I have been waiting--for the phone to ring, for the spin cycle to start, for the postman to come. I have been waiting for Amtrak to answer the phone. One of Amtrak's insta-reservation clerks will be with me in 15 minutes; in the meantime, I can listen--free on the 800 number Amtrak has conveniently provided me-- to music that ranges from the saccharine to the martial. (Whenever the Amtrak 800-music begins its martial phase, I expect an announcement that the despotic management of the nation's passenger rail system has at last been overthrown.) I have been waiting for my son's swimming practice to end, for my daughter's kindergarten class to begin, for water to boil, for the estuaries to ebb and rise. I have been waiting for a tide in the affairs of men. Worse, I have scattered the grains of my waiting over half a lifetime. Time management is amok with me; my life marches in a petty pace, from day to day, its columns in hideous disarray. And there you have it, what those in the know in Washington will have already guessed, my secret: I am not a very important person here.
In Washington, to wait is impotence, to manage one's time frivolously something like a cardinal sin. Were Dante to rewrite his "Divine Comedy" in accordance with this new Washington, Lucifer in the ninth circle would munch not only on the betrayers of Christ and Caesar but on that other great betrayer, the one who fiddles around--the one who thumbs his nose at the imperative of time.
This is the city of the 15-hour-a-day staffer, the all-night planning session, the 24-hour negotiating team. (Can even irrational people have anything left to say to one another after eight hours together in a room?) We endure here a patently absurd airport so that congressmen can save 20 minutes getting to their flights--one-third of an hour, 1.4 percent of a day--as if that saving, set against the broad landscape of time, can possibly matter. Increasingly, I'm convinced that Metro could rescue itself financially by offering reserved seating. Never mind that neither Mussolini nor Richard Daley could have made Metro's trains run on time; just imagine the satisfaction in picking up the phone and saying, "Miss Higgins, book me two seats on the 12:15 Red Line to Farragut North." We are talking about the dread specter of waiting on a Metro platform, of the badly managed transportation connection; we are talking about at least the illusion of saving time. And where time is concerned, illusion can be everything. This is the city where the highest goal is to have someone--a phalanx of someone--to do your waiting for you, where executive secretaries can actually find pride in whose boss waits on line two for whom.
I know people with whom one must book a lunch 10 weeks in advance, people whose days are so firmly packed with meetings and events that to drop a single other second of activity into one of those days would solidify it, as the single grain of salt solidified those super-saline solutions in high school chemistry experiments. Desperate to expand our pool of time, we have made the breakfast meeting ascendant here--breakfast, a meal meant for nothing more than the sports section and a plate of side-meat. Unable to decelerate, we measure the evening constitutional in miles logged, with pedometers, rather than in the birds one has heard, the stars one has witnessed overhead.
My father, a respectable man in a respectable job now many years retired, rose most work days at 8, was in the office toward 9, and back home again for lunch by 12:30; by 2 he would be back in the office again, and by 5:15 we could generally count on his being home. Today, in Washington, were I a teen-ager and he a working man still, bound to the same schedule, I would feel obliged to invent excuses for him. By the very measures of his day, he would be a failure.
We did not invent time here or even its very efficient use, but we have raised that use to a high art. And more and more I'm inclined to think that it is our caving in to this imperative of time that history will judge us the most harshly for. We see time as slipping away, for time will insist it be seen that way; and seeing it thus, we act, caging time in, setting it down in blocks on our desk calendars. We create a half-hour of it here, wheedle out 20 minutes of it there until, finally, we are standing on the Metro platform at Gallery Place, wondering if Miss Higgins really did book those two seats on the 12:15, while Harry Weese's wonderful vaulted ceiling looms unnoticed overhead. It is a nearly perfect formula for frenzy, which is almost always courted by foolishness, and explains far more of what happens here than is ever acknowledged.
How much better the example of Alexander Woollcott, who once concluded a two-sentence letter to Beatrice Kauffman: "I am simply exhausted from buttering so many griddle cakes and can write no more." Imagine a Washington chock-full of well-buttered griddle cakes, and men and women in a torpor. So much more of value could get done.