Joe’s Last Penny

photo by joelheaps
published October 3, 2014

Time is money.

I’d heard the line before, but this was different. I had to really think about it. I asked Mike, the supervisor on my first job, if I should use expedited shipping for a package that was marked: URGENT. “Time is money,” was the only answer he gave me. It was no answer. I wanted a “yes” or “no.” I was 16 and didn’t know what to do. It seemed like a lot of money to me.

I reminded him that expedited shipping,

“Costs 4 times more than standard shipping.”

“I don’t care Joe. Didn’t you hear me?”

I’d heard him. He stormed away and I thought the expression made a little more sense. Maybe time was as important as money. So to Mike and Mike’s boss it was worth the extra expense to get something to an antsy customer.

That’s not what it means at all.

Time is an asset

is what I told myself for a while when I heard the money line. Money to me was too specific, so I liked to think of time as anything of monetary value. It wasn’t right either.

My second job was in a restaurant and I came to understand the line to mean a customer was going to tip whatever they were going to tip no matter the duration of their stay. The objective was to get them in and out as quickly as possible, so that someone else could come in and do the same.

“Hey knee pads, stop chatting up your customers so much.”

“What do you mean?”

“Time is money bro. They’re done, so turn the table over.”

All the expression meant for a while after that was a vague compulsion to make as much money as possible in a given amount of time. If I wasn’t at work the expression continued to have no meaning. Until I wound up in the hospital.

I broke both my legs in a car accident.

Everyday in the hospital was costing money. I was still young enough that this was mostly my parent’s problem. They were both pretty lousy with money though.

“You’re going to have to help us out with this Joe.”

I didn’t have a lot of savings. I was 20. I paid for my legs for years afterwards, both to my parents and to the hospital. The expression morphed into something else. Time away from work, whether due to injury or vacation or choice, is like charging up a credit card. Nothing is free and you’ll eventually have to pay for everything.

Time is an illusion.

When my legs were pretty much back to normal I decided to go to college. I’d been supporting myself well enough since high school, but now I needed something that made “good money.” My parents helped me as much as they could. Not a lot, because, like I said, they were both horrible with money.

I took a philosophy class and learned that time was (from one perspective at least) a human invention. That made as little sense to me as all the other trite explanations of time.

The sun rises and sets, for sure, but calling that time is not a real thing. Or it wasn’t a discovery of natural phenomena. It was just something to call it. For what? So we could plan when to do stuff. All food-related near as I could tell. In early cultures harvest rolled around at the same point on an iffy calendar and the invention of time was an attempt to make the most of that.

I hated philosophy. I liked drugs a lot more, and drugs according to my roommate Sam were,

“The whole point of your time in college Joe.”

I didn’t agree, but I also didn’t have anything better to do. I coasted along for another 2 years doing well enough in my classes and doing a lot of drugs. I overdosed my Junior year.

Back in the hospital, this time with parent’s who refused to help given the circumstances, I started to think about time again. Time was money again. Kind of.

Each breath I take is allowance spent.

Like the earliest days. Like being a kid. Here’s a few dollars. You can spend it on whatever you want.

Recovering back at my apartment there were still days and weeks and years. But those divisions of time had become meaningless to me. In the abstract a year seemed huge, but when I thought back a year, it was a blink. A few thoughts, highlights of partying and interesting if trivial bits from classes. The year seemed like a few days, days a few hours, hours reduced to a handful of fragments. The last year was nothing really. If I thought about other years there was even less to them and I knew that in another year I would just think of the present one as that year I OD’d.

Like money, someday, I’ll run out of time.

That thought doesn’t prepare me for the days and weeks and years. But for the moments, it does.

I don’t remember much from my overdose, but what I do remember are the last few breaths before I blacked out. Each one seemed like it was going to be my last. I was helpless and all my decisions leading up to those last moments seemed wasted.

The need to get things done quickly seemed absurd. The hurried push of customers wasn’t memorable or important. The philosophical bullshit was in the background, but there was no time to give it anymore than its vague sense of purpose. Each breath was long and packed with panicked awareness.

Awareness of what? Just breathing. I’ve never put more feeling and more or myself into a string of breaths. I was scared and alone, but breathing was never more delicious. Each breath was deeply good and I was grateful as hell for it. I didn’t have time to form thoughts, just have them. Trust them. I wanted to live through this. I wanted to have another crack at time. I wanted one last chance to spend my allowance well.

I lucked out.

Time is money? Sure. I have a little left in savings so let’s not argue about it.