America’s Worst Time Zone

I get meeting times wrong all the time. I mean to schedule an hour earlier or an hour later, but then I get mixed up. The problem is, I always have to compensate for where I am, which is in the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Greetings from the lonely, dismal heart of central standard: a land before time and, also, a land after it.

To those of you who work and live in a proper, respectable time zone such as eastern or Pacific, the full extent of my shame will be difficult to fathom. “Oh, yeah, I’m in central time, actually,” I say, as if acknowledging a terrible skin condition or an inconvenient food allergy. Everyone is polite, of course. “Ah, okay, got it,” they reply, as we all scramble to adjust our calendars. This is not respect. It is pity.

I moved here from eastern, which is the nation’s anchor time zone. I say that not because of its affiliation with New York City or Washington, D.C., but because almost half the U.S. population holds to its authority. Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Atlanta are on eastern time, along with almost all of Florida and Michigan, the whole of Ohio, and other less notable places made more notable simply by their participation in the most normal time in America.

Eastern time starts the day; it sets the pace for the nation. The stock market opens on Wall Street, corporate lawyers file into Back Bay offices, spoons swirl cuban coffee in Miami. It’s morning again in America. On the other coast, where it’s three hours earlier, nobody cares. Such is the glory of the Pacific time zone, which houses a smaller sliver of the country’s population—just 16 percent or so. Some West Coasters—surfers, almond farmers, theme-park vendors—may be up during the eastern a.m. hours, though not because investment bankers or media professionals compel them. But the whole Atlantic Seaboard morning has elapsed by the time that most Pacific-time professionals have stumbled to the office, smoothies in hand. They will always be behind, no matter what they do. This is not a disadvantage; it’s a lifestyle.

The mountain time zone is in some ways central’s partner. Its residents share our temporal confusion, living earlier than most Americans but later than some others. But the region’s sparseness spares it more embarrassment. The mountain zone is mostly empty space: Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico. Only 6 percent of the nation lives there, and almost one-third of those people are confined to Arizona, a state that doesn’t observe daylight saving time and thus LARPs as California for half the year. And unlike central time, mountain time gets to have a name that evokes thin, clear air and rugged individualism.

Here in central, we get nothing. Our name isn’t bad, but it isn’t cool. It’s just … middling. A center forms a foundation, but it can never be exceptional. Such is the fate of the average people who get averaged out within our time zone’s borders. Central time afflicts St. Louis but also Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Memphis, and New Orleans; in all, its victims live in the whole or parts of 20 states. We’re stuck together in this in-between, always just a little bit too early and a fair amount too late, our heads turning back and forth toward our betters on the coasts.

This isn’t just another form of grousing about being overlooked. Flyover country’s cultural and economic woes, or its benefits, are separate from the indignities of central time. Nobody needs to visit you in Tulsa or Little Rock to coordinate a call or set a deadline. But plenty of the people living here are obligated by professional or personal ties to connect with the many others who might crisscross the skies above our homes. This creates a special and profound malaise.

Millions of us live this way, caught between morning and afternoon. We do mathematics. When should we meet? Let me think, I’m two hours ahead of you, and so-and-so is one more ahead of me, so N your time is N+3 theirs, which makes me N+3-1. So-and-so’s day already started in Manhattan, and I’m behind; it feels more like I’m arriving late than living on a different clock. Okay, now I’m free, but it’s still too early for you guys in Santa Cruz.

Coordination is accommodation. To coordinate in space, one makes room—a seat at the table. To coordinate in time, one clears calendars. Everyone, no matter their time zone, performs some version of this daily work. But in central time, that work feels, well, central to our lives. We can never be on time, not really, because our time is not our own. It’s always someone else’s: two hours ahead, an hour behind, today, tomorrow, and forever.


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