedule, and I use the word “schedule” loosely. “It usually comes at least twice every hour,” he said. “Insha’allah,” he continued.
Not twice every hour on the half hour and on the hour. Not twice an hour at precisely 8:15 and 8:45. Twice an hour. Usually. God willing.
As someone who was previously a stickler for being on time, I couldn’t fathom how everyone in the country seemed so relaxed about schedules. Coming from New York, where it can seem like time is money and money is everything, I would rather show up everywhere an hour early instead of risking being five minutes late.
Slowly, though, I adjusted my internal clock to “Moroccan Standard Time,” where being late was not only permitted, but almost expected. By the end of my stay, I was sold. I never went back.
Back home, I had always felt like I was in a rush. I’d take the subway stairs two at a time when I could. Nine times out of 10, I’d walk gruffly past my doorman with my eyes cast downward and straight ahead. I’d shake my head back and forth in silence as I walked past a homeless person.
In 2007, Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell went incognito and played a Bach concerto at a Washington, D.C. metro station. The performance was recorded and the melody is gorgeous. In 45 minutes, though, only seven people stopped to hear him play. Why only seven? Everyone else had places to go, and people to see. Everyone else was too important. Everyone else needed to be on time.
I used to be one of those people. I will never be one of those people again.
Granted, having an 18-month-old son doesn’t help in terms of on-time arrivals. Each departure time is dependent on how long it will take me to convince him that, no, we cannot take his fire truck with us to the beach. Or to explain to him that no, 30 seconds before we leave is not a good time to ask for juice.
But toddler in tow or not, I will more than likely be late. I apologize in advance. I’ll be finishing up a conversation with my doorman, digging change out of my pocketbook for the homeless stranger, or waiting for the next train rather than sprinting for the one that just pulled up to cram myself in.
After my job later took me to long-term stays in India, Israel, and Barbados, I realized that being late is something of a time-honored tradition in other countries, as well. Being on time, on the dot, turns out to be quite a stereotypical American characteristic.
I used to work on exchange programs for foreigners, and would brief them about expected timeliness in the U.S. before they started their programs: “When a class starts at 9:00, they actually mean 9:00. Not 9:01, not 9:02. 9:00.” They’d raise their eyebrows skeptically.
And so did I, each time I returned to New York after being abroad for a stint. Where was everybody going? Why were they in such a rush? If they’re 10 minutes late, is it really so awful? Wouldn’t their employer, their friend, or whomever they’re meeting rather they arrive in a calm state, ready to tackle the challenges of the day? Don’t they risk missing out on the simple pleasures of life?
I know that there are exceptions, and that sometimes being late just isn’t an option. I know that some bosses are more serious about it than others. That in some jobs, you can’t just make up for a late arrival with a late departure. And as I get older, and have more responsibilities, I admit that I sometimes still begrudgingly find myself taking those subway stairs two at a time.
I’d like to think that if I heard a world-class violinist on my way to work, though, I’d stop to listen. Even if it means I’ll be late.