Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011


by Dr. Karen B. Golightly

I was talking with a friend the other day, and she said to me, “You know the whole being late thing? What’s the deal with that?”
I was so relieved. Someone finally understood me. “I know, right? What is the big deal? I mean, so you’re 10-15 minutes late. Is that so bad? I don’t know why everybody makes such a freaking big deal out of it. Who cares about being on time?”

“I do,” she said. “What I meant was, why are you perpetually late? Is it some kind of control issue for you? Is it a matter of time management? Is it a statement you’re trying to make? My sister’s always late too. Always. I’m trying to get some sort of handle on why it is some people are late all the time. It’s so frustrating.”

I laughed, realizing my error. But I wondered, Why do people make such a big deal out of things when you’re late? I admit it, I’m a perpetually later, latist, late-person. I would claim that I was late upon birth, but I’d be lying. And I’m not a liar. My pragmatic father had me induced early so that I would arrive before the end of the tax year. My birthday is December 30th. He was successful in his efforts. Perhaps that’s the reason that I’ve been making up for it for the rest of my life.

I can remember being scolded for being late as a child, for bed, for carpool, for school, for basketball practice. I was late for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner; and I love to eat. I was late turning in my homework: does it really make a difference it if comes in at the beginning or the end of class? I walked in after the bell rang, much to the dismay of my teachers, and later, professors. I’ve been late for countless lectures, football games, basketball games (and I was playing), dates, parties, and movies (trailers are the 15 minute buffer window, you know).

After college, I flew to Australia to backpack around the country. I took off my watch before I got on the airplane, thinking, Who needs a watch in Australia? I didn’t I was never late there. And I worked, caught buses and trains, and even boats to my job at the first cocktail bar in Australia. I pulled shifts that included a couple of meals, though I was never sure of the hours I put in. I didn’t care so much, but reminded the manager that I had come there to get a tan, so I didn’t care to work all day shifts. She nodded, obliged. I was a hard worker, she knew.

After five months, I left Australia, and was standing in the line at the airport. Late, of course, I ended up missing my flight and panicking as my boyfriend was supposed to pick me up from the airport in Memphis 24 hours later. Oh man, I thought, looking around for the nearest phone booth. I asked the guy next to me if he’d save my place in line while I ran over to make a quick call.

“Use my phone,” he said, pulling a 1989 corded mobile phone out of a suitcase. It was still connected to the suitcase by a curly phone cord.
“Oh wow, how weird. I’ve never seen those before. How cool! But it’s international. Won’t that cost you a fortune?”
“Just talk fast. It’s no big deal, love.”
I caught my boyfriend dead asleep. It was two am in Memphis. I was jumping up and down with excitement over the phone. “You will NOT believe what I’m doing right now.”
“Uh, what honey? It’s kind of late, you know.”
“Yeah well, you know me. I’m talking on a phone in the middle of the airport. It’s not a pay phone. It came out of this guy’s suitcase. It’s still connected. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen!”
“Okay, so is that what you called to tell me?”
“No, oh yeah. I’m going to be late. I’ve missed my plane, so I have to hang out for a few more hours to catch the next one. I was running late getting to the airport. I’m not sure what time this one will get in.”
“You? Late? I don’t believe it. Just call me when you land in Memphis.”

Back in the States, I kept falling asleep, in movies, on friends’ couches, in the middle of parties, once on a roof. That made me later and later. I would arrive at my job as a tour guide at Sun Studio, saying a phrase that had long become part of my litany: “Sorry I’m late. Yeah, I know. It won’t happen again. What can I do to help?” If you roll it all into one, it ends on a better note than it started on. They would push me into the tour that the sound engineer had already started, saying, “Take over for him. He’s supposed to be running the booth right now.” So, halfway through the tour, we would exchange the mike like it was a Christmas gift, and I’d chime in with: “Welcome to Sun Studio. And in the words of the late, great Elvis Presley, I’m sorry I’m late tonight, baby.” They fell for it every time.

I’ve been late for weddings (even ones that I was in), for my grandmother’s funeral (she would have died if she’d been alive to know that), for my youngest son’s birth (I was trying to post some last minute work online, take a shower, and eat some lunch before leaving, plus there was laundry and mopping, and all kinds of housework I was trying to finish, not to mention pack my bag for the hospital). After two marriages and three kids, I naturally assumed people would cut me some slack for always being late, because really, what’s the big deal?

My boyfriend calls it Karen-thirty, as in, “We’ll meet you guys at the restaurant at Karen-thirty.” He apologizes to me because he’s forever punctual in everything he does. “Left over from being in the Navy,” he says. Then he looks at me and squints, “You’ve never been in the Navy, have you?”

He makes fun of my clocks in my house and my car. All are set to different times in the future, in hopes of making me on time, or even slightly less late, which I would happily settle for. It never seems to work. By the time I wrangle all of our kids up and get everybody buckled into their car seats with the DS’s, books, blankets, and whatever else they need, we are already late to wherever we were going. I try to drive fast to make up for the late start. But then there’s that whole sitting in traffic issue of lateness that creeps up when you least expect it.

I’ve been late for court, which would have been bad, except that the judge was late too. I’ve been late for job interviews, for training sessions, for meetings, for classes. I’m always late for doctor and dentist appointments, intentionally so, or I have to sit there even longer reading People Magazine from three months ago.

The strange thing is that every now and again, I’m actually early. I’ll walk into a meeting and no one is there yet. Or only one other early bird has arrived on the scene. And I nearly panic. My palms sweat, my heart skips a beat. What do you do with yourself when you’re early? Do you talk to the people who are there? Do you check your calendar, notes, cell phone? What you do, is you wait.

Early is the flip side of late. And when you’re early, you wait. And you wait, and wait, and wait. Believe me, I’ve spent my fair share of time waiting. I’ve waited on tables, on babies, on children, on my parents, on men who never came back. Once I waited for three days to catch a bus out of Glastonbury, England. It was one of those, you-can-come-in,-but-you’ll-have-a-hell-of-a-time-getting-out kinds of towns. I’ve waited for tides to come in, for buses, cabs, carpool moms, for new moons, and draw bridges. I’ve waited in traffic jams, in lines at the bank, at the movies, for the bathroom, for my period to start. I’ve waited on teacher conferences, and divorce papers, and proposals. Once I stayed on hold for the Tennessee Department of Child Support for 39 minutes before they let me leave a message for a woman who I didn’t end up needing to talk to. I waited six years for Dave Matthews to play in Memphis, and then I was out of town and missed it. I’ve waited countless times at drive thru windows because they gave me a girl toy instead of a boy toy in my son’s Happy Meal. I’ve waited for my kids to roll over, to crawl, to walk, to talk. I’ve waited while they’ve brushed their teeth, picked out their favorite books, tried on new dresses, new shoes, new pants, a new way of talking that involved a British accent or mimicking cartoon characters. I’ve waited for the other shoe to fall, and figured out that sometimes it just doesn’t. I’ve waited for the sun to set so I could see how beautiful one more day was spent being late. And I realized that even if I got there too late to see the sun set, if I missed the entire thing, then there’d be another one, same place, the next day. And hey, check out the stars while you’re out there standing, in the dark, at the edge of the world. They’re pretty remarkable if you stand still long enough to see them.

Read Dr. Karen B. Golightly’s bio »