I have an anxiety about being late that falls squarely between the absurd and the paranoid. This is something that dates back to my childhood. My father was one of those people that believed if you weren’t fifteen minutes early for something you were late. Naturally this resulted in spending lots of time sitting in empty churches before even the choir arrived, wandering aimlessly around the field waiting for the rest of the team to show up for practice – during those few days I actually played organized sports – and finding ways to kill time in the lobby of a movie theater when we weren’t allowed to play video games or have snacks from the concession stand, a particularly challenging experience for a kid as restless, impatient and unfocused as I wa…am.
(In our defense, my brother and I would pass the time by playing the Rock & Roll name game. Simply explained, a person would name a band or artist, and the other person would have to name another one whose first letter was the last letter of the previously named band. Whoever got to say Aerosmith usually won.)
This has carried over into my adult years. On days when I don’t have anything to do before work but simply go to work, I still typically get there 20-30 minutes early. And if there are other circumstances, like having to run an errand in the city, or simply not trusting that the person who worked before me did a good job restocking the bar (a far too common occurrence with one of my co-workers) I’ll find myself arriving stupidly early. Naturally when that happens I berate myself, thinking of all the things I could have done with the extra time at home. (Like play another game of solitaire on the computer.)
A couple of weeks ago this happened like it always does. I left ridiculously early which means the subway showed up right as I got to the station. My one errand took far less time than I expected, and now I had more than an hour to kill before work. With nothing else coming to mind I decided to at least take a long walk to work from where I was, exploring a few blocks I don’t normally see. Funny thing was I never made it more than about a hundred yards.
On the north side of 51st street, between 2nd and 3rd avenue, there’s a little pocket park-like setting. This isn’t one of the many little micro-parks the city puts up in odd spaces where streets don’t quite match up perfectly, but rather a community space that many buildings are required to have in turn for being allowed to build bigger, taller, higher, what have you. Some of these buildings adhere to the letter of the law if not the spirit, calling their enclosed entryways a “public atrium.” Yes, they are quite large and spacious, but considering the entire space is still enclosed (albeit in glass) it still leaves a person with the feeling that they are trespassing.
The space I discovered was quite the opposite. It is completely open, with several different sitting levels, plenty of chairs and tables to sit at, numerous trees for shade and color and, most noticeably, a waterfall.
There is something about a waterfall that is both powerful and nurturing at the same time. The repetitive notion and white noise of the cascading is immediately soothing, and even in a situation like this one, the sight and the sound of it was enough to not just block out the city but seemingly remove it completely. For a few minutes I just sat and let the inherent simplicity of it all wash over me (figuratively, not literally. I did have to go to work still, and anyway I’m sure whoever owned this property frowned on frolicking in the water.) After a while my attention started to wander and I began watching the other people watch the water.
The microcosm of who i saw there was a pretty perfect slice of the humanity that makes up this city. There were people in suits from the nearby offices, little children being watched over by parents or nannies, guys in the unmistakable attire of kitchen workers, whites still clean letting me know they too were on their way to work, everybody with almost no two skin tones alike. I kept switching my focus from the waterfall to the people who the waterfall drew in and back again, until I realized I needed to get moving to work.
I’m never going to not panic about being late. It’s as much a part of who I am as my blue eyes and stupid sense of humor are. And I don’t think I will ever completely stop being annoyed with myself for getting places ridiculously early and then feeling foolish as I try to find someway to pass the time. Best I can do is take solace in the fact that sometimes being early can be a good thing, because it gives you a chance to find something you might not have otherwise. If I didn’t have the time, I would never have turned that way down the street.
Since I am still perpetually early, I end up visiting this park a couple times a week. I suppose the same thing will happen today. We can’t always change how we do things, but we always have the power to change how we adapt to them, and sometimes that is change enough.