Going nowhere in the fast lane

Charles Gordon September 7 1987

Going nowhere in the fast lane

Charles Gordon September 7 1987

Going nowhere in the fast lane


Charles Gordon

There used to be songs about lazy, hazy days of summer. There used to be television commer-

cials in which people got out of the city, put on sunglasses, opened a beer and just sat back. But you don’t hear those songs or see those commercials anymore. These are Fast Times.

There is no time to put on the sunglasses and sit back. In Fast Times, we run, run, run all week, and that earns us the right to run, run, run all weekend. A deep thinker, if you could find one, might attribute Fast Times to the world of Ronald Reagan and those who believe in him—the rebirth of competition, the new respectability of wealth, the general feeling of I-want-it-all that is abroad in the land.

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a man with his hands deep in his pockets walking along a sidewalk. Behind him is a man with suit, tie and briefcase, saying: “Could you walk a little faster, buddy? This is New York.” It is also Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and probably Belleville, Brandon—and maybe even Ottawa too.

Everywhere we look we see how fast life is supposed to be. Work is fast, play is fast, food is fast, fast food is even faster. If we want it all, we have to get a move on. When we look at TV commercials—in which advertisers show us ourselves as they think we would like to be—we see ourselves rushing here and there, even when we are supposed to be relaxing. In the world of the TV commercial, our cars go fast, our boats go fast. We race into bars, we slap hands with everybody, we jump up and shake our fists, we dance like there was no tomorrow, we never sit down and we’re supposed to be having a hell of a good time.

There are soft drinks that cut our thirst faster than other soft drinks. There are beer bottles that open off the bottom of other beer bottles, so as not to waste a precious minute finding a bottle opener. There is a beer for “hot times” and a hamburger for “fast times.” In our fast times, we receive telephone calls half a day before a flight is to leave, telling us that the flight has been “pre-delayed.” In older, slower times, we had to wait until a flight was delayed before it was. There is the express check-in and the express check-out, and speed-reading courses that would have enabled you to have finished this article already, had you

enrolled. There is the money machine and the telephone in the airplane. Everything we have today is faster than it was yesterday. The question is whether we are .. . yes, happy.

Today’s report on life in the fast lane comes to you from the fashionable Yorkville district in the heart of Toronto. Yorkville is so fashionable that its smart shops have been able to eliminate from their shelves any item that could be of the slightest use to anybody. If you wanted a screwdriver or a flyswatter, some typewriter paper or a pound of cheddar cheese, you would have to go somewhere else. Everything in Yorkville is to be either admired or eaten, sometimes both. (In some ways, this lack of anything useful is true to Yorkville’s roots. When Yorkville was in its glory days in the mid-1960s, the only things available there were drugs and folk music.)

Does this lack of utility drive people

Work is fast, play is fast, food is fast—fast food is even faster. We never sit down and we're supposed to be having a good time

away from Yorkville? Quite the contrary. At night the bars and restaurants are full and lively, in a tasteful way, of course. During the daytime the tables of the sidewalk restaurants are occupied by expensively dressed people, shopping bags at their feet full of beautifully useless items.

The fact that the bags do not contain cheddar cheese does not matter in the least to the people at the tables. Being there is the important thing. Beside the sidewalk restaurants, expensive cars purr on the streets—Jaguars, Porsches, BMWs. Some have vanity licence plates that say variations of “Mr. Rich Guy.” Each is occupied by a powerful suit. All the ingredients of the good life are there, except....

Except the cars aren’t moving. They are sitting there, stuck in traffic jams at 1:30 in the afternoon. The streets are narrow and halfway taken up with illegally parked Jaguars and Porsches. There is no time, you understand, to find a proper parking space. To make matters worse, occasionally an ordinary car, a Chevy or something, sneaks into a Yorkville parking space


So how do they like it in the fast lane, these people idling in front of the sidewalk cafés in their expensive cars? Unfortunately, you can’t ask them right now because they are on the telephone. Their cars have telephones, and they are on them. In the fast lane, there is no time to waste. A moment away from the phone is an opportunity wasted; someone may try to telephone them in the fast lane and find them not there. Since there is no time to wait for them to come back to the phone, someone else will get the call, and that will be it.

To review, then. The fast lane is sitting in Yorkville, not moving, while the people in it talk on the telephone. They may be talking to people in other cars, comparing notes on vanity licence plates or on whether their fast lane is moving at all. They may even be just pretending to talk to someone. In the fast lane, appearance makes the difference-just sitting there with the telephone in the expensive car in the right part of town matters a lot.

And it is true that one is noticed, sitting there not moving in the fast lane. The people at the street-side tables notice. The tables are part of the fast lane too. The people at the tables watch the people in the cars, and the people in the cars have lots of time to watch the people at the tables. Once, a few years ago, it may have occurred to the people at the tables that their lunches and the air they breathed were being ruined by the exhaust fumes from the cars not moving in the fast lane. But these are Fast Times, and who has time to think about anything?

If we had time to think, we would recognize that Fast Times cannot continue indefinitely. Life is cyclical. People in the fast lane will eventually tire of it not moving anywhere. People will tire of spending their working hours worrying about others getting ahead of them, and they will tire of spending their free time jumping up and down, slapping hands and making fists. Someone will reinvent the canoe. Walking will come back. Strolling may come back as well.

Reading, sipping, lounging, lollygagging, gossiping, goofing off—there is no shortage of things that can be done in Slow Times. They should be here any day now. Watch for the hammock commercials on television.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen