I elbowed my way down the sidewalk, hurrying to get across town. The streets were clogged with pedestrians and I was late for an appointment. My brain buzzed with a swarm of detail: my to-do list was five pages long and I had to get to the bank, download my e-mail and make a few calls before everything shut down on the east coast. I look at my wrist to check the time and suddenly realized that I had left mywatch back at the health club. “Damn!” I cursed. Now I was really up a creek.
I picked up my pace and looked around frantically for a clock. Unfortunately, there was no timepiece to be seen anywhere, but there was an old man sitting on a nearby bench. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, so I stopped short and put the question to him.
“Excuse me, have you got the time?” I asked breathlessly.
“Yea, sure.” He glanced down at his bare wrist briefly, then up again.
“It’s the late Cenozoic.”
I hesitated, doing a double take. Furiously, I tried to process his reply, but I couldn’t grasp it. At first I thought that he was insane, but his eyes were clear, steady and calm. He must have sensed my confusion and said, “You know, the age of mammals.”
“Oh, doesn’t that sound right?” He looked down at his wrist again.
“Yep”, he said. “That’s it. We’re still in the Quaternary, although that could change. Probably will, actually”.
The way he said it was so natural, so offhand, so perfectly true that I began to doubt my own sense of reality. I open my mouth to speak, but my jaw just hang there.The man looked at me again with what seemed like pity.
“Oh you’re in a hurry? You need more precision? Well, yes, of course, I’m sorry, it’s the Holocene, you know, the post-Pleistocene epoch”.
Still staring I blinked again. The man was so calm, so utterly rational. Suddenly I felt like a fool.
“You didn’t think that it was the Cretaceous, did you?” He burst out laughing, slapping his leg in hysteria.
“Er, uh, well no”, I finally stammered.
“A lot of people make that mistake, you know. Ever since Jurassic Parkand all”.
“Er, no, I mean, I thought that it was about two o’clock or so”.
“Oh”, the man said flatly, “that”.
By now I had forgotten about my appointment and was engrossed in this almost unusual conversation. Suddenly, I had a feeling that my to-do list really wasn’t so important.
“Please sit down”, the man said as he gestured to the bench. “”You’ve got plenty of time.”