Growing Up Outside of Time

Before I came to New York, I had seen only one other city in the world: Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, my country. But I did not even see that until I was well into my teens, having been born and reared in a jungle village more than 400 miles from the capital (a long way from modern civilization in terms of time and distance).

Still, even before I had embarked on my trek on foot toward Monrovia, I had a good idea (a hunch, really) that there was someplace in the world where greater knowledge afforded man a better mastery over the forces of nature that perplexed me so much.

One reason I suspected this was my education: I had completed the seventh grade - the highest academic plateau of any school within walking distance of my village.

Moreover, an American missionary family that had a church and school in my grandmother's village had been flying an airplane in and out of that area. I had seen the airplane at an early age and was awed by its complexity and stupefying capabilities. But I soon accepted the flying machine as a reasonable achievement of a thinking species.

There was, however, another machine with which I had a much earlier encounter, but which had not impressed me much. It was the clock. I had been lured to school by the sound of the school bell, which had been prompted by the clock. It was no big deal. Chickens also told time - regularly - as if the rising sun wasn't hint enough that another day had dawned. Whenever I had to go anywhere on foot, my jungle instinct got me up and got me there soon enough. One activity led to another. There was no undertaking that could be ruined by the loss of a few "crucial" moments. Any exercise that was so time-sensitive was probably never attempted. In short, I had a feel for time, but no need for timing.

In my village school there were two teachers, and there was no formal scheduling of classes that I can remember. Everybody sort of knew when we had just about had it with one particular subject, and the teacher would move on to something else. The fact that we all (teacher included) got weary of a subject didn't necessarily mean we understood it. It was just another way of reckoning time.

In the sixth and seventh grades, however, I was in another school a long way from home, where I had a teacher who had a watch. He actually looked at it. And because he taught the first class each morning, he accused me on a number of occasions of coming to school late on the basis of what he saw on his watch.

I knew that all the actively crowing roosters in the village of Webbo could not help me prove that I had left for school in good time. I also suspected that arguing with a watch-equipped teacher was not a recommended academic exercise.

So I knew that I was bound for a more exacting time regimentation when, after being promoted to the eighth grade, I made the 400-mile trek to the capital city for the rest of my education. In high school, no debate about punctuality involved discussion of instinct or other intangibles. There was a clock mounted on a wall in each classroom, accusingly facing latecomers. For me, the trick was to get up in time, but in Monrovia, unlike my village, there were no crowing roosters within earshot of my home.

The idea of buying a watch did cross my mind at least once. But it was only an idea - and it was laughable; I could never afford one. Besides, it was one thing to be reprimanded by the school authorities for tardiness, and quite another to torment yourself with an instrument that ticked away time while you watched helplessly.

During high school, I had a part-time job as a night messenger for a government telegraph office. Still, time was not crucial. I got there on time most evenings; and if I didn't, nobody missed me terribly. But after high school I got a job with a British firm in which the British management staff had an obsession with time - minutes and, it seemed, seconds of it.

In 1971, I was on my way to the United States for college, and so quit my job. The grateful management, apparently pleased with my endurance of their time drill, gave me a watch as a present.

I arrived in New York City on Dec. 24 that year. For many bewildering days I was frazzled by the incomprehensible pace of people and things in New York; and then one morning I found myself flirting with an electric typewriter in the Hospitality Center of the YMCA on 34th Street where I was staying. For a quarter, I could start the machine.

The thought of writing a letter to a friend back home seized me, but I had no idea what to write about.

I tested the machine and found the keys responding too quickly to my touch. I was afraid I couldn't tame them. If some thoughts came to me then, I might try the machine again, but if I still couldn't manage the keys I'd just write the letter by hand. So I looked out the window just ahead of me.

The view it afforded me was consumed by a portion of the opposite sidewalk and a section of a tall building.

It was an aggregate of perhaps eight to 10 stories, with no hint of how far skyward it went. When I leaned forward to check the far-left and far-right views of the window, all I could see of most of the other buildings was their roots and their teasing skyward potential. Their tops, and whether they vanished into the clouds, the window wouldn't let me see.

Partly out of frustration at not being able to discover a visual limit, I found an expression to some thought. I drew near the still humming machine and began to type slowly: "Dear Joe, You cannot stretch your imagination far enough to accommodate the vastness of modern advancement in New York City." Other thoughts lingered not too far behind. A solid beginning, I thought. So I sat back to think about how I could single out some aspects of the bustling city to which I could find easy expression.

Just when I thought I had, just as a smile of confidence played around my lips in anticipation of my next line, and just as I lowered my fingers over the home keys of the supersensitive typing machine, time happened.

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