Killing time

Montréal, 21 Aug 2003

I imagine many people will be able to confirm: the skin under a watch strap after a long, sweaty Montreal day (sweat, grime from smog, maybe some sunblock mixed in for good measure, maybe bits of peeling skin otherwise) is not a pretty sight. Some study will probably indicate soon that it’s a breeding ground for something that’ll get you stopped before air travel and require scrubbing with iodine before entering a hospital, nursing home or preschool.

In anticipation of this news, and because something, be it grease from between links or oxidized strap bits, stains my wrist black, I take off my watch from time to time, and sometimes forget to put it back on before venturing out into the world. If I’ve forgotten or purposely mislaid my cell phone, I am at the mercy of the world when it comes to telling time.

In a big city with shops opening and closing on a rigid schedule, public transit adhering to an exact timetable (at least when riders are a bit late and hoping the bus is too) and not much in the way of common times for things to happen to people, the exact time is a useful bit of information to have. Things run smoothly when everyone knows what time it is... hence the idea of the widely visible clock, on a clock tower or in the window. Bars can entice people in for last call or happy hour, theatres can give viewers an idea of what is playing right then, government offices can help service-getters avoid turning up outside of opening hours or inside of lunch. Every business can get people to look in the display window if their clock is easier to see than the squint-inducing display of the cell phone or the watch under the sleeve of the arm holding the briefcase.

Yet, aside from the occasional storefront (less than before, now that the cigarette-ad clocks in d´panneur windows are disappearing) and better payphones (I imagine those awful spawn of privatization, the pay-for-everything-phones [pay-411, a timer on local calls, what's next?] will be charging for the time soon), the time has almost completely disappeared from the streets. I have wandered for blocks and blocks looking for the time, stubbornly refusing to ask anyone because I should be able to find it displayed somewhere in a city where it matters. If I am wearing a watch, I could be off by half an hour and not know it, as checking it would require a reference time which I cannot find.

My phone and computer both pull down the time from some far-off electronic source. Semi-miraculously, they agree. If they have access to the outside world, they have the time. If, watchless, I glance around, even scan the surroundings for a couple of blocks down Ste. Catherine, I have only the sun, the traffic and asking strangers to go on. I'm stuck hustling along and hoping I’m on time… or accepting I'll be there when I get there.

Once used to my inexact state, allowing a little extra travel time between clocks or people with watches, this is actually kind of nice. Every hop’s arrival, of unknown earliness, is an opportunity to sit and watch people go by, to read or to think. Actually, watch-bearing types can get the same effect by agreeing to meet a non-watch-bearer (or someone for whom a watch makes no difference). It’s rather pleasant, really.