IN WHICH THE AVERAGE OF THE PARTICULAR IS EQUAL
TO THE SPECIFIC: AND INDEED IN SEVERAL CASES PERILOUS
by Felice Picano
. . . seven, eight, nine people in front of me. There were fifteen when I arrived. That's progress. Two seventeen p.m. now. I've already been here for fifteen minutes. Only two minutes late to be here. Could this be the line for those who came -- or rather those who were supposed to come -- at two o'clock? Or is it, somehow, for others. Those due later. Say, at two-fifteen? Am I on the right line?
Only one line. Must be the right one.
No, time isn't what matters in these situations. It's something else. It's . . . .
Ah! Another person has left the line and gone up to the clerk's window. Clerk number one, I call him, and not only because he is one of two, or because he is the first of the two clerks, that I noticed when I arrived, although that alone would make sense and be significant for him to warrant the name, wouldn't it? And after all, he is straight ahead off this line, while the other clerk, number two, evidently, is kind of off to one side, which is I suppose why I only noticed him later on.
No, it's not for those reasons I call him clerk number one: it's because clerk number one has a "oneness" about him, a primacy even,. As though he's always been number one, certainly around here, and certainly among the two clerks here. He is taller, a bit fairer too, although from the line, and with that meshwork blocking his face who could tell really, and every time either clerk moves quickly behind that meshwork their features sort of blur a bit. Still, number one's features blur less than clerk number two's. Nothing vague about number one is there? Look at him! Why even with the new person off the line (progress! significant progress!) he still doesn't look vague. Tall and staid and in command. Very much number one. As though clerking behind these meshed windows was more than a mere job, more like a public trust, requiring only the most responsible of citizens. Which of course, he appears to fully be: number one.
Not her, of course -- the women who left the line -- leaving eight more -- only eight! what joy!—ahead of me. No! She's clearly irresponsible. Don't be fooled by her red hair. Orange it is actually, with a shading of sorts in its depth of some kind of electric red-brown. Well do I know of the irresponsibility of the orange-haired. Or rather of the orange-haired and the fair-skinned. For there are other red-heads (hate that word! As though they had a carmine crayon, a scarlet lightbulb atop their faces, when all they have are differing shades from orange to brown hair, really). There are, for example, the mulatto red-haired ones, with eyes like limestone on fire, and hair the color of nothing natural you've ever laid eyes on, except perhaps the beaks of certain birds found only in the Amazon basin. What are those birds called? Don't recall. No matter.
But one can easily make out that she -- I'll call her person number nine -- is both orange-haired and fair-skinned. And thus she is irresponsibility personified. Sharp features mayt try to conceal her frivolity. To no avail. Hooked nose, even though one could laugh and even, yes, even be a ditz with a hook nose; but we're not fooled. She strode up to the window as though she were completely confident. Strode, I tell you. Didn't dither like some. That of course is one of their ways, the orange-haired, the fair-skinned -- to do everything else but what you'd expect from them but the obvious. She strode, then she took of her dark glasses when she arrived at the window, then she (can you imagine?) she flicked that front of her orange hair with those tortoiseshell glasses frames, did it with a hint of elan. (Another giveaway: those tortoiseshell glass frames: Who do you know who would even bother?)
Can't see her face now, of course, as she stares directly at clerk number one. With, I have to suppose (more than suppose, know for sure, feel in my guts) a sincere look. That's how the orange-haired, fair-skinned do it, get away with it, I mean. They know that in a place like this, a situation like this, all the tomfoolery in the world won't help. Yet they do it anyway. How can she, I must wonder, seem so supercilious, especially in front of staid and correct clerk number one?
That other woman? the one still at clerk number two? she's been there a while already, hasn't she? No progress on that front. Couldn't say she looks irresponsible. Couldn't of course say that she was a lady either. And she did well to go up to clerk number two. What a pair! So alike. Or, rather, not alike at all, but fitting. Clerk number two being as second in all regards as clerk number one is first. Not as tall. Sort of thick neck, thick-skinned neck to be more accurate, with a fold or two of loose skin, the kind that always seems to be chafed by collars, pocked and inset with those fat black pimples that you known would come out easily enough with one sharp punch of the nails of two fingers. Was this clerk perhaps in another, lesser position, a stevedore, maybe? And was he then promoted to here for his good services? How would that occur besides good service? For I'm not all that convinced that he's at all good as a clerk. Look at all the time he's taking with that woman, for one thing. No, I postulate he had an illness. Not a major, certainly not a fatal one, but an illness nonetheless, perhaps heart murmur, or aortic fibrillation. That would make him forced to drop his stevedoring and become a clerk quickly enough, wouldn't it? No wonder he's second. Still, he might have done worse. And that woman! Distinctly not even second rate. Look how she shambles from one foot to another. Her whitish, old-fashioned stockings are ridiculous, gathering in folds around the backs of her ankles. And her coat! One half of the back panel is clearly darker in color than the others, as though it were made of cheaper material, or at least a not-quite-matching material. The coat was probably on sale as a reject, defective, bought out of a bin. And she would have thought, ah, but it costs money to have all the panels exactly equal in color, doesn't it> and none in the bin are equal: all are varying shades. Can't be helped, really. And it is so much cheaper! I will tell my friends (should any of them have the face, the temerity -- they with no new coats at all for years -- the envious baggage!) yes, I'll tell them it was a special two-different color panel coat. Very rare. Not cheap at all. In fact made special for me. Yes, that's exactly what she would say. And probably even get away with saying that. If it weren't for the half-moon of iridescent lining that hangs asymmetrically from beneath the discolored panel, that even if one did think that perhaps it could be a style element of the coat, one still couldn't persuade oneself that it was. Wretch of a woman!
And why is she at clerk number two's window so long? He can't be that inefficient, former stevedore or not, otherwise they'd fire him. No, the delay must all be her fault. She's been standing there seven minutes, by my watch. Perhaps she's in trouble. Something's wrong. A wrongly filled-in line on her form. A blot over her signature. An incorrect date. It might after all be a wise idea for me to time each person as they advance. Purely scientific method, naturally, to discover how long each one takes at the window. And how long each one is there. Without problems, of course.
Here's a rough estimate from what I already know. Fifteen people were here when I first arrived at 2:02. At 2:19, there are nine. No, eight now in front of me. With the orange-haired, treacherous one at the window of clerk number one. That's approximately sixteen minutes for seven people; or two and a half minutes per person. Yes, the women at clerk number two is definitely overdue. She's already taken seven and a half minutes!
But wait! What if she were at that window longer? No, seven and a half minutes: it was 2:11 when she went to clerk number two,. I remarked it, because eleven, added together, equals two and thus is one of those odd numbers that become even when added together. Yes, seven and a half minutes.
Or, have I got it all wrong? Assuming -- which I know to be so -- that there were eight people in sixteen minutes, at two clerks, not only one. That's really only four persons per clerk. And, since she's been at clerk number two for seven and a half minutes, one clerk -- the very efficient clerk number one, of course -- has had five persons see him! Where clerk number two -- that slouch, that laggard!-- has only seen one. Five into sixteen then is three and a fifth minutes. The woman with the discolored panel coat is still there too long. Throws off all the averages.
Done, at last! Can't you believe it?! Just as I was coming to believe that she'd be at clerk number two for at least another seven and a half minutes, she's finally done. The clerk yells out, "Next!" and that wretched old, slipshod-stockinged woman walks away grumbling, her hanging head moving back and forth on her neck like the broken head of some child's toy that once swiveled with ease. No doubt of it, it was her fault that she took so long at the window, and not the fault of poor clerk number two, fat-necked though he may be.
And now the orange-haired twit is done too. She also turns away, but sharply from the mesh window, and she flips her tortoiseshell from her forehead down over her eyes and she stalks off. Likely enough behavior: exactly what one would expect. "Next!" clerk number one calls out. What resonance in his voice. What presence in his voice compared to that of clerk number two -- the fat-necked one -- whose sound when he called out was something between a whine and a plea.
That's two more gone up to the windows. Only six more left on line now besides myself. That means, what is it? six times three and a fifth minutes or about twenty minutes more for me to wait until it's my turn. No. No. Two clerks. Must remember that. Not just one. So, it's only approximately ten minutes more to wait. That will make it about 2:29 when I get there. Not bad. Not bad at all. Not quite a half hour on this line. Could be worse. Could be.
Will those for 2:30 appointments be lined up behind me already?
Did the woman with the problem -- and the wretched coat-- with her seven and a half extraordinary minutes! -- did she have a problem because she was supposed to be here at 2 p.m. sharp? I can't help but wonder, no? And by the time she'd reached clerk number two's window, it was already 2:11 p.m.? Did that go against her so badly? Could be why she was there so long. Must take everything into consideration, you understand. Take nothing at all for granted. Not any more. Used to be able to. Not any more. If so, just supposing that was the root of her problem, the core of her seven and a half minutes, compared to everyone else's average of three and a fifth minutes -- why then, I wonder if I won't myself arrive, by these calculations at least, at one or another of the windows myself until approximately 2:29 p.m. And so, some eighteen minutes later! Two thirds more time later than that wretch with the discolored coat. Does that mean I'll then have a problem with whichever clerk I confront? A problem that will make me be two thirds longer than the others, or about ten minutes long altogether? And not be able to leave then until 2:40? It could. Very well could. But how could that happen?
Wait! The skinny man with the wrinkled seersucker trousers, the corduroy jacket and the red sneakers is already done at clerk number one. I might have known it. He's done in two minutes flat. Now it's 2:21. And look, can't hardly believe my eyes, but that small, wizened fellow with the dun-colored hair and the very expensive silk shirt -- moiré, I think, can that be moiré?-- under his expensive suit, it also done at clerk number two. Two minutes and five seconds for him. Amazing! And now two more from our line advance. Only four left ahead of me now. This is what I call progress. Damned significant progress!
And what's this happening? Some sort of a phenomenon. Clerk number one has gotten rid of the misdressed wimp and now taken on a formidably fat woman, with her hair dyed so many times that at spots it almost seems to be green, while at other spots, somewhat purple, although everywhere really, it's only the most cardboard shade of light brown. And he's done with her in -- is it possible? is even credible?-- a sheer twenty-right seconds!
And so my calculations are completely askew again! For the better, of course. Recalculations are now in order. Given then that two people move at two minutes a piece and one at 28 seconds, that provides a new average, of one minute and 20 seconds each for all three of them. With only three now left on line ahead of me; so that means that my waiting time has been slashed down to only four minutes and 27 seconds more until I arrive at a clerk.
Now, that's what I call great progress! For the man -- tall, good looking, seems a banker or such, with his neat suit, his tie, almost like a pennant it's so crisp, well, he's done at clerk number two only 32 seconds longer than the multicolored-haired, fat woman. That in turn drops the average even lower. To one minute twenty-two seconds for the four of them. I am third in line now,. Only two ahead of me, as the young man who was first shambles off to clerk number two. Not a good sign that shambling! And look how unkempt he is. Hasn't had a haircut in weeks, I'll bet. Hardly any heels at all to his shoes on each inner side. A shame. Definitely not a good sign. He'll wreck the good average going so far for sure.
But can I be certain? The other mismatched fellow was himself fast. Yes, true, but he was at clerk number one. We all know about clerk number one, however, don't we? How fine, how really great he is. Number two is another story altogether. Still, let's be optimistic. Each ahead of me at one minute twenty-two seconds, that means I should be there myself by two twenty-three. Not two twenty-nine, as I'd assumed before. And since that will be exactly double the time the wretched woman with the problematic time was arriving late, I'll then only be up there the same time as she was. Is that correct?
"Next," clerk number one calls out, and "Next," clerk number two calls out, more uncertainly, with far less authority, even a hint of stridency in his voice. And now I'm left first on line. Who would have thought it would happen so soon? Behind me, I see another dozen people. The newest arrivals are still quite anxious. Even disgruntled at having to wait. Could they be late 2:15ers? Early 2:30ers? Some people manage to arrive early. As a rule I do myself. But not today. They might be quite early, mightn't they? Make the work go a bit faster than it has any cause to do so. One of the main problems with life today, isn't it, these go-faster-than-thous and all of their trouble-making. Punctuality will do fine, I say, no need to push it. Grandfather said so too.
But wait! What's this? The standard so far average of one minute and twenty one seconds has passed for each of the two persons just ahead of me, one at each clerk, and both of them are now still at their window. The older man with the crown of freckled skin atop his head (I couldn't help but notice it, he's shorter than me and he was right in front of me for so long and the man ahead of him, who's totally nondescript, except perhaps for that remarkable, knitted, parti-colored sack that he's carrying, are still at their windows.
What gives? I must revise again. Those short times from before must have been flukes. That must be where I went off in my calculations. Let's go back to my first average: three and a fifth minutes long. Yes, that makes more sense. Sounds better too, less sensational, really. Even if the wretched woman with the bad coat took almost twice as long. Yes, it all makes much more sense. So, I'll return to that time as an average. That then places my time of arrival at either one or the other clerk's desk at approximately 2:26. That doesn't sound great. It's worse than being there at 2:23. Far worse, in fact, if you consider that the wretch who was there so long was so because she was late. I'm back up to about three times the average now, another whole third more time. Even more. No. I 'll not be there at a window, until later, not finish perhaps until say 2:38 p.m.. Almost back to that first, nearly disastrous, average I made. Which means I will have been here nearly forty minutes, all told. Waste of time. Couldn't be here on time, could I? Not just this once? When it meant a loss of forty minutes to me. Damn!
I could lie. Say I was here early. For the two-thirty line. Would they believe me? Would they say, then go and wait the four minutes more until it's really your time to be here? No, better than that I will say I was on the two-fifteen line. Unless, of course, they have records and know better. They must have. At least number one must have. I'm not so sure about clerk number two. He may not. Here's hoping that I get his window and can make my white lie to him.
And they're still here: the freckled pate and the bag man. Three and a fifth minutes have gone, and they're still there. Can both be having problems because they're late? It's already 2:24. The very time I once thought (oh, so foolishly) I would myself be at a window. Hard to believe, the unthinking optimism I had at one time. Or of those newly arrived behind me on line. Look at them. Although those in the middle of the line now seem more resigned. Except for that thin woman directly behind me who keeps staring at me, as though waiting on line were my fault. But the others seem more cheerful. A young man and a woman are talking. They might have just met. They sure didn't come in together. Or at least I don't think they did. Did they perhaps know each other before they arrived? Did one switch places to be near the other? I think so: they weren't together the last time I surveyed the line. Which one?
Doubtless, the man, being gallant, stepped back. Or-- perhaps the woman, sacrificed her spot? I doubt if they both could have been allowed to move up. They must have had to move back. Otherwise they'd cause a sensation, a scandal, an ethical breach of the line. I know how people can be on lines, in mobs, too. And there's another young fellow, reading a newspaper, simple as that. Clever of him to bring it. Probably looking through the television listings. Rot his mind with that crap. A young girl, behind him, odd how much younger they are, these later arrivals, compared to the relatively more aged ones earlier on line -- the one with the blonde hair and goodish figure. She stares at the wall. The blank wall. In a trance? Meditating?
Six and a half minutes have now passed with no progress at either window. I'm still first on line, and I admit rather embarrassed by the position. It's so exposed a position suddenly, isn't it? And the two clerks, the two men also, are still not even nearly done with their business. Look! The freckled pate is going through his pockets, looking for something. Clerk number one seems bored, unimpressed with him. No, I couldn't possibly put over the two-thirty arrival business on him. Wonder if I should even try two-fifteen on him? Maybe better to just hope for clerk number two, I tell myself. The other, younger man at the window is still doing something with a form. Finally, clerk number two looks at what he's written on it, and asks a question. The man doesn't have an answer. Clerk number two asks another question. Again, no answer. All I can catch is clerk number two's resigned whine, as he says, "Well, then, we'll have to use this one." As he hands the man with the bag yet another form, half the size of the other form. There they go, together, over it, disputing it line by line. Never trust a man with a colored, knitted bag is what I always say.
Eight minutes have now passed for each of them and behind me, on the line, the shuffling from one foot to another is more noticeable, more insistent. It's now two-thirty, the time I once thought (on my second, my most conservative guess) to have already arrived at a window, and where am I?
Behind me I hear yawns. The newspaper is loudly shaken and rifled through, the pages turned in an audibly rougher, more impatient manner. The young man and woman are now looking away from each other. The woman behind me is now, yes, she's clearly blaming me, that accusing look in her eyes. Two arrivals, both young (why so young?) come to the glass door, look in at the line, and leave.
Leave! They leave! Can you believe it?
I would leave too, if I weren't next in line. Disappointed as I am. My averages shot down one by one, although all of them were correct in their time, for their time, I should say. Perhaps I ought to myself leave. Yes. Just turn on my heel and go for the glass door. That would satisfy that skinny fiend behind me. The blond woman might laugh softly as I passed her. The young man and woman would say nothing, of course. The story of my life: first on line and the line won't move.
What's this? The freckled pate has found the paper he was looking for. It was crumpled in his pocket all the while. He now flattens it out, gives it to clerk number one, who takes it and seems pleased, or at least as pleased as he'll ever show being. And now clerk number two seems to be making progress too. He looks up from the bag-wielding man and he calls out three questions to clerk number one. Three questions I can't quite make out. Clerk number one then barks out three, short, firm, yet equally incomprehensible answers. Clerk number one then goes to a fat loose-leaf book with a red plastic cover and index tabs, and he begins thumbing through it. He asks the freckled pate man some questions in a low voice, so I can't make them out either, as he continues thumbing through the book.
Clerk number two with the bag man seems almost done. He looks over the once-more-filled-in form, seems satisfied in his thick-necked way. The man's with the bag’s shoulders drop as though all tension in them is gone and I'm relieved too. For now, I know it will be clerk number two whom I will go to next and I can lie freely. I can say I was here for two-thirty. It's already 2:33 and so he'll be the one who is late, not me. He won't dare breathe a word since he's the one late. Even though it wasn't his fault, was it? So, the bag carrier begins collecting his gear, pencils, nubs, what else had he taken out and set upon the ledge of the window? -- and begins putting them back into the bag. Behind me, I can feel the line begin to reshift again. As though a surge was beginning to flow forward, to push me forward, into a window spot. Finally the man at clerk number two leaves.
Two-forty p.m. but what can one do about it? I turn and glare at the skinny woman, lift my head at her, sneer my lips. But not a word escapes me. Not one word. Then I set off.
I arrive at the window.
And. . . I am rebuffed!
For, while I was turning around to show her my scorn, who should arrive back at the window? Why, the wretched old woman who took seven and a half minutes before, that's who! Clerk number two clearly sees me approach, and sees her approach. And what does he do? He signals her forward, obviously having to deal with unfinished business (I should have known!). And what does he say to me? Does he apologize? Does he shrug? Does he say "I've got to finish this one, sir"? with a knowing, shared, conspiratorial grin?
Not a bit of it. He says, "Wait until I call your turn!"
I'm crushed. Forced back to the line which has now moved up so that I am even more exposed than before, since the skinny, nasty woman won't move back, no not an inch to make room for me, and she has even turned around to whisper something (no doubt obscene) to that newspaper-folder behind her. My ears burn. My throat tightens. And the wretch with her seven and a half damned previous minutes is still not done and must take up yet more time! That means I will have to see clerk number one, who doubtless will see through my lie about time in an instant. Perhaps send me off. And my averages, my lovely averages, all gone, cut in pieces.
Wait. What's this? The wretch in the bi-paneled coat is already done! In a mere minute twenty five seconds! Although of course once can't really include that in the average, since she was here before; or rather, one can include it only by adding it to her previous time. She shambles off again. I hope for good. It's now my turn. I start off again.
"Wait!" clerk number two says, holding up two fingers at me.
Rebuffed again! And it's now 2:43.
What does clerk number two then do, you may wonder? He turns over his name-plate in his window, so that it reads instead "next clerk please"-- and he leaves the window altogether.
And for what reason has he abandoned his window, forcing me to remain here, no longer on any line, yet not at any window, but in this godforsaken land between? Why? With the line behind me getting more impatient, possibly even rebellious (if that thin bitch has her way!), with people grumbling, the newspaper dropped, stomped, scattered on the floor, the young man and woman now in different places on the line, even the one who I thought had the calm of a saint is stamping her foot. Why all of this? Why? Why to go over to the window of clerk number one, and with him, to go through the index pages of the red plastic book.
That's what clerk number two is doing.
Will all standards of decency be utterly debauched, I ask you? That clerk number one should require the aid of thick-necked, secondary, clerk number two!
Amazing, I tell you.
The bald pate who found his crumpled paper, who has now cost me fifteen minutes of my life, now seems to require more, far more. He now requires, if you can credit it, the attention of both clerks at once! That possibility never existed in any average I devised previous to now. Those, well, those were all calculated with the given of one person to one clerk. Will this now double the man's fifteen minutes at a clerk, to thirty minutes, using both clerks? And when, really, was he supposed to be here, anyway? Is that the reason for all the searching he's done, to check the rules and regulations for that kind of lateness? If so, what shall happen to me, poor me, even later than he?
Could he have been even earlier than two o'clock? At, dare I say it, 1:58? Could they be that precise, do you think. If so, I'm lost. Utterly lost! His two minutes of being early, then would be my forty-two minutes of being late. Look what happened to that wretch with the awful coat! She had to come back! That means I'll be here . . . hours. Simply . .. hours! And I thought I could afford not to rush, just this once, to take my time, to not overworry, and look where it's gotten me? And I was doing so well with my blood pressure until now. Hadn't had to take the new, expensive pills, the ones with those weird side-effects, in over a month. Then this had to happen.
"Next!" clerk number two calls, suddenly back at his window.
When did he get back?
Behind me, the skinny woman, shouts, "Go on! What are you waiting for?"
And here I am, between that seethingly hateful mass of waiting people and the leering clerk with the fat neck, filled with black heads and . . . .
I check my watch. It's now 2:48.
And a new average must be calculated.
If I were here at . . . .
Felice Picano was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Since then he’s published over twenty novels, short story collections, memoirs, poetry, and non-fiction-- and received many awards and honors. He’s also written and had produced several plays. His most recent titles are Tales:From a Distant Planet, (French Connection) and a cultural history, Art & Sex in Greenwich Village (Carrol & Graf).