Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Issue 36 by Vicky Oliver

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

— Pink Floyd, “Time”

I was in a meeting when the mysterious email arrived: “Need to talk to you today. What’s your phone number?”

The message was so curt, that I didn’t think my friend John could have possibly written it. He was a native New Yorker with the soul and demeanor of a Southern gentleman. He was flowery; his language grandiose. I actually wondered if the email was part of a sophisticated phishing scam. What was next? A follow-up claiming he was stranded in Europe and needed money wired instantly?

When we finally caught up with each other a few days later, the news was worse than I could have ever imagined.

I guess there’s nothing like a death threat hanging over a friend’s head to shed some perspective on one’s own life, for now I found myself asking some hard questions. How much time did I have left? Did our relationship to time change as we aged? Did time, as Pink Floyd suggested in their song by the same name, just keep speeding up?

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today

When I was a kid, growing up as an only child in Manhattan, time stretched from the East River to the Hudson. I loved summer in the city, but I also remember feeling bored back then for entire Junes, Julys, and Augusts at a time.

Back then, before Mayor De Blasio, even before Mayor Bloomberg, everyone longed to escape from sooty New York and the city would empty out right before Memorial Day. My friends departed for glamorous locales: Southampton, Paris, Bermuda’s pink beaches.

Meanwhile, in the heat, the city garbage smells would intensify—assaulting the nose in a continuous thrum. Occasionally, a garbage strike would necessitate mouth-breathing for whole blocks at a time.

I know because I stayed behind.

With none of my friends around to help me while away the hours, I spent most of my time casing the cracked pavements of the empty, reeking city streets. Some of the places I walked to uptown were considered violent back then due to the existence of gangs and frequent muggings. Downtown was no paradise either. Gangs and drugs had infiltrated Avenues B, C, and D. Different gangs ran Chinatown.

And Central Park? Rumor had it that you took your life in your hands to walk there alone as a young girl. Naturally that didn’t stop me. Unbeknownst to my parents, I would sneak out to these locales to determine if they really were as frightening as the newspapers would have us believe.

They were and they weren’t. I was a private-school kid with street smarts. I discovered that if you stayed alert and minded your own business, you could walk for miles without being accosted, except maybe by a runaway rat.

But danger didn’t just stick to prescribed neighborhoods—it lurked everywhere. We lived in a rent-stabilized, postwar building on East 89th Street which looked respectable enough under its white brick facade, that is, until three pimps started using our address as their headquarters. Without warning, scantily clad girls spilling out of their D-cups began to spill out of our elevator. One crisp afternoon, a tall man sporting a white Fedora and a white satin suit emerged from his parked white Cadillac, strode into our lobby, and followed my mother and me into the elevator.

“What’s your name little girl?” he asked, staring down at me, all shiny teeth.

Before I could open my mouth to tell him, my mother grabbed me by the hand and yanked me out of the cabin. She marched me into our apartment, saying, “That’s it. We’re moving.”

When we finally moved west a few avenue blocks, she swore she’d never venture east of Third Avenue again.

On the weekends, my parents would wrest me away from the city to Amagansett, Long Island, which if anything was underdeveloped. My parents viewed their two-bedroom beach cottage as a respite from their high-powered, stressed-out account executive jobs in advertising. There wasn’t even a TV set in the shack (strange, for an advertising couple), and musical selections were confined to whatever gasped out from the radio, its reception staticky to nonexistent. With the rampant development today that has gobbled up every spare acre in the Hamptons like a ravenous sea monster, it’s hard to believe that my parents managed to find the one secluded corner, but there were only five houses on their road back then. There was little social stimulation, and sometimes I was convinced that I would go stark raving mad before Sunday night deposited me back in the city.

When I arrived at Brown University as a freshman, time slowed down even more. I could not wait to get out. Or maybe it was more that I couldn’t wait to get back. During spring break junior year, I went camping with seven female classmates in Key West. I must have felt immortal to allow three of them to persuade me to go fishing at sunset with four commercial fishermen we had only just met. I squandered my four years at Brown dreaming of graduation day and my triumphant return to the city.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you

But upon my return to New York, some nasty surprises awaited. For starters, I didn’t get the job in the promotions department at Vogue magazine that I thought I had lined up. This necessitated my beginning my fabulous career in advertising as a lowly receptionist. Then my boyfriend from college broke up with me, and my parents threatened to charge me (exorbitant) rent to live in my old bedroom. Time moved faster now, sped up by the heat of surmounting obstacles.

When I got married, time slowed down again, stretching out to the romantic trill of April in Paris without rain, August in East Hampton without mosquitoes, and October in Bermuda with its pristine pink beaches. Now I was reliving my friends’ childhoods through the generosity of my husband, the only person on Earth who ever spoiled me. I didn’t have the constant money worry nagging at me for maybe the first time in my life. Suddenly I had options. I could quit a job I hated and go back to school full-time, and in fact, I did.

Then on February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded on the second subterranean level of the Vista Hotel’s public parking garage, below the 2 World Trade Center building where my husband worked.

Time froze. Information was parsed out in tiny, meaningless sentences.

We were in Cancun, Mexico, with our close friends, another couple where the man also worked in finance. Television news dribbled out like droplets from a leaky faucet. No newspapers graced the stands. The radio was useless. It was impossible to separate facts from the rumors circulated by well-meaning tourists.

“You hear about the World Trade Center?”

“What? What happened?”

“Don’t know.”

“Which building?”

The news was slow to seep out to that part of the world, but when it did, my husband shared with me that he felt a strange survivor guilt for being on vacation with me instead of evacuating the building with his work colleagues.

“The building isn’t secure enough,” I told him a few months later; when picking him up at the office, I was allowed to ride up to the 62nd floor without showing any I.D. to the guard. “But don’t you see?” I insisted, to my husband’s impartial shrug. “They shouldn’t have let me up.” For after being a fearless child, I was now strangely worried about things. I didn’t want him to drive his car to the office anymore. I developed a fear of flying. Friends in our couples’ share in Montauk that summer dubbed me “the Fire Marshall” for the way I forced everyone to sit far, far away from our beach campfires. For even though the city was presumably safer than ever, I didn’t feel safe anymore.

Then on September 11, 2001, time stood still. We waited for days, weeks, months, sifting through the ashes to find our loved ones, making sense of our lives. I caught an email thread from some of my husband’s high school friends, asking each other if he was dead. Didn’t he work in 2 World Trade Center, someone recalled? Fortunately, he wasn’t working anywhere near there by then, but he watched the plane crash into the building as he walked to his midtown office. Twice spared a horrific fate by being nowhere near that dreaded building when Death pounced. (And yet, my husband is hopeless at backgammon, unable to roll doubles when needed. “I’d rather have luck than skill,” he says, not realizing how supremely lucky he’s been.)

I used to be able to recount the year by which advertising agency I was writing copy for, and then that morphed into recounting the year by which self-help book I had published, which all in all seemed more gratifying. Loved ones died for sure, but they were of the older generation. My husband’s mother died, followed by his grandfather, followed by his father. Then my stepfather died. At this point in my life, time seemed to move at a respectful trot.

When Facebook first surfaced, the powers-that-be in the Brown University administration ordered me to get online. As a surprisingly gung-ho volunteer class leader, it was my task to figure out how to convince my fellow classmates to re-engage with the school. This could not be accomplished, I was warned, without a thorough mastery of social media. For me, Facebook made time screech to a halt, for now it was possible to be in touch with every single person I had ever known. The old chapters I had assumed were forever closed could reopen again at the press of a button or simply by “liking” someone’s post. Like a forest springing back to life after a fire, new growth could prettify the ravaged areas.

If I chose to, I could make amends with an old enemy, the guy whose heart I’d trampled, or my former boss. I could now be friends with my former high school teachers, or even my old headmaster if I cared to. I was—we all were—young again, caught in a continuous time loop where the number of years that had passed since our last interaction with any particular person just didn’t matter.

For me, during those early Facebook years, time actually moved backward as I reconnected with friends from high school, friends from college, friends from kindergarten, and even nursery school. Friends. I couldn’t even find a friend during the first seventeen summers of my life, but now I had eight hundred and six friends during all seasons.

I felt young again.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

On a rainy Thursday in November 2019, I was one of a thousand New Yorkers who descended on Park Avenue’s Brick Church to wish our friend John a tearful farewell. For perhaps twenty minutes, traffic snarled along Park Avenue as John’s business partners, fraternity brothers, and Trinity School classmates like me fought our way up the Avenue like modern-day samurai via taxi, Lyft, and Uber to see off our friend. Agitated honking filled the air. Don’t be late for other people’s funerals, we thought, or God forbid, they’ll be late to ours.

“John planned every aspect of this funeral,” the female minister recounted.

Wearing white aprons and white gloves over black-tie attire, the masons performed a ceremony in John’s honor.

Porting sprigs of pine, his Columbia University fraternity laid the evergreens on an altar to keep John’s memory alive.

“Who was he—like a dignitary?” stage-whispered one of our classmates.

No, actually he was just a great guy—the type of person who’d tell you he loved you (or for that matter, my husband) long before it was cool to say "I love you" to friends. And I am sure I am not alone in wishing that John, like Huck in Huckleberry Finn, had been alive to bear witness to his own magnificent funeral. John had a commando grasp of events that happened years earlier, which no one else could possibly remember. I once telephoned him to settle an amusing dispute that arose between me and a girl buddy about which year I had dated a particular guy. Of course John knew. He collected details about his friends like an antique dealer hoarding curios. With him died an institutional memory I fear is irreplaceable.

In the hospital a few weeks before he died, in between sips of watered-down apple juice and cajoling the nurse to bring him an Italian ice, John shared with me that he had never had the chance to give a great party like so many of our classmates had. He viewed his funeral as a farewell party to himself. He asked that the mourners dance in the aisles to one of his favorite tunes: “I Can See Clearly Now.”

John’s early demise made me more conscious than ever of time’s savage passage. Before his death, I naively assumed that I had my whole life ahead of me; and now, I realize with great heartache that this was a mirage, and most of my life has already passed. I used to joke that I intended to live forever. But the sudden snatching of my friend John forced me to come to terms with the truth that I likely won’t (unless technology really speeds up, and they figure out a way to keep us all alive. Go, science! Go, Bill Gates!).

John, it pains me to admit, was not the first classmate to die. In fact, four other men from the same miniscule co-ed high school class passed away, one of them, just a few weeks before John, in the early fall of 2019.

I was in a London cab, making my way back to the Connaught to meet my husband, when I received the terrible text. “So sorry to hear about Herbie,” it began. “I know you felt close to him.” Because I was on vacation, I missed the pollyannaish Facebook post about how Herbie had allegedly died peacefully over a bottle of red wine and a novel. (When my husband and I had seen Herbie five weeks earlier in Sagaponack, he seemed in perfect health.) I asked some friends about this and heard all sorts of answers.

“At a certain point, people just pass.”

“Not everyone survives. They just don’t.”

“Some don’t make it.”

“This guy in my gym…”

When we returned to Manhattan, we attended Herbie’s viewing. It was open casket. Blessed with that beautiful Asian skin that never wrinkles or creases, he looked like he had just turned thirty. Herbie, who also attended Brown with me, was really more of an acquaintance until recently when I started noticing that he and I would have these long, in-depth conversations at parties. I also observed that he was one of the funniest people I knew. He told me with a straight face how he longed to date a robot. (He thought the sex would be better.) At a recent Brown reunion, he chased me around the class tent, blaming me, the class president, for the poor quality of the food.

“This is on you,” he said. “The only edible things here are the mini ice cream cones.”

“Herbie,” I said. “I had nothing to do with the food.”

Friends. It’s easy to make new friends, but it’s impossible to make old friends. I am grateful for the memories, but memories are like kites. You have to work hard so they won’t fly away.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking

The horrific coincidence of having two classmates die within a few weeks of each other forced me to consider if time was now speeding up to its relentless conclusion. I decided that it may well be, and so this past New Year’s Eve, I surprised myself by jotting down only a few resolutions. I used to write ten a year easily, but I’ve concluded that long lists of unfulfilled resolutions are for the young. I’m older now; my New Year’s resolutions need to be more efficient. For the first New Year since high school, I did not write down “lose ten pounds.” John died of stage IV cancer to the bile duct. He lost a lot of weight at the end. Someday soon I may need my fat.

However, to my short list, I recently added a resolution: stop doing the things that I don’t want to do. These include, (but probably are not limited to):

  1. Watching New York Football Giants in person. Our unprotected seats are near the 10-yard lane. Literally freezing my posterior off by the end of the first quarter, I used to root for a fast game with no overtime. Honestly, I’d rather be warm and writing.
  2. Listening patiently, as a very close friend details how much she despises her very ill husband. I don’t want to see her anymore because if I did, I’d have to shake her. Her husband is at least twelve years older than both of my friends who passed. Doesn’t she realize how lucky she is? Divorce him or stay married, I’d have to shout, just don’t drag me into your guilt.
  3. Giving away sound career advice for free.
  4. Spending any time with so-called frenemies, and by extension, with others whom I have little interest in seeing.
  5. Caring if my eight hundred and six friends like me enough. Life is not a popularity contest. (If it is, I readily admit defeat.)

In the short timespan that encompasses my life, do I really know what time it is? I do not. As the band Chicago once crooned, is it twenty-five or six to four? I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you?

In school, I learned that each day has twenty-four hours—each hour marked by sixty minutes of equal length. But since then I have come to believe that time does not slow or speed up, expand or shrink in regular intervals. Time is more creative than that. It moves forward until it moves backward. Or springs sideways. Or loop de loop like a yo-yo. Maybe the only certainty is the uncertainty. I mark time by the years that have passed, the experiences accumulated, the books written and read, and the friends gained and lost. Sometimes I have left friends behind, deliberately cutting ties over some perceived ill; and for those situations, Facebook is my healing balm. More often, I suspect, our friends are taken from us.

The Rolling Stones sang, “Time is on my side.” Is it? Either way, I have resolved to make the most of however little—or much—time I have left.

About the Author

Vicky Oliver

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Vicky Oliver has published six how-to career books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008) and the novel Mistress Suffragette (Penmore Press, 2017) under the pen name Diana Forbes. One chapter from the unpublished sequel was a finalist in the Saturday Evening Post “Best American Fiction” Contest and was published in an anthology of winners. Vicky writes for Harvard Business Review (Ascend) and Lifehack.org on career upsets. She is a native New Yorker and a very active Brown University alumna.