Slow Down: In Defense of Lateness

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Colombia, 1996 by Danny Lyon.

“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week…Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.” — Mitch Albom in The Time Keeper

The title of this actually began as a joke. I was explaining (rationalizing) my chronic lateness to a particularly critical friend and I theorized that my arrival time was a statement bigger than she and I… and when I figured out what that statement was, I would write about it in a memoir entitled Slow Down: Lateness as Resistance.

What exactly I was resisting was unclear. Capitalism? Maybe. That was always a reliable scapegoat. Was my lateness a means of resisting the idea that “Time is Money”, a concept which inherently puts leisure and profitability at odds? Was I resisting the simple reality that I just might be an inconsiderate bastard bad at managing time?

But I’m working on this character flaw. Really. I am putting a reasonable, good faith effort to be on time when meeting people I’ve promised to see. The physical distance estranging most of my relationships at this point in life have made this crucial — everyone has limited time and availability — so that limited time can’t be wasted. I was doing well for a while, but admittedly, I’ve begun to relapse and there is one supreme enabler who is to blame: Latin America.

It is more accurate to say living in Latin America. I knew from personal experience, business-across-borders classes and seminars, my Venezuelan operations professor freshman year, that the state of being we’ve come to know as “lateness” has been perfected by our Latin brethren. “Latin Time” not dissimilar to its exhaustive American equivalent “CPT” or “Colored People Time,” was the tacit agreement that unless aggressively emphasized, any given “start time” was a suggestion. In my limited encounter with the region, there was a proverbial resistance to punctuality that I found quite freeing. Time was merely a suggestion, a rough framework within which one could coordinate the events of a given day. There was nothing particularly contractual or consequential about it — time was just…time.

Buses, tour companies, and some business meetings that catered to tourists, expatriates, specifically Americans and Europeans, ran on or close to schedule. But casual meetups, dinners, group outings were the luck of the draw. For any given outing, in Brazil, for example, participants might show up a half-hour, an hour, TWO HOURS after the scheduled meeting time. When the latecomers finally arrived, there was rarely a display of anger or compounded impatience — it was just simple greetings and kisses, the vague mention that the group was slightly behind on time.

Argentina was even worse. A friend told me she arrived not a half-hour, an hour, but TWO HOURS late to a coffee date and the guy wasn’t even there yet (he showed up about fifteen minutes after). You could make the case that days hardly exist in Buenos Aires. Because when dinner is eaten so late it concludes early the next morning and a full “night out” ends decidedly mid-morning the following day… what is the utility of distinguishing “today from tomorrow” when that is then and this is now? Won’t tomorrow still be waiting whenever it is we wake up?

This was the paradox between Latin American Time and its foil, the regionally-agnostic Capitalist Standard Time: the more time is meticulously kept in the present, the more wasteful our management seems in hindsight.

In early July of this year, I was in a meeting with my manager and he’d said “After the next few weeks, the year is ‘basically’ over.” I was baffled that four months were being effectively discarded in favor of planning for the coming twelve. Months later, over dinner with a friend, I felt myself recoil when they referred to our “freshman years of life” a “lost year”. While I didn’t spend every moment since graduation exactly how I wanted, in reflection, there was much good to be salvaged from it — certainly not “lost.” When I countered that we should be easier on ourselves, given that it has just barely been a year-and-a-half since we graduated and not “two years”, she responded with the same response: two years had “basically” elapsed.

What was this bizarre tendency to “round up” anything slightly over half-way as “basically over”? Was it this mentality crafted by a consumption culture founded on “innovation”, “disposability” and discarding goods after limited use? When the cost of the next additional thing, the cost of excess, declines, it’s more effective to get new things than salvage existing ones.

Lateness is, in many respects, a disrespect for time and evidence of bad stewardship over it. In another, though, it is a means of savoring it. Lateness reciprocates unbridled attention. It exchanges patience for presence. If there is anything Latin American Time has gotten supremely right it is this mentality: No matter if you are “late”, we’re just glad you’ve arrived.

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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