Relocating to Chicago from Connecticut five years ago gave me pause. My unease had less to do with the city than its time zone. Central Time isn’t the nation’s chronometric gold standard. That’s Eastern Time. Befitting the region’s dominance, Eastern Time goes first. It’s awake while you’re still sleeping, always ahead. And in modern work life, where business can be conducted anyplace that has a Wi-Fi connection, your time zone matters more than your physical location. Far-flung people scheduling conference calls don’t ask where you are but when you are. The precise where emerges incidentally, usually during premeeting small talk about the weather.
In this context, Central Time introduced a peculiar sort of isolation: all my work contacts were suddenly in other time zones. “I’m on Central Time,” I’d say in call after call, nobody seconding me. To describe my work situation as “remote” and “virtual” was no longer just technically accurate—it suddenly sounded a bit plaintive. By moving, I had taken on a new temporal identity.
As an identity, Central Time is rather nebulous. It doesn’t resemble Pacific Time, in which workers rise in the predawn to deal with the New York or Washington office, then gamely return to business in their own time zone. Central Time is akin to Mountain Time, from its noncoastal status to the monolithic quality of its name. Living and working in Central Time initially flooded me with anxiety: What did it mean to move from a coastal edge to this giant middle world?
Before contending with that knotty question, let’s consider a slightly more manageable one: Why did we first cleave space into different time zones in the first place? In a word, railroads. Before mechanized travel, people lived by local time (aka solar time). They looked skyward and called it high noon when the sun reached its zenith. If you were traveling slowly—by horse-drawn carriage, say—you’d gradually adjust to shifts in solar time as you moved. But local time wreaked havoc on railway timetables. How could you accurately guess local noon in a distant destination, or calculate a departure or arrival based on the time of a faraway place? The Brits switched to “Railway Time” in 1847, averaging all high noons in their country into a universal mean time. America introduced four time zones on November 18, 1883, dubbed “the Day of Two Noons” because local clocks were nudged forward or backward to standardize high noon to the corresponding new time zone. At the outset, Chicago refused the jump to standard time, according to a contemporary account in the New York Times, because the new time zones weren’t drawn with Chicago as the central point on which all other times were based.
Steady, reasonable, forgiving—not unlike Chicagoans—Central Time is high noon among the time zones. Central Timers are never forced to skip breakfast or interrupt dinner to make a conference call; that inconvenience falls invariably to the folks in the Eastern and Pacific zones. Chicago is the big city anchoring CT, but it’s not too far from the western edge of ET, which stretches our summer days by a few luxurious minutes.
When I moved to Chicago, I had no clients in the city; after a few years, I have just one. And so my days are largely dominated by meetings set in Eastern or Pacific. The temporal gymnastics with regard to work give me a particular fondness for Central Time. It’s the zone that governs drink dates with my husband at the Hopleaf and play dates with my son at the Garfield Park Conservatory—nonwork time. It reminds me a little of how residents of a town that straddles two time zones will, as a matter of practice when making plans, ask whether the hour in question is “fast time” (east of the border) or “slow time” (west of it). I infinitely prefer to work fast and live slow. v