OILCH: A Mini-Mock Epic in Prose
by Vicki Sapp


I can conceive of no greater waste of time than to count the hours. What good comes of it?
--Francois Rabelais, Gargantua

What actually would be next: a masked holdup, a smash, floods, a burst tyre, an electric storm with falling trees and meteorites, a diversion, a low-level attack by Communist aircraft, sheep, the driver stung by a hornet?
--Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

"Mademoiselle, vous etes en retard."

What did he say? Did my teacher just call me a retard?

It's the first week of French I. So I'm a few minutes late to class. I had a cigarette to finish out in the Durham High smoking corral! Don't call me names, Monsieur--no "retard" for me, no "boozy old Frog" for you!

I cannot deny, however, that I am and have always been late everywhere I go. While others wage life's political, philosophical and theological battles--I, under the lash of clock hands, exhaust myself, daily, just trying to get from one place to another "on time." Very rarely do I succeed.

Laypersons and experts have attributed my "retardation" to everything from selfishness (I don't care about others' needs) to overextension (I care too much about others' needs). An ADHD specialist provided a clinical diagnosis, whereas I had believed that everyone trying to leave the house has to stop fourteen times in order to dispatch all those little last-minute pop-up tasks such as painting the bathroom. Perhaps I am afflicted with dyscalculia, so that when someone says, "be there at 1:30" I hear "3:01." I have even tried to blame my lateness on my love history. I spent twenty years with three different physicists. Space and time are a physicist's favorite playthings. Living with physicists has distorted my sense of getting around space in a timely manner. Albert Einstein's relativity theory should take some of the pressure off; but folks waiting for me tend to reject the new physics and cling dully and impatiently to Newton's predictable mechanics.

All my life I have played a losing game of Beat the Clock. In defeat if not despair, I have finally turned to a phenomenological investigation, which I will describe here. For the sake of order (I'm late, not sloppy) I have borrowed a rubric from another hopeless quest, the one to rationalize mortality. In the time allowed me, I will define my four stages of lateness. So unstrap your watch, strap on your seatbelt and accompany me on my daily run through the Escherian maze between home and my job across town at Tarrant County College.

It's 9:15 a.m. and I am slouched in my favorite living room chair, fresh cup of coffee in hand and I Love Lucy on the tube. Sure, I am due in class at 9:35--but after watching this episode a hundred times, I still need to remind myself just how it ends (Ethel shrugs "Well . . .," Lucy wails, Lucy and Ricky share a hot makeup kiss).

No matter: this is the DENIAL stage one. I can make it on time, even though it's a twenty (OK, -five) minute drive and I have twenty minutes before class starts. No problem, I have read The Secret, I control the universe and especially "my movie"; I'm the one who calls out "Cut!" With one brain impulse I could turn this commute into a pinball speeding through clear channels to "Free Game" points; a silver light bullet through hyperspace; I could tesser if I wanted to! Smug in my powers, I even stop in the kitchen and refill my coffee cup and zap it, twenty whole seconds, in the microwave. Run back upstairs and check to see if I turned the iron off? No problem! Change the cat litter box? There's plenty of time!

My car clock apparently is five minutes faster than my kitchen clock, which I recall deliberately setting back--or was it ahead?--for false comfort years ago. Now I have twelve minutes for the twenty-five minute drive. No sweat, as long as I blow through all obstacles. The first would be Mrs. Horscharch, my ninety-pound, ninety-year-old neighbor walking her hundred-pound Dachshund in the town home parking lot just behind me. Before I see her I slam the transmission in reverse and skid out of the carport. Fortunately she's still spry enough to jump out of the way and strong enough to pull Fritz along with her. First obstacle met and mastered. And I'm already set for stage two, ANGER.

Now it's a quick navigation through a parking lot turned parcourse, playground, camp ground full of strolling retirees, children kicking soccer balls and a neighbor attempting to maneuver an eighty-foot RV into a twenty-foot space. Or, maybe today is a good day and clear, down to the exit. But wait--the Comcast truck! There again today, partially plugging the lot debouchement and thus adding at least fifteen seconds to my trip. But why NOT again today--since it's been there for the past six years, each morning, ever since I moved in? Is it trying to serve a super-customer who has chronic problems getting his million galactic channels? Or is the company secretly drilling for oil here? Look--I can't sit around watching cable TV all day (at least, not after my morning Lucy fix); I have a JOB, dammit! Get out of my way for once, so I can get to work on time!

I swerve around the truck, nearly shaving off my passenger side door, and exit the parking lot. I leap the blessedly unpopulated half-block down to Abram Street, where I will turn right and zoom my way to New York Street. Abram and New York form two legs of my daily commute's isosceles triangle, so I tend to idealize their flatland simplicity.

I am therefore offended when I look to the left on Abram and see actual traffic thronging both lanes. How dare you all? Who the hell goes to work at nine thirty-two in the morning (other than I, of course) or has anywhere else to go at that obscure half-hour? I look to the right, eastward; I can almost see my first major goal, the digital sign 3.4 miles away at the intersection of Abram and New York. It tells time always at least five minutes earlier than my car time, whose false relationship with my house time I have long since negotiated and with my workplace clock time refuse to imagine.

But first I must ride through the perennial festival of black, red, green and yellow lights thickly stringing my intended trajectory with potential stops or at least quandaries (as I'm not a native Texan, the "stop-or-go?" on red still gives me pause). The traffic--a rolling barricade of speeding ticket paranoiacs--finally thins enough to let me slip out onto Abram St. and achieve the first stoplight at Davis Drive as well as the next stage, BARGAINING.

If I make this light, I can make every one from here to New York. This step relies entirely on the solution to a mathematical problem: at what speed does a Saturn Ion have to approach a green light and pass under it at what precise nano-moment, leaving what interval of time between making the light or potentially failing it or "squeezing the lemon" in order to free all of the dozen subsequent lights between Davis and New York from their compulsion to be red for how many minutes, thus forcing the Saturn driver's blood pressure up how many points to within how many seconds of premature death by lethal apoplexy?

I must face this math each and every morning; a hell of probability and calculation, a bet that no Vegas card shark could hedge. It's my livelihood at stake--so I frequently opt instead for brute force, flex my ankle and stomp the gas.

Temporarily color-blind, I clear this Davis light--ka-ching! Now, look ahead two blocks, just beyond that slight rise in the road that nearly obscures the all-powerful Cooper intersection. What color? Ahhh-- red! Even if I slow down to a mere 55 mph, I can time it perfectly and glide through fresh green seconds later like a snake through wet grass.

One-half block to go, and it's just turned green. Oh yeah! One-quarter block to go--what's this? Yellow? No! It can't be! It wasn't green for 3 picoseconds, for Mercury's sake! Who's operating this thing, anyway? I'm slipping back into ANGER--I'm seeing red!

OK, back to bargaining. Stop the rage and the car. I had once sat at this intersection and watched an IHOP being converted to a beauty spa, while the twelve stoplights there held their demon stare and the traffic frozen in converging lanes formed a Texas-sized star. Take a swig of coffee. Take advantage of the situation. Grope in purse for makeup tubes, pots, and wands to touch up the look. Pull out lipstick, red of course; pull down mirror, pout, aim.

Then, of course, the light changes. Hands seize the wheel, fumbling the lipstick that now touches up my white blouse. Never mind what's on me--I'm all over GO!

It's nine thirty-four, and I'm still in the game. Only ten miles left! The radio plays a forgotten song: "Born to Run," or "Time Is on My Side," anything but "Radar Love." Even though I slow down in a school zone allowing two tardy kids to live and indulge their compulsion to cross the street and get to school, I am content. The Cooper intersection has been won.

Here I come to the Sign: a sign from heaven, a sign that I'm Cooper-free, a sign marking my halfway point. The sign is on the left side of Abram's commercial strip, in front of a small auto service shop, and reads:

       OILCH   ANGE


The first time I saw it, and on the several hundred subsequent sightings, I felt irritation that the shopkeepers would not attempt to fix their prominent sign by reattaching fallen letters, adjusting spacing and so forth. Finally, however, I came to understand the truth of the Sign: since "ange" means "angel" in French, my adopted second tongue; and "align me" means "keep me straight and moving fast in the right direction," I accepted "Oilch" as the guardian angel of my journey. So, each morning now as I fly by, like a ballerina spotting or a yogi mantra-ing--I look at the Sign and call out the name of my angel, my St. Christopher of commutes: "OILCH." And each morning, Oilch aligns me true and speeds me on. If they ever fix the sign, I'll never make it to work again.

Fortunately the last Abram-New York mile seems clear. This is no surprise, as the demographics have changed and taquerias and panaderias line the street on either side. The Mexicans, my students tell me, do not fret about time. Why was I born into this obsessive-compulsive Teuton ethnicity? Other sympathetic classmates have called my late lifestyle "Livin' on C.P. time." "You know if Black people invite you to their house for dinner at seven, and you show up then--they're still standing in line at the Kroger's." That's me, livin' on carefree people time. Most other nationalities I run with have a relaxed attitude about time. Invite my Turkish pal to dinner at 6 p.m., and he shows up either at 11 a.m. with a cooler of fish and a cooler of beer--or he shows up at 11 p.m., expecting a fresh-cooked meal. No problem--I like his style! Where's my apron and olive oil? Even the Turkish for "What time is it?" is quite ugly, so they try to avoid asking, Saat kac? It sounds like a crow clearing its throat.

I round the Abram-New York bend. There the digital sign kindly lies: 9:33. Two minutes for nine miles--my Ion will ionize them!

Then Cheech and Chong inch out onto New York from a side street. I see the two adolescent male heads in the front seat of a pickup truck festooned by a "Support Our Troops" decal, a gun rack, and a Texas license plate--why, then, is it moving at the rate of about fifteen miles per hour? I imagine the conversation obviously taking place in the cab.

"Hey, man--why you drivin' so slow?"

"Hey, man--am I drivin'?"

A smoke plume issues from the driver's side; I get a contact high from my position on their bumper.

This is the trench warfare leg of the trip, as New York St. here is literally a trench, two untended lanes scratched into the bumpy topography of east Arlington. But since experience has taught me that the slowest way to get anywhere in Texas is to take the Interstate, I'm figuring that this pocky alley on the poor side of town will get me fastest to my city's Southeast corner. And once Cheech finally pulls over to reload his bong, I'm rocketing with new hope towards the next major intersection after defying a few minor ones, one-waying a four-way stop, and nearly somersaulting a moon-crater pothole.

I clear New York/Park Row with tomato juice on my rear--but I do clear it. Now close parallel lines Pioneer Parkway and Arkansas Lane loom; catching their lights wrong can turn them into prison bars for a long sentence. But Pioneer's left turn arrow beckons. This means that if all goes well, Pioneer's light will go green by the time I hit it; and this in turn means that Arkatraz will fling wide its freedom door to me as well. And luck of the Irish, Pioneer's a go!

Then between the parallels, an immense produce truck suddenly, or as suddenly as something weighing a hundred tons can do so, pulls out of a strip mall parking lot and onto New York. I kick the brake and coffee arcs from my squeezed paper cup to the crotch of my khaki slacks. Go ahead--bend that barge and hit the road! But NO, we're not leaving--we're trying for the world-record precision back-in here. What follows is an irrational perfectionism on the part of the driver who seems bent on reverse-steering his vehicle not only into the narrow opening to a vast parking lot, but also into the side door of the supermarket he is serving.

A green lettuce head smiles with red human lips from the great white truck's side. Why so cheerful? What do you want me to do--get out and push? Calculate how much of your volume you can squeeze between the two curbs and then climb up and chalk the equation onto your windshield? Buy stock in your company? Convert to vegetarianism? Eat you?

I decide it's easier to take the sidewalk across the street than to bargain with Ahab. This is risky, as my vision of what's approaching on the other side of Moby Truck is blocked; but I've had a clearer vision: the college president standing at my classroom door, waiting for me. She has with her the district chancellor and also the national community college Grand Poo-bah. They have all come to visit exemplary instructor Sapp's class this morning! The vision sharpens: the president is bending a frowning brow towards her Rolex . . .

In fact, forget the sidewalk: I'd better figure out how to fly over the next five miles.

Fortunately these five include both the Arlington airport (if flight clearance becomes necessary) and the rural outback. Where the two major crossroads Mayfield and Arbrook choke on Collins congestion one block away, here they open to the western frontier spirit of infinite promise. On this leg, New York widens into a fluent four-lane roller coaster ride through open prairie. The men in white cars parked roadside in tall grass wave a friendly "Howdy," and I guzzle freedom as the streaking Saturn does its fuel. Even the I-20 stoplight, red on approach, changes just for me: I'm approaching a highway, it knows, and I have the need for speed! I must cross over the highway and ascend the great concrete arc, the bridge over I-20; I slow down at its summit just enough to revel in the Big Skyline where I can see from L.A. to Charleston. Then, descending I mentally vaporize the red light at its base, level out and leave a green trail the last two miles of the trip.

Now I soar on mechanico-spiritual wings, propelled by a metaphysical rear rocket engine toward a higher purpose. My Developmental students are patiently waiting for me; and whatever their challenges might be--punctuality is not one of them. They have arrived five minutes early, just to be ready for their teacher. But they will never say anything about her lateness; whatever their hesitation over transition words or verb tenses, they understand in clear, plain English: The wizard is on time whenever she arrives.

I tear through the campus's entry gate, serpentine through a packed lot, penitently park the car under a tree full of diarrheic grackles, and storm the building. What is this? The first hall clock I encounter says "9:40." In whose universe is this possible? Only five minutes late?

I sprint down the corridor and note the next one: "9:50." Hey--it hasn't taken me ten minutes to dash fifty feet! A former student passes and asks, "How's it going?" I answer, "Late as usual." Mutual laughter here, according to the daily script. My classroom doorway is president-free, as is the interior. Perhaps she has already come and gone and is in her office writing up my pink slip.

The wall clock reads, miraculously, "9:25." Of course--it has read 9:25 every minute of every hour of every day since the first class period.

Twenty-five faces turn and smile at me on the threshold. After considering and rejecting more dramatic excuses involving home invasions, exploding appliances or tornados I pull a great stack of grade-inflated essays from my bag. I enter the room hefting these and say, "Sorry, guys--I was halfway here and had accidentally left your papers at home. And they are SO good, that I had to go back and get them for you, so you could see this morning just how great you did . . ."

And so I achieve the last stage of lateness: ACCEPTANCE. My students and I understand each other well. When they in their own time warps take five pee breaks during a 50-minute class; when they arrive thirty minutes late or leave chatting on their cell phones thirty minutes early, I accept them. And they accept me, whenever I arrive.

In Dante's Inferno, the damned refuse to accept their sin and need to repent. But I'm onto both. One student, on her course evaluation, gave me ample motivation: Dr. Sapp is always late, and she needs to be on time more so we can have all of our time with her bcuz we love her.

And I love you too, kids. Tomorrow morning, I'll make sure to get here on time. I'll even give up Lucy for you.


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