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The Lost Art of the Idle Moment

Take 5. Don't fill every empty slot, the experts say. Just how hard is that?

May 12, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just what's so urgent?

You have to wonder. Especially when the concert-goer seated across the aisle can't wait for the music to end to call in a review. He suddenly lifts his cell phone in the general direction of the stage then announces: "This is beeee-yooo-tee-ful!" into the tiny mouthpiece over the thrumming drum and bass.

And what's so crucial that the "business meeting" to settle it has to take place next to you at the candlelighted trattoria, a 90-minute shout-fest on a cell phone, full of expletives and wild gestures at 10 p.m. on a Saturday?

Why must the beeper go off during the benediction? And, while we're at it, what's the deal with the laptop at the movies?

Is all this so pressing that none of it can wait?

In a "multi-tasking" culture that has required us to become increasingly mentally ambidextrous, it was only a matter of time before even our in-between moments would become amped-up and maxed-out.

Think back. Consider the last time you sat in a public space and just stared into nothingness--no newspaper, cell phone or breakfast burrito ingredient list to accompany you. The last time you just lingered. Or wandered. Not asking for the correct time, not tapping your foot. Just letting your brain take its cool-down lap, allowing time to unspool and possibility to bloom.

For decades, we Angelenos have been keen to prop ourselves up as the capital of the open-ended options and unfettered time. The Southland is dotted with metaphors for the region's half-speed life and knock-about philosophy, from the happenstance of exotic gardens in the hidden nook of a foot-trail, to flip-flops. We had so much to spare. Like the French flaneur, passing the hours pleasantly against picture-perfect backdrops, we knew that reveling in idle time was not only a necessity but an art.

And now, it's an art somehow forgotten. As the long, formerly lazy days of summer approach, it's become increasingly evident that even laid-back L.A. has become caught up in the willy-nilly push to press furiously forward.

Lazy bedroom communities once known for their low-gear distractions--the protracted picnic or the twilight family barbecue--have been overrun by the increasingly repetitive thicket of fast-food ghettoes. Worse, they now boast "express" versions of well-known casual dining restaurants, offering a sort of "greatest hits" menu, an edited, speeded-up version of themselves for the go-getter who hasn't the time to suffer the extraneous.

This fast-forward press has even reached what seemed to be the region's very last outpost of time standing still: the corner Suds 'N' Shine. Once ruled by the pace and sensibilities of sauntering men in golf caps, Cigarillos and circular conversation, the carwash, too, has gone the way of the hyperkinetic cyber-cafe, crowded with screaming cell phones and impromptu meetings on the fly.

In the eight to 12 minutes from vacuum to Armor All, the carwash was one of the region's best repositories of the beauty of the stolen moments, a safe tuck-away. It was often christened with some awkwardly poetic conflation of street names at the nearest intersection--"The HollyMont" "The GlenMar"--nostalgic labels for a distinctive oasis. With its murmuring machinery, sighing suds and cascading water jets, it was as effective as a perfumed day spa or desert retreat for winding down from a particularly soul-deflating week.

Suspended between one errand and the next, briefly car-less, the burdened or the frazzled knew that the carwash provided an alibi--or at least a respite. It didn't offer quite enough time to dip into a "pending" file or pull out the papers to grade. It spun out a meandering string of moments that could be unaccounted for without guilt or anxiety. The brain was free to happen upon a pool of blank space, to bask in it, fantasize or meditate, face turned to the sun.

But we wax nostalgic.

As that version of the carwash slips away, so have other similar pockets in the day: the oil and lube, the Laundromat, the wedge of time between the popcorn line and the coming attractions. Gyms and cafes have gone from stop-time islands to workplace annexes. "I don't get these people with their scripts, on their cell phones with their lattes, talking about nothing! 'Whatcha doin'? ... Whatcha gonna do later ...,'" groused one downtown-type frantically looking for a place to duck out. "They just want to be part of the noise."

Those small scraps of time were the equivalent of a deep breath. They kept you clear and focused. Objective, if not hopeful. And now that they've vanished, we buy books telling us how to reinvent them.

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