Allegrophobia

It could be worse. Imagine surviving the pandemic without computers, without the internet, and (gasp) without YouTube. How awful would that be! Is there a legally more addictive way to while away the hours than to find a YouTube video that seems right up your alley, and then their search engine points to a dozen other similar videos that you just have to watch, which will point you to another dozen videos for each of the first dozen…… You get the idea.

I’m not suggesting that this is entire waste of time; far from it. Whatever your musical taste, your preference in old movies or TV shows, your political persuasion, and especially your need to learn something – anything – there’s a video or two to get you started, and from there – who knows?

One of the things that floats my boat is the search for the ultimate cup of coffee, and there are lots of videos with plenty to say about what you can do in your kitchen to indulge your obsession for the most flavorful brew. My favorite guru is James Hoffman, who started out his coffee career by winning an international competition for best barista in 2007 and now runs his own company in London. He is full of extraordinary information, and if his advice seems excessive, consider the precision needed in baking a cake or creating a sourdough loaf.

There seems to be a common thread running through a lot of his videos, the need to do everything right, weighing the beans, grinding them properly, adding the right amount of water at the right temperature in the right amount of time, AND doing all of this at 6AM when he’s not really awake. He probably needs a cup of coffee before he brews his first cup of coffee.

James Hoffman is suffering from a dilemma that I can appreciate, and maybe you can too. He is being forced to get his rear end in gear well before the rest of him wants to rise and shine, and that’s because he has something to do and places to go first thing in the morning. That sounds like me throughout most of my life, having to get up much too early and go to wherever I needed to be – which is why I was often late, sometimes with dire consequences.

Mr. Wiesenthal, my 8th grade home room teacher, wanted all of his charges to show up on time. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for me; after all, P.S./J.H.S. 80 was all of two blocks from our house, and I could motor those two blocks in less than two minutes if I had to, but if I left our house after I was supposed to be in school…. His method of reproach for those of us who were tardy was to make us write a 200-word essay on why we shouldn’t be late. I’m pretty creative with the written word, but there’s only so much you can say on this less-than-thought-provoking topic. I would repeat myself endlessly to reach my quota of words; finally, I began to make carbon copies and hand them in (this was before people had copy machines). Of course, he got wise to me pretty quickly, but I had made my point, and he was smart enough to call it a draw.

Most of my high school career was spent at DeWitt Clinton, still within walking distance from anywhere on E. 208 St. They had a more diabolical method of dealing with us late-comers. If we couldn’t show up at, say, 8:20, we were put in detention, meaning get there at 8. And if we were late for detention? I decided not to press my luck; I got there on time for that. It didn’t mean the following week I wouldn’t be late, but I might try a little harder, leave our house a few minutes earlier.

My favorite try-not-to be-late story took place my first year at City College. First year students getting the last crack at choosing our course schedule left me with Freshman French at 8AM. Our teacher Mr. Nesselrod, a suave Belgian with an eye for the impressionable young ladies, was no fool. He knew that, unless he took matters into his own hands, most of us would wander in whenever. So precisely as the clock struck eight, he locked the classroom door, and, if you showed up one minute later, you might as well get yourself a cup of coffee because you were ABSENT (of course he took attendance).

If someone was standing next to the 125th St. station of the ‘D’ line at 7:40 or 7:45 during the school year, he would see a stream of students emerging and heading up St. Nicholas Ave, heading to their classes – right on time. But every once in a while, whoever was supposed to open the gate to that sude of the campus was AWOL, and there we were…stranded. We could go all the way around to the other side of the campus to the entrance right by what-was-then Mott Hall, which for sure was open, but then, we definitely would be late. There was only one thing to do. Guys in their trousers and young ladies in their skirts were seen desperately climbing over a ten-foot fence, the only way to escape the wrath of Mr. Nesselrod. Those were the days.

Once I started working within the bowels of the NYC bureaucracy, I encountered a more subtle, more insidious, more diabolical method of dealing with employee lateness. Everyone was given a few minute ‘grace period’ each morning and then you were officially late. Nothing seemed to happen; at least nobody said anything. Then at the end of the year, the timekeeper would alert you as to how late you had been all year, and you would discover that your next paycheck had been nibbled away at the edges. We weren’t making big bucks back then, so losing a half a day’s salary, or a full day, or more, really hurt. Did it make us latecomers do teshuva? Not so much.

Things took a dramatic turn for the worse punctuality-wise once I started working in the Child Welfare Administration in the big old building (18 floors) at 80 Lafayette St. There were hundreds and hundreds of us spread out throughout the building, with six small elevators to get us up to where we had to be. You can imagine the lines; you might think about how long it would take to get from the lobby to the timeclock to punch in, which is all you wanted to do. Now everyone was suffering from allegrophobia.

(Imagine: You’ve arrived in plenty of time, but there are at least 50 people waiting for the elevator. A certain number of your co-workers crowd into one of the cars, the elevator goes up and down again, and the line in front of you gets shorter and shorter. Then it’s your turn and you’re about to get in the elevator, when the operator running it closes it in your face. “Next car.” The elevator starts going up; you can see what floor it’s on. What’s taking so long? The car gets to the top and finally starts down. Then it stops. Oh no, someone is getting on at 12!  It stops again at 6; someone else is getting on! Come on…… I’m going to be late again…..) There were days when, out of desperation, I would head for the staircase and head up to the 11th or 14th floor, huffing and puffing as I went.

I am proud to say that one year I had a hand in ending this madness. It was a few weeks before the annual ‘Employee Recognition Day,’ when the City pretended to recognize us by ‘honoring’ those employees who had arrived at various milestones of service in one piece with part of their brain still intact. Our new director, L. Harriet Henderson, a fine lady, was holding a meeting with some of us to plan the shindig.  I rose to my feet and said, more or less, that a party might be nice, but we would be happier – delighted even – if we got flextime, something that the City was experimenting with at a few locations. Given the ongoing issue with the elevators, there was no reason for everyone to arrive at the same time and leave at the same time. Get us that, and you’ll have some very grateful employees. Since I was the union shop steward at the time, it wasn’t just some random malcontent flapping his gums. Our director got the hint and shortly thereafter we got flextime. I was never late again!

When I began working for the always unnamed Jewish organization, there was no question about when you came in. The bigshots tended to drift in hours after some of us peons arrived, so we early birds could all put in our time and leave right on the dot. New Jersey never looked so good.

And now here I am, older, wiser, and far from the Land of my Birth in a new country. It’s years later and we’ve long ago done all the compulsory activities needed to live here. Unless we’re going somewhere special, we don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn, and I don’t have to worry about being late. No more sprinting to my destination; no more climbing fences to get in; no more huffing and puffing up the stairs. No more allegrophobia.

The only potential problem is being available bright and early for the morning prayers. No worries! When I’m up and about and good and ready, I’ve been repairing to the comfort of our living room and doing and saying what I need to all by my lonesome. And then, as I’ve written before, Rav Ezra wheedled me into showing up during the week for the 7:45 minyan, which I dutifully attended for several months – until I didn’t. You might suppose that right before the Holidays would be the time to show up in shul, but that’s when the davening gets longer and longer, and they probably didn’t need me for a minyan anyway.

And so I reverted to form. Get up when my eyes open up on their own; take a few minutes to gather my thoughts (what day is today; what am I supposed to be doing; oh, and thank God I’m alive); do some stretching exercises for a few minutes to loosen my lower back; make sure the cats have food and water; take my time getting dressed. And then it’s time to head to the corner of the living room that is my private chapel, and I don’t have to rush to catch up or wait for the slower daveners to finish, and I don’t have to wear a mask, making the whole thing a lot more manageable. On the other hand, there’s Shehki to contend with. He’s more or less taken over many of Lucky’s ‘terror cat’ responsibilities. Lucky would grab hold of my tefillin straps and gnaw on them; our newest cat will do that and wrestle with the fringes on my tallit as well. But then, nothing is perfect.

Sometime in October, Rav Ezra called me to make sure I was OK, as he had hardly seen me. After a few back-and-forths, we agreed that I would continue my solitary prayers in my living room, but that, should he begin having trouble assembling ten adult Jewish males on the steps in front of the shul for the morning minyan, he would let me know and I would return.

And so I prayed that I wouldn’t hear from him, which prayers were answered for over a month – long enough to become complacent. But I should have known better; I should have known it wouldn’t last. Then, several weeks ago…. Fred, I need you. That was a Saturday night, and I spent the night dreaming about having to get up earlier than I wanted to. But I did, and, sure enough, there were ten of us for the minyan the next morning. Rav Ezra wasn’t crying wolf. At least I don’t have to clock in when I arrive at Musar Avicha; and the gates of prayer are always open, whether I’m early or late. That’s worth something. Bye-bye allegrophobia.

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