Thursday, March 28, 2013

Time for Spring Break!

Time for Spring Break!

Like so many other students, I chose to flee the cold late-winter days in the northeast in order to find some warmth and some sun in the Bahamas.  Unlike so many others on the plane with me though, I was there for a job interview -- not just a vacation!  Mixing business and pleasure certainly is a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to all.

Leaving Newark International just after dawn meant arriving at the airport at times of day best reserved for the imagination and though Sunday mornings at 3am seem like a great time to travel around the empty streets of Manhattan, as it turns out that's a time too early even for many of the public transportation options to function.  Arriving in Penn Station before the gates were open and at the Newark International train stop before they had the AirTran running meant standing around with other eager and anxious travelers and constantly checking our watches (read: phones!) to see if we were "on time."  Over the course of my trip I experienced at least four separately identifiable paces of ɶcological time and decided to take on the role of observer in order to try and decipher the patterns of each.

Sunday, Pre-Dawn, Manhattan, Vacationer Time:

Empty subway stations and trains, long waits between one train and the next, unoccupied station offices, an eerie quiet throughout until the subway cars whistle by.  Without express options the train doors open at each and every stop along the route and because of nighttime and weekend work hours for the mole-people construction crews, the pace is slow and steady.  There are four other people in the center car with me with a similar smattering throughout the 10-car behemoth rolling down the tracks.  One is asleep, two and three -- an apparent couple -- seem to be returning from a night out and totally engrossed in themselves, and four -- seemingly another traveler given the size of his suitcase -- makes eye contact with me and smiles knowingly at my bags, thinking the same thing I am "it will be nice to get away for a few days."  Moving down the tracks from station to station and having the doors open onto empty platforms along the way my mind begins to wander and I think about how different this trip on the #1 is different than any other time of day or week.  I glance at my phone to check the time and recalculate to make sure I will make it to Newark International early enough that I won't have to rush.  Music plays in my headphones and I look around the other faces sharing this quiet moment with me.  When we get to my stop -- 34th St / Penn Station -- I load up my bags and head to my train, my fellow traveler in tow.  At this point we are comrades and though we haven't spoken a word to one another, people around us may see us as friends.

Finding the gates to the trains locked because it is too early is a novel experience in New York.  Rarely, in the "city that never sleeps" is the time on the clock or the time by the sun seen as a reason to disrupt the normal flow.  Here though, we join the throng of other travelers who have taken up position before the gates and slowly pace in front of the security officers, silently willing them to let us in just a minute or two early.  The buzz of this waiting area brings us all back to our "New York Minute" mindsets and people jockey to be first in line and a step ahead of those around them.  The more people you are surrounded by, apparently, the more you want to be first in line.  It is certainly true that there are those who naturally buck this trend but for the masses, the mass mentality takes over and even though the train will not leave any sooner if I am on it first I must admit to having a noticeable desire to get through gates closed off to me by the clock.  If a door is locked to access then I am content but if it is locked only intermittently then I find myself wanting to get through it.  Having timed this trip in such a way that hours matter but seconds don't there is no reason for me to care that I get on the train first ... but I care nonetheless!

We are on the train and soon at the airport stop.  The AirTran, which normally runs every 4 minutes, is not open yet and we need to wait for a bus.  Again, because the normal pace we are all used to is not available we are antsy -- it is not because we need those seconds and minutes but rather because they would be available in an hour and so we want them now.  As the morning begins to color the surrounding sky and the number of people I am surrounded by grows, the pace of life and propensity for people to check their watches and phones to see minutes ticking by grows.

Airport Time:

Newark International with a sunrise over Manhattan

Whether at Newark International before dawn on a Sunday, Nassau Airport at noon during Spring Break week, or Rock Sound Airport at any time, "airport time" seems to be a thing consistent to most travelers in most airports.  Like a casino the job of the airport is to separate travelers from the outside world with high security, formulaic procedures to get from point A to point B, and people everywhere wearing costumes to designate their level of authority of assistance-potential.  Unlike casinos though, airports have clocks EVERYWHERE!!!  Time is counted and displayed on almost any surface large enough to show the dials or digits.  It may ebb and flow in a way that would make a scientist go into apoplexy -- with delays and early arrivals -- but it is apparent to everyone that they should be somewhere at somewhen.  Like a good traveler, I arrived at the airport for my international flight about two and one-half hours prior to the scheduled departure.  And like a good traveler I got annoyed at those who had not given themselves enough lead time and were ushered to the front of every line because they were "late."  Turning to my fellow travelers as we got passed by time and again, I say "it sort of makes you wonder why you should be on time!"  Scattered grumbles and chuckles are evidence of the pre-travel annoyance that we all share ... we want to be on vacation already but we keep getting reminded that we are on clock time for a while longer.

Nassau Airport at rush hour!

Lines are long but move quickly, an efficient beast slowly yawning to life as a new day of departures and arrivals greets the small city that is Newark International.  Beyond the sterility of the ticket counter and the security line (perhaps "sterile" is the wrong word given everyone walking around with no shoes!) the promise of stores and food stalls and endless opportunities to spend more money await.  The hustle and bustle of those who rush to their gate and the impatient foot-tapping of those who want their row number to be called.  Whether I was going or coming this was the same feeling at every airport.  Surprising though was the fact that there was no difference between Newark International with three terminals and thousands of people, and Rock Sound Airport with only about twenty people and one plane.  Regardless of where you are, when people are at an airport they are focused on the clock and they are impatient because of the feeling of "wasting time."

Island Time:

A meditative bench overlooking the ocean

Arriving at Rock Sound Airport I am immediately inundated by island time.  The opposite of hustle and bustle, I gather my bags and step outside to see folks milling about and awaiting rides that had been scheduled but had not yet arrived.  Myself, I was expecting a pickup from the school at which I was to interview and expected them to be there when my plane landed (especially considering that the plane landed about 30 minutes later than scheduled).  Without a contact number or way of traveling the sixty kilometers to my final destination, there was little I could do but wait.  Striking up conversation with the baggage handlers who found themselves on break between flights and sharing the dried mangoes I had brought with me from New York, I found myself relaxing into the space and soon took off my bags and relaxed.  The stress of travel and the impending interview oozed out of my body and I felt myself grow calm and serene -- more than that though, I could see the same feeling in those around me everywhere I looked.  It didn't matter if they were transient vacationers or locals, everyone I saw was calm and relaxed and moving slower here in Eleuthera.  I did not even see a watch on anyone's wrist (though to say that I never saw a person check their phone would be stretching the truth a bit).

Casting for dinner on the beach
Sunrise over Eleuthera Island
My ride arrived two hours later and rather than being annoyed by the delay, I was overjoyed at the time I had had to make some new friends and relax into this new place.  Like my times in Bulgaria, Bhutan, Australia, or South Africa, the prevailing feeling seemed to be that schedules and plans were more akin to guidelines and were never considered hard and fast.  This was particularly interesting to see in operation at the school I was visiting because at school schedules matter.  Though that was true (there was a time to be eating, a time for class, a time to swim with sharks and dolphins and sea turtles, etc.), it was also true that things blended together much more freely than they do here in Manhattan and that when someone tells you to meet at 1:15 they mean "sometime before 2" rather than "1:14."  Fewer people seems to mean less strict adherence to clock time and more general acceptance of what the world is telling you.  Perhaps, also, the heat and propensity to be outside makes it easier to schedule your day by the sun and the stars than by clocks hanging on walls -- which can only be seen while inside?

Thursday, rush-hour, Manhattan, Post-Vacation Time:

Transit Police keep order in a busy Penn Station
On the way home I spend time transitioning away from "Island Time" and through "Airport Time," hoping to hit my stride once I get back to Manhattan and find myself on the final leg home.  I have planned the trip poorly though and I get to Penn Station just as every other person on the planet arrives there (seemingly!) and the shock to my system is palpable.  Leaving Newark International to head towards the city was fine and normal because I was on "Airport Time" and had been for the entire travel day -- no disruption there.  When I stepped off the AirTran though and saw the train to Manhattan just pulling out of the station as I approached, I silently cursed myself for not having rushed just a few seconds earlier and "made the train."  A fellow traveler behind me actually cursed out loud at seeing it pull away and rushed down the length of the platform hoping he could either catch-up or, perhaps, convince the conductor to stop just for him.  I checked my phone to see the time, paced up and down the platform, and stubbornly refused to change out of my beach sandals even though the temperature was almost fifty degrees colder than it had been mere hours ago.  I wanted to remember the island experience and keeping those sandals on helped me get back to "Island Time" just a little bit and take a deep breath.

Huge crowds jockey for space and check the departure boards

Walking off the train in Penn Station though, it was impossible for me to maintain any semblance of "Island Time" as I would have never made it from the platform to the subway.  With what seemed like millions of people in the same small room all going opposite directions I had to put my head down and just walk.  Ignore the fact that I'm bumping into people and heading the wrong direction, I just need to look like I'm not a tourist.  Sure I got lost and walked the entirety of the station more times than I needed to, what mattered was that I was moving and moving with intentionality!  By the time I got to the subway I was fully back into my "Commuter Time" mode and avoided eye contact with fellow travelers.  Looking around everyone is staring straight ahead, standing and packed tight into the cattle-car that is the rush hour subway, plugged into private electronic entertainment, and resigned to the pace and comfort of their commute.  My bags were huge and awkward in the space but rather than apologizing I just had to close off and shut down like everyone else.

One more, Post-Vacationer Time:

I arrived back in my apartment exhausted from the trip (Newark International to Manhattan was much more trying than Eleuthera to Newark!) and literally fell on my bed with my backpack still on to wake up five hours later in the middle of the night.  I'm not sure if that counts as a sense of time or not but for those five hours I was separate from any time at all and though the lines in my face and sore back evidenced the passage of some clock time, I was certainly not aware of it!

Transitions between various ɶcological times are tough, especially when couched in the language of "vacation" or "commute" and though we often find ourselves moving at the pace of those around us -- even when we want to be moving faster or slower! -- I think my travels have shown me it is the transitions between that are uncomfortable more than the different time senses themselves.

- James Eberhart

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New York Travel Time

New York City is most interesting on an ordinary day.  Although one could argue that in a city of 8 million people there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Aside from that most would agree on the definition of an ordinary day as scheduled habitual routine in an absence of special events. What is interesting about an ordinary day is the way the average resident of New York City perceives time, and if there are different temporalities within the ordinary day.  Does this person experience time particular to their environment, and does the shape of that environment change the way they perceive time? Do residents of New York experience temporality at a faster rate, as the saying describes, does a “New York Minute” mean that NY residents actually perceive time faster relative to others? Do we internalize ecological time reckoning (as Gell outlines from Evans-Pritchard's terms in Chapter 2 of The Anthropology of Time) (1992), or do we have our own individual temporal perceptions?

In an ordinary day, the New Yorker invariably travels somewhere, whether it’s walking across Manhattan, taking the subway from one borough to another, riding the crosstown bus, riding a bicycle to Prospect Park, or hailing a cab in the East Village. New Yorkers are bound up in an identity of constantly moving from place to place and getting there fast. City dwellers are considered fast walkers who can point out the tourists by their slow gait.  Bicyclists are considered brave souls for competing with the rush of city traffic. The subway lines and yellow cabs are as indexical of New York as the Statue of Liberty.  In a given ordinary day these transport technologies can contribute or detract from the success of an outing. It’s possible that our notions of time are influenced by our practices and forms of engagement with people and things in the world.

Traveling from place to place becomes a kind of art form, in which a person navigates while juggling their coffee, metrocard, smart phone, gym bag, book bag, grocery bag, or parcel while dodging people running behind them on the stairs or preventing them from getting off at the subway stop. People moving with, against, and through one another are each motivated by different agendas.  This constant activity animates the city with 8 million people moving in every possible direction, contained in an area of 300 square miles. Notions of time become fragmented by a sea of individual motivations of getting somewhere, which are continually called to order by the universal temporality and the organized modes of travel.

It’s as if we are grappling with a temporality that is grounded in our experience with the world but continually interrupted by the preoccupations within each of our minds, constantly streaming with information, making decisions, losing focus, coming into focus, and returning from absorption to reconcile with collective representations of time. Does our western gaze prevent us from seeing the metaphysical splintering of temporalities that are heightened by the way people move through space time? Does the mind begin to anticipate upcoming events or relive memories during times like travel due to a lack of activity in the moment? And though we are speculating on these moments of the future or the past, are we only seeing them in our periphery so to speak?

The city can be like an obstacle course, one can freely move, but the places we move and the speeds we move at are constricted by the city plan, other people, tunnels, pathways, and structures.  Where the motion begins to feel like it is determined by a force more powerful than one’s individual will, and other times the force of movement acts against human determination, pushing one further from the desired place at the desired time. This force can be traced to our own resistance to time, the rush against time. To make it stop, slow down or speed up is something we perceive to be possible in particular moments.

Is time different when we travel?  It certainly feels different, but is our time changing shape or behavior within the liminal time of traveling between places? As Gell would argue, there is no difference between cyclical and linear time; time is not repeating, alternating, or reversing (Gell 1992), but I would say it becomes stressed, compressed, slowed, or quickened. A constricted environment like New York is radically different from nature. But substantive universal time operates the same in either location. New York transit seems to operate within a system that organizes, assembles and funnels people by common destination, while our individual perception of temporality could be dictated by our divergent interests. If we oscillating between two temporalities, it seems arbitrary to pick out one activity like traveling or ritual to circumscribe the other temporality.

The city grid form guides people and vehicles through points of convergence and then reroutes them along the grid to accommodate a constant flow of people. It seems that a tension does develop between ordered uniformity of socially imposed systems of time and the internal time of individuals.  Perhaps an effect of moving people who have a range of different internal temporalities through a uniform system results in successful enculturation of a pan-New York temporality.

In this system we are literally stacked in multi-storied buildings, and funneled through tunnels and gridded streets with building which cut us off from the sun and sky. The temporal order is bound up in the mechanical clock time that dictates public transportation. Our encounter with the natural temporal order of the day is significantly reduced by traveling underground and building up into the skyscape. This could be a fair representation of New York ecological time. Or perhaps people are transporting their minds elsewhere while their bodies travel along the municipal geometric design.  

What would make the temporal experience of New York City any different from any other major city of western modernity? Is it the impatience of residents who work against the universal time by speeding up? Are there multiple temporalities for individuals? Is travel time or mode of travel acting on the perception of time? We exist in physical isolation from the “natural” temporal order of the sun and stars, and we also invent ways to further isolate ourselves from each other by traveling with “devices” which draw us in to “doing” rather than contemplating. Is the New York cabbie using his car horn as an effective form of communication or is he aligning everyone to his temporality by honking? The car horn honks to grab our attention to the yellow cabs in the moment he decides that you are not moving at the proper pace. A soft bell dings to alert you to the opening of the subway door. Just like the Cathedral Clock, these are temporal snaps, abruptly aligning present company into the same moment.

by Lindsey Bishop

Gell, Alfred
 1992 The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Explorations in Anthropology. Oxford ; Providence: Berg.

Semonov,  Sergey. “Amateur Built Environment 1.”  Aerial Stitched Photo of Manhattan The Atlantic 9 Jan 2013

“Wole Parks stars as Manny in Columbia Pictures' Premium Rush (2012).” Wole Parks riding bicycle Ace Show Biz