Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

“As I was walking down the street one day…”

For anyone who came of age in the 1970s, those nine words set to music will elicit an automatic response. The head nods, the feet start tapping, and folks start humming what is perhaps the most recognized pop tune sung by the group Chicago.

“A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yea…”

It’s a common enough occurrence, walking back to my office in Lower Manhattan after a meeting. Over on Church Street, near Barclay, a young woman passing in the opposite direction comes over and asks me for the time.

My watch says 12:53. “It’s five to one,” I answer.

“Thanks,” she says without breaking her stride.

I notice that she is dressed in a black suit and carries a small pocketbook. Maybe she’s on her way to an interview, I thought. I did not see a bulge on her wrist to indicate a watch, nor one at the waist to indicate a cellphone. And nothing clipped to her purse. Apparently, she has no timekeeping devices on her person. Maybe this is her first job; she’s never had the chance to buy a watch, or have one given to her. And so I am happy to oblige. At least she didn’t get to hear me sing, as my two sons have known me to do. They’re not so lucky. When they ask me “What time it is?” I break out into the chorus:

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?

And so I can’t imagine why

We’ve all got time enough to cry.

At that point, my firstborn son Kintu, will groan in annoyance, and Magezi, my number two guy, will just stand and stare. He and I have a special relationship with time, for he is the child who still asks, “Are we there yet? How many stops?” Never mind that he’s grown and in the Navy. Both boys already know that they have to wait until Mom finishes singing before they can even entertain the thought of getting a response from her. I have trained them well, although I must say that this quirk of mine embarrasses them to no end. Their only consolation is that their six cousins must also endure the same treatment from their mom, my sister Karen, who is a year older than I. The both of us spent our formative years singing and studying music, hence the reason why “Mom has a song for everything,” as their cousins would say.

This sister of mine can also be counted on to crowd up my e-mail box with a slew of forwarded messages that I really don’t have the time to read, much less to hit the delete key to clear them out. But every now and then one of those messages will catch my eye, as it did on one particular Sunday when Magezi came out and asked me that famous question about the time.

The subject of this message made me pause before I hit the delete key. It said, Polish Digital Clock (really neat). Hmm…this might be interesting, I thought. What piqued my interest was that a group of science students at the University of Poland created the site, and it took four years to build. I wondered what was so special about an Internet clock that these students would invest so much time out of their lives to build the site.

When I clicked on the hyperlink ( and opened up the site, I saw the reason why this particular clock was so long in the making. Each digit for the date and the time was drawn in pencil on a plain white sheet of paper. As the numbers changed to count the seconds, minutes, hours and days, a hand tore away the old sheet and handwrote the next number in pencil. The sight of the seconds, minutes and hours manually changing was amazing. So this time when Magezi came shuffling out of his bedroom and asked, “What time is it?” instead of singing, I pointed to the computer.

“Hey, look at this,” I said.

His face lit up as he peered at the numbers going by on the computer.

“Cool, isn’t it?”

Magezi smiled in approval. As he kept looking at the website, I stole a glance at the time displayed in the lower left corner of the taskbar on my computer and saw that the clock on the website was in sync. Then I surveyed all the other devices that kept time in my apartment. The timepieces ranged from 11:48 to 11:52, with most of them set at 11:50, and included two computers, an electronic organizer, a clock radio, a stereo, three telephones, a kitchen timer and two wristwatches. And that’s when the song started playing in my head:

As I was walking down the street one day.

A pretty lady looked at me

and said her diamond watch had stopped cold dead

And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is

(I don’t)

Does anybody really care


If so I can’t imagine why

(About time)

We’ve all got time enough to cry

(Oh no, no)

As I thought about the number of times that someone would ask for the time, I wondered how many times I have suppressed my feelings of annoyance because that person doesn’t have a timepiece. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone who asks you for the time. I guess in the U.S., where we are so time-obsessed, and particularly here in New York City, where a minute goes by faster than anyplace else on the planet, a person without a timepiece is seen as lacking a basic social skill. At the same time, I wonder just how it is that this act of coincidence has taken place, when I encounter this young lady on the street at the precise moment that she needed to know the time. Or just when I happen to fall into the right position on the subway stairs when the mother in front of me with a stroller needs a helping hand. Or the minute someone needs a point in the right direction among the maze of Manhattan streets, especially the ones where I work downtown that all have names, not numbers, and seem to have no rhyme or reason.

Invariably these type of coincidences happen when I am running late and wondering if maybe I should have spent a little less time trying to find the perfect necklace to match my outfit. They also seem to happen when I have an unexpected change in plans, like the evening when I bumped into my friend Hassan. The boys were still in grade school at the time, and I was 45 minutes late in picking them up after a major subway delay and getting lost trying to find an alternate route. There he stood as I hustled through the turnstile at the Grand Army Plaza station in Brooklyn.

“Hassan! As-salaamu alaiykum!” I gave him a big hug. “How are you? How’s the family?”

“Everyone’s fine! What brings you over here?”

“My boys go to school over on Union Street—and I should’ve been here an hour ago!” I rolled my eyes. “Those trains are such a mess! But it’s so good to see you! What’ve you been up to?”

“Tomorrow I’m going to be on a plane to Mecca.”

“Wow…for the Hajj?”

“Yea! I’ll pray for you!”

“See there—Allah is the best of planners,” I said as I hugged him good-bye. If I hadn’t been held up on the train, who knows if I ever would have got a blessing like that?

Those moments make me wonder whether the universe has a hand in putting us in the right place at the right time. The image that most people have of time seems to be this great universal clock that keeps all the galaxies and their inhabitants in step and in tune. But the concept of time—exactly what time is, how it works, how it will ultimately end up—is still being worked on by scientists. So, how did time come to have such a central place in our society? Time is used as a gathering point, a way to get groups of people together at the same place at the same moment. Time, and the marking or passage thereof, also gives us the means to mark special events.

Scientists do agree about one aspect of time, that it is in itself a moving target—that its measurement is not fixed like, for example, the speed of light. Einstein’s realization through his famous thought experiments that time actually does change relative to your perspective, that it is the speed of light that is constant and doesn’t change, is what lead to his breakthrough and his special theory of relativity; E=mc2.

But no science in the world explains why we as human beings tend to be either in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. So far in my life I have been lucky in that I have been in the right place at the right time, even when I do not plan it that way. Like on September 11, 2001. If I had planned things my way, I would have gotten the train out of Far Rockaway at 7:45 so I could stop by the Farmer’s Market at the World Trade Center before I went to work. However, I was running a little late and wound up getting on the train at 8:05. I really wanted to get to the market in the morning so that I could run another errand on my lunch break. So I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to go straight to work instead. After all, I’ll still get to the office on time, I thought.

As I was walking down the street one day

Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock

Oh, so I just don’t know

I just don’t know

And I said, yes I said

Does anybody really know what time it is

(I don’t)

Does anybody really care


If so I can’t imagine why

(About time)

We’ve all got time enough to die

(Oh no, no)

Had I taken the early train I would have been there at 8:45 when the first plane hit. Tragically, close to 3000 people had time enough to die that day because of a murderous act of terrorism; but it turned out not to be my time. I would sometimes sing that last chorus to my boys, but then after their Mom had come so close to death, they would wince at the word ‘die,’ so I have a little mercy on them and just sing, “We’ve all got time enough to cry…” Our time to die will come soon enough. Until then, I hope to continue to be at the right place and the right time.


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