The word on the street was Count Basie was the greatest time keeper in the world. That’s all everybody talked about. You know he just raises his hand and the time was there.
How important is timing? As the great Rodolpho Rolex may have said: “Timing is everything when your watch is more expensive than a car.”
Timing is the each and all, then end and the beginning, the groove that keeps us moving and on cue. If timing did not exist, workers would not be late, musicians wouldn’t miss a beat and bank robbers would never get arrested. In essence, timing ruins most people’s lives.
More than anything timing is essential when telling a joke. How we tell a joke is even more important than the punch line. I cite a 1979 incident with my next-door neighbor.
ME: Knock! Knock!
NEIGHBOR: Who’s there?
ME: (How does the joke go again?)
NEIGHBOR: I said, “Who’s there?”
ME: (Oh, yeah!) Knock! Knock!
NEIGHBOR: Quit knocking on my door!
ME: But it’s me banana.
NEIGHBOR: I don’t care if you are an orange. Get off my porch!
If timing is important in joke telling, I’ve always run into a snag for I omit key parts with a wandering mind that is usually thinking about food. I cite a 1993 incident with a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.
ME: Why did the chicken cross the road?
GIRLFRIEND: Why –
ME: No wait! How did the chicken cross the road?
GIRLFRIEND: How –
ME: No wait! What do you get when you cross a sad chicken with a French street?
ME: Chicken rue on bleu. Get it?
GIRLFRIEND: Get what?
ME: The joke.
GIRLFRIEND: What joke?
ME: It’s funnier in French.
GIRLFRIEND: (What a dork.)
ME: Speaking of French cuisine, do you want to get some lasagna?
Timing is important when going out to dinner. I find no moment more aggravating than waiting at a restaurant for a person who is running late. And so I remain either standing in the lobby or waiting just outside the lobby, thinking of a passage from Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre where the heroine stands alone at the intersection of a country road with no idea where to go or what to do next:
I wish no eye to see me now: strangers would wonder what am I doing, lingering here at the sign-post, evidently objectless and lost.
Objectless and lost. I find it difficult to linger during moments like this. Instead, I slowly shuffle, creating small circles, trying not to look suspicious, but most definitely looking suspicious like a delinquent teenager with no money at a suburban mall.
Does my impatience come from a fear of being abandoned? I don’t know why. My parents never left me next to a set of railroad tracks like they did my brother, Chad. In fact, the first time I was socially abandoned happened as an adult.
Even though I had the day off from work, I made plans to meet some coworkers for happy hour. Since I wasn’t coming directly from the office, I would be heading to the bar solo.
I’m not a person who likes to walk into a bar by myself. Coffee shops, no problem; bakeries, can linger, but bars? If you sit down and start drinking by yourself, people will think you are:
(a) An alcoholic
(b) An ex-boyfriend stalking a waitress
(c) A lonely guy
I tried to avoid all three descriptions by playing the role of a normal guy by looking at my watch, looking at the door, slightly shaking my head, then taking a sip of beer before looking at one of the 35 television screens placed throughout the bar.
I kept repeating the routine, but after a while too much time had slipped. It wasn’t just one person who was late. It was the whole crowd. What did I do to receive such treatment? Outrage peaked; then simmered. I settled my account and headed for the door. I would go into work and confront my coworkers. I would tell them never to invite me to happy hour again. I would not be prepared to find out that I went to the wrong bar.
The main reason late people annoy me is I come from a family whose father was never on time. Dad was always tardy whether attending a family dinner or a golf outing. He always played the moment until the last second and then took a few more moments to do what? I don’t know. Usually, his antics never affected the family as a whole except for one moment each week: Sunday mornings, twenty minutes before mass. No matter the time of year or liturgical season, Dad would not only be running late, there were times he wasn’t even dressed.
MOM: Dan, would you please get ready?
DAD: I’m ready!
MOM: You’re still in your pajamas.
Then the shouting would raise and the anger would rattle as a husband and wife argued about personal responsibility, setting a good example and clothing options. Then mom would look at the clock, throw up her hands and herd the clothed portion of her family into the station wagon.
It’s the lingering that drives me batty. On most occasions there is a time to arrive and a time to leave. I take my cues from the crowd. For example, I will show up at a house party a little early, but I won’t go in until a sufficient number of cars have arrived. And as the evening wanes, I look for a large block of people who are leaving so I can follow in their wake. But sometimes the crowd and I are not on the same page and they don’t realize I am ready to leave, which I find a rude characteristic in most crowds. So I banter some more and decline another drink. I poise myself at the ready and wish the end to the evening could be as abrupt as the time I was at Chad’s place.
I’m not sure if we were watching a movie or having a few beers, but there were enough of us in Chad’s living room to fill the couch and a couple of chairs.
At this point in his life Chad was fully employed, going to school and had to be at work the next morning at five am. So he stood up, turned off the lights and went to bed.
The rest of us sat in the pitch-black living room not really sure what just happened. Looking back, I appreciate the finality: No lingering, no long goodbye, just fumbling in the dark for the front door.
Chad may have been too sleep deprived to even know what he did, but Larry knew.
Larry was in my high school algebra class. He was a pretty mellow dude. He wore glasses that were partially tinted, the kind worn by 1970’s Southern rockers or more precisely, the guy in the entourage who was responsible in keeping the Southern rockers lit.
Larry also wore a Casio watch. I know this because I did too. I had a watch that not only kept time, but also gauged the temperature in the room, not accurately, unless 87 degrees Fahrenheit is normal for room temperature.
Larry had no need for such extra-curricular nonsense. All he wanted to know was the time, the exact time, the inside, down to the millisecond time. Classes would start and end with a loud ring and Larry figured out how to sync his watch with the school’s bell. And one day as the rest of us nodded through another sleepy session, Larry got up and headed towards the door.
The algebra teacher was stunned. To him it looked like Larry was about to say: “F this!” But surprise quickly turned to panic. For if Larry could walk out, why not someone else? And if everybody decided they had enough of their high school education, what was to prevent the whole school from spilling onto the streets to start Holly H.
But before the teacher could say anything, the school bell rang and Larry was on to the next class.
Larry wasn’t a rebel, but in those few seconds between his desk and the door he resided in the domain, hovering between eternal glory and indefinite suspension.
In her book of essays entitled The White Album, Joan Didion writes about a particular regimen she followed as a reporter. Taped to her bedroom closet was a list of essentials she needed when she went on the road for an assignment.
TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
powder & baby oil
Larry would have been aghast at one missing item. As a reporter with meetings, interviews and deadlines you would think Didion would have brought along a watch, but she goes on to explain that she could always ask for the time, like bumming a cigarette, which I might add she didn’t leave up to chance by adding it to the list. But when she was alone in her hotel room at night tapping away at the typewriter’s keys, she had to call the front desk for the time. She would call so many times the attendants no longer picked up. So she dialed her husband back in California, two tired voices marking the passing hours while an anxious country tried to sleep.
There is a moment in Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz where Wynton Marsalis describes the start of a Count Basie show.
Count Basie had one of the preeminent big bands. There was never a time when he nor his band were out of work, which was a thing of beauty considering Basie wasn’t much of a composer and he wasn’t the best piano player of his era. But what he had, more than anyone else, was the ability to keep time, maintaining a steady beat from the roadside barbecue joints in Kansas City in 1929 all the way around the world until his passing in Hollywood, Florida in 1984.
Marsalis goes on to explain how a Count Basie would start a show, getting his rhythm section firing: the bass, guitar and drums, tight, yet loose, laying down the beat for Basie to jump in, sprinkle a few notes before getting up to say hello to a table, conversing, small talk, shaking a few hands, then returning to his piano to tap out a few more notes before getting up to greet the other side of the room.
This is how we all should enter at a party: bringing our own internal rhythm section as we mingle, moving through the crowd, leaving a conversation before it runs dry, finding the best place to perch, sampling some appetizers, signaling the bartender, then moving on for we know when and where because we are in the moment and in the moment everything is revealed.
I love being punctual, not out of compulsion or a need to erase the sins of a tardy father, but because I love jazz. In fact, my favorite musician of all exemplifies this feeling. Art Blakey was a hard-bop drummer who kept the rest of the cats in line. And with his high-hats and back-beats, I found a way to tap out my life. Like at work: Ba-da-deep! The clock hits five and I shut down my computer. Boom-de-dee-boom! I skip down the stairs and hit the landing with both feet. Skee-di-bop! I slide down the hallway and open the lobby door. Chick-a-poof! I open my car door and hop into the front seat. Vroooom! I rev my engine. Flip-screech! I put my car in reverse and almost back into my boss’ Ford Tempo.
All my life I have shown the ability to be on time whether picking up a dinner date or appearing in front of a circuit court judge. But for a time there was one aspect of my life where I was constantly late – work.
My perpetual tardiness came from an internal debate. Part of me did not like sitting at a computer and slapping the monitor every time I got a system error. But the other part knew I wouldn’t get paid nearly as well if I were to practice the same ritual at home. My tardiness was the compromise.
Even though I knew my lateness was detrimental to my long-term employment, I never really worked to correct it. So I instead started to develop a theory that if I could see any part of the office building when the clock hit 8:00 am, then, technically, I wasn’t late. It didn’t matter if I was stuck in traffic. It didn’t matter if I still had to stop for coffee. If I could catch any glace of that rooftop at 7:59, what was the problem?
I knew my corporate philosophy would probably get me fired if I ever bragged about it in the break room. And even though I was a model employee when I found my cubicle, I knew my boss would eventually pull me into her office. And when it happened on a normal Tuesday, I knew any argument I had would not help. So I remained quiet.
BOSS: You know I find you to be a model employee.
ME: (I knew it!)
BOSS: Never do you take more than five coffee breaks, and rarely do they interfere with your lunch.
ME: (So far so good…)
BOSS: But this exemplary behavior comes with a slight blemish – your tardiness.
ME: (You saw this coming…)
BOSS: Tardiness can be overlooked, but not every day.
ME: (Fair point…)
BOSS: After all, your tardiness not only affects you and me, but the company as whole.
ME: (Nod and agree…)
BOSS: Now, if there is a reason for the constant tardiness, we need to discuss it.
If there is one attribute I sometimes see as a fault, it is that I find it difficult to lie. Fibbing? No problem. Bald-face prevarication? Can’t do it. Honesty can be a noble trait, but I couldn’t share my corporate philosophy on rooftops sightings. So I redirected.
ME: As the great Alexander Timex once said to Casca Casio, “Late is late no matter the time zone.”
BOSS: He said that?
ME: He may have. So the question is: What to do?
BOSS: What should we do?
ME: Tell me to be here by 7:30.
BOSS: Why 7:30?
ME: Because that will give me plenty of time to get here by 8:00.
The proposal worked. My boss got me to work on time and I started working on a philosophy on leaving work early, preferably before my boss reached her Ford Tempo.
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