Death and the Punch Clock

Let me tell you about the time I died. Not actual death, of course. This isn't a Spoon River tale from beyond the grave, and it's not a Nikki Sixx "I was clinically dead for two minutes, man" sort of thing. No, this is just a heart-warming tale of friendship run amok that happens to involve me being dead.

Before we proceed, I have to establish a bit of background: I am what you might call "thoroughly punctual." You might also go with "terrifyingly punctual." "Slavishly robotic when it comes to the sway of time" wouldn't be too far off the mark either. If you tell me to meet you somewhere at 8:30, odds are pretty good that I will wander through the door at 8:30. It isn't even intentional, it just happens that way. For years I went without a watch or a cell phone, and still I magically arrived on the button. "You're two minutes behind schedule," a friend of mine once joked. "We were starting to worry." One time I tried to show up late to a party, in an effort not to look like a dweeb — turns out I had read the Evite wrong and showed up extra-early.

The side effect is that I'm a real joy to be around if we're running late for a movie, but that's a conversation for another time. Let's get to me dying.

This happened a few years ago, when I was working at an office in Chelsea. It was an hourly job, the kind where every movement is punctuated by the whine and screech and of a dot matrix punch card. For someone predisposed to chronic timeliness, having your whereabouts tracked to the exact minute is like going into rehab and finding a bag of needles and some Velvet Underground records. If anything, I got worse. Somehow I settled on eights, aiming for two minutes before any given shift. If I was working 10:00 to 6:00, the punch card read 9:58 to 5:58. Throw in lunch hours, and each day had four punch times. On a good week, I could get all twenty punches in alignment.

That really, really isn't something I should brag about.

None of this escaped the notice of my coworkers, especially once we hired a few college friends of mine, who assured everyone that yes, I was like that in regular life. Eventually they got used to it, and hardly even seemed to notice anymore. Then, on an otherwise ordinary summer day, I made an otherwise ordinary dentist appointment.

Let me say in my defense that I dutifully informed my boss, Kevin. But when he passed around the weekly schedule, the appointment wasn't on there. "Hey, don't forget, I'm taking a half day Tuesday to go to the dentist," I said as he browsed eBay for bowling shirts. "I'll be in at 2:30." He gave a thumbs-up. I never gave it a second thought — there were always little adjustments like that once the schedule was posted.

The dentist visit itself was uneventful.

Them: "What's your insurance?" Me: "Delta." Them: "DMO or PPO?" Me: "I have no idea." Them: "We don't take DMOs." Me: "Then it's definitely PPO."

Dr. Atlas, who was nowhere near as imposing as his name suggests, did the cleaning himself. He worked with brutal efficiency, finishing in around fifteen minutes. A Latina hygienist took X-rays, which I despise because I gag on those little square things you have to hold in your mouth, but she was sympathetic because she does, too. "Bite down on that, Papi. This will just take a second, Papi." It remains the only time anyone has ever called me Papi.

Afterward I had some time to kill. I went to Pearl Paint in Soho to look at colors for my room, wandered back uptown, and poked around Barnes & Noble for a while. I stopped at a diner for some French toast. There was still some time left, but I was out of ideas, so I headed towards the office. My shift normally started at 10:00 AM. It was 2:15 PM. I had been absent for four hours and fifteen minutes.

Kevin forgot I was at the dentist.

(He pauses, letting the moment hang in the air like a dandelion seed.)

Bear in mind that the staff included people whom I have known since college, people I hang out with on a regular basis.

(The seed floats ... floats ... )

They had called my friends. They had called my sister, who used to work at that office. They had called my other sister, at her house in New Hampshire. They had sent our buddy Tom, who worked from home a few blocks from my apartment, to shout at my open window and try to find my landlord. They had formulated a plan to climb up my fire escape and break into my home if I had not surfaced by nightfall.

They had called every single person they could think of.

They had tried to call my Mom.

Four hours! Four fucking hours! I was gone barely long enough to watch "Lawrence of Arabia," and they had done everything but put out an Amber Alert and send up the Bat-Signal. So accustomed were they to my rampant punctuality that at the slightest inference of tardiness, the only possible explanation was that I had died.

Ever been in a foul mood, and imagined something horrible happening to you to make yourself feel better? You trace the flow of imaginary news from friend to friend, gauging their reactions: What would happen if one day I simply vanished? Who would freak out? Who would go to the cops? Who would start photocopying my picture to hang on lamp posts? Who would talk to the news? It's like a grown-up (yet somehow less mature) version of Ralphie's blindness fantasy in "A Christmas Story." Well, I actually got to see it. I failed to walk through the door on a Tuesday morning, and damn it all, my friends leaped into action.

Hey, that's fantastic and what not, but Jesus Christ almighty, come on. Dead? Seriously? I had to be dead? There was no way something interesting had happened? It was completely out of the question that I could have just, I don't know, skipped work? Gone to the beach? Won the lottery? Woken up in Atlantic City with a strange redhead and an empty bottle of Cristal? Nope. Dead, on my floor, probably in my underwear. And what bothered me most was the inescapable fact that, when you get right down to it, they had a point. There was absolutely no way something interesting had happened.

The next morning, I dropped my card into the machine. 9:58 AM, right on schedule.

For the record, I had no cavities.

(Brief follow-up note: Now that I no longer work an hourly gig, I don't pay much attention to the precise time I arrive at the office.)

(Also, in case you're wondering, this was before I had a cell phone, so they couldn't just call me.)

(And yes, "chronic timeliness" is a pretty bad-ass pun.)