Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is Your Time My Time? Deconstructing "Social" Time (1) [Updated]

My stay in Port St. Lucie forced me to consider the issue of time. In New York City it's easy to take time for granted. New York City is after all "the city that never sleeps"; it's inhabitants and workers are constantly on the go. As a result, time is managed and constructed so that it is convenient: for example, many businesses offer extended hours to accommodate late shift workers, party-goers, and just general late nighters. (One of the things I missed most about the City while I situated in North Carolina was the ability to get a roast beef and salami sandwich at 3 am.) Extended hours is a practice that makes for good business—if you have your doubts, just check out the lines that form for street food vendors when the bars start to empty in the wee hours of the morning. The result, I think, is that time is stretched so that we have more hours in which to do things. So even though we may have less hours of sunlight, we're not necessarily bound by a circadian rhythm that demands we sleep soon after nightfall or wake at the crack of dawn. We've by-passed the natural clock. We've adjusted so that dinner or breakfast (depending on when your day starts) at 9 or 10 pm is not unusual; a late lunch means eating at 4; and pharmacies and some supermarkets are open 24 hours—just in case you decide you need toothpaste or an orange at 4:30 am.

I bet you can see where this is going. In Port St. Lucie, and I suspect in many other places around the country as well, this kind of temporal freedom does not exist—at least not in the same that it does in New York City. Sure, there may be a 24/7 Walmart, but it may likely be the only one in the county. Since this was a temporary visit, I was prepared to give up my late night sandwiches and pharmacy runs, but I still had trouble getting my meal clock synced with local practices. Many food establishments close at 10 pm and stop seating by 9:30 or so, and they only have to cater to a handful of stragglers at these times. The actual dinner rush begins at 3 pm or so and goes until about 6 or 7 pm. Things are only getting started in New York City at this time—6 pm is considered an early dinner. One evening, my husband and I set out to have a nice Thai dinner at 8:30. We were told by the hostess that the kitchen was about to close and could not be seated. We were actually rather disoriented by the experience. While we tried to shift our meal time to earlier in the evening, it felt a little unnatural, and we took to asking subsequent hosts and hostesses whether it was too late before settling in for a meal. Trying to accommodate this particular time scale left me feeling somewhat rushed and less in control of my day. It seems that what I conceive of as "social" time—i.e., the time used to satisfy necessary and personal needs—is compressed in Port St. Lucie (and other places) and seems to be more of a commodity when compared to New York City.

Time is truly a cultural construct. But have we considered what that construction reflects regarding our society? The freedom awarded by "social" time in New York is carefully manufactured—but is it any less so than the "social" time in Florida, which seems more natural because it mimics a biological wavelength?

Stay tuned for more on this discussion.

Updated 3/24 to correct for late night grammatical errors. :)

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