If Your Safety Is Immediately Threatened

I measured the days in increments of how long it took to get information from outside of my brain to inside it. A minute wasn’t a minute. An hour was a minute. Time wasn’t a minute. Information was time. Reading took time, but reading wasn’t time. The old cliché “time is money” didn’t apply anymore. During a recession time can’t be money. Money isn’t even money anymore. An ad on the train said, “Knowledge is the global currency” and that really struck me. I was teaching a class at the local community college. “Knowledge is the global currency,” I wrote on the white board.

None of my students spoke, but that was not unusual. We never spoke. Our class, Fundamentals of Human Communication, took place entirely online in our virtual shell. Twice a week, my students shuffled into the classroom, pulled out their laptops and tablets and signed on. We sat in silence for an hour and thirty-five minutes. The only sound in the room was the clicking of keys and an occasional cough. Once in a while, there was a burst of startling laughter when Marcus, the class clown, typed something clever in our chat room. And more often, there were the deep sighs that wafted across the room after I posted an assignment.

In our chat room I posed the question to the class: knowledge, is it global currency? Why or why not, explain your answer. Some said yes and explained why. Some said, no and explained why. None of their answers were satisfying.

I had a think tank working three credit hours per week, but we came to no conclusions. Knowledge was and was not currency. Currency was and was not global. Global was and was not so last year. I did not have the smartest think tank, but I had the youngest. They were 18, born in 1994, only seven on September 11th. They were a generation raised on terror. They couldn’t remember anything else. It was convenient. None of the nonsense of the prosperous Clinton years clouded their judgment. Fear and paranoia were their norm. They were pleasantly suspicious and easily spooked. I found them ideal for focused study. They did everything I asked without question.

To test this theory, I once typed, “Take off your shoes” into our class chat room. Within minutes their shoes were off. Sneakers, sandals, heels, boots, flats—all off. They were used to removing their shoes. They were used to drills of all kinds, but these were not the children of the Cold War huddled under their desks waiting for bombs to fall from the sky. These kids barricaded themselves inside classrooms with the lights off. They knew if anything was going to happen to them, the threat was already in their midst.

Our discussion was bland. Most of our discussions were bland. Communication did not excite my students. They passed notes via email and texted under their desks during class. Either they thought I didn’t notice or they didn’t care. I didn’t care. While they typed comments into our chat room, I was working on my novel in an open Word document on my desktop. None of us wanted to be where we were, yet twice a week for an hour and thirty-five minutes we met. They were never absent. They were never late. At least I was being paid to do it. I wasn’t sure what they thought they were getting out of the endeavor, but knowledge was circulating like currency, it was just like the train said.

I got all my best ideas on the train. I had started riding it whenever I had free time. At first I just sat still and watched everything move around me, but then I realized how much I could get done from my seat. Things I would never do at home or in my office. Things that used to take me weeks or months to finish, I could do in an afternoon on the train. Grading, research, reading for pleasure, writing, crosswords—there was nothing I couldn’t get done on the train.

I worked on my novel during rush hour. The bustle of people, the way they packed into the cars arm to arm, hardly any space between them made my work feel more immediate, more relevant than it had ever felt in my office, or the classroom, or even at Starbucks.

It was on the train that I started thinking about time. Quantum physics really. Relativity. An uptight guy in a wrinkled suit said, “Shit, I’m late.” And that’s when it first hit me: time. It was everything. It was nothing.

But I didn’t really know what to do with it until the man died. He was sitting next to me on the aisle reading the newspaper—such an antiquated container for information; I should have known he wouldn’t make it. I was grading quizzes in the window seat. The man’s hand shot out, away from his body and landed on my thigh. I was startled but didn’t initially react. When you travel in the city, you learn not to mind the little violations of your body. I waited for the mumbled apology. I waited for the hand to move, but it did not.

I looked at the man for the first time. He looked asleep, but he also didn’t. I lifted the hand from my leg and placed it in his lap. It dropped. We rode three more stops before I managed to tap the lady in front of me on the shoulder, and say, “I think this man is dead.” After I delivered that information, other people took over. The information expanded, grew in size and scope. Someone called the conductor. Someone called 911. Someone tried to perform CPR. The paramedics found us at the station. Time slowed down as the information sped up. The train slowed down. Everyone was late that day.

Anyhow, that was when I realized that time wasn’t the issue at all. All anybody wanted to know was what happened. It wasn’t time we were after. It was information. Time was just what it took to get there. Time was how information expressed itself.

Later, the paper published an obituary. I read it online. The man’s name, his place of birth, a list of family members who survived him. His whole life distilled into a few paragraphs, one of which focused on the circumstances of his death. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more.

I got lost in a loop looking for more about the man online. I followed links, clicked and clacked away for hours following the white rabbit. There were so many other people on the planet with his name, and each of them had their own information trail. Some of them had obituaries like his, some dead-ended, and some seemed to infinitely expand. The more I looked the more information there was to find. I wanted it all. I needed to know everything.

An ad on the bus asked, “Are you depressed?” I didn’t think so, but I had all of the symptoms listed, which made me wonder. I posed the question to my class: Are you depressed? They were. We all were. We needed to know more about depression. We spent the class period searching for symptoms and cures.

After class, I started to walk home. I had been avoiding the trains. The weather was nice for once. My students’ symptoms repeated in a loop: fatigue, apathy, restlessness, loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, difficulty making decisions, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering details, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, feelings of helplessness, feelings. The season was turning again. It had just been summer and then it was fall and winter barely even registered with me except as a general unpleasantness. Now spring. And then it would all start over again. Around me the traffic rushed and then halted. I beat a car to the corner walking and crossed the street as it waited for the light to change. I was wasting time. The city was an enormous labyrinth, twisting, turning, dead-ending every minute.

I passed a bank. On the outside wall, there was a mural. It stopped me. Advertisers had been using street art to sell products to the aspiring hip class for years, but I couldn’t tell what this was an ad for. I couldn’t even read it.

Big blocky bold letters spelled a word. It seemed to be exploding from the dull brick building. The colors had stopped me: yellow, blue, red. Real colors. Not periwinkle, no vermilion, cadmium, cyan, cerise—just yellow, red, blue. They filled the block with their presence, put the insipid city to shame. But what did it say? IBITZE, LIBER, YILLZEE, YOLANDA.

I stood there staring, trying to make out its meaning.

I would ask my students about it the next time we met.  

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