by Matthew Licht
Better not gaze too long at old wristwatches in shop windows. Those things supposedly made to measure time take time away.
A watch is useful, therefore not necessarily in the category of frivolous purchases. To the initiated, mechanical watches are hermetically contained, perfect worlds called into being to give form and meaning to the infinite.
“Man-hours” is the quaint term used to quantify labor, like horsepower to describe the strength of an engine, or candlepower the intensity of a light. The longer it takes, the more man-hours expended, for a man or team of men to manufacture a watch, the more expensive and desired the final product. An expensive, desirable watch stands a better chance of spending a longer stretch on one particular wrist before being displayed, again, in a shop window. But the windows of a certain sort of shop is where all watches wind up, sooner or later.
I didn't get my grandfather's gold watch when he died. I suspect he may have given it to one of his business acquaintances, perhaps some enterprising young man who was not me, whom I never met. My grandfather was proud of his watch, consulted it often, with a characteristic cuff-shooting gesture. He was a restless, enterprising sort, always involved in several businesses at the same time. He kept himself extremely busy. He enjoyed being busy, it was important to him. For a while, he was in the watch business too, though peripherally, something to do with the manufacture of precision springs. He couldn't understand why I never wore a watch. Through him, I could've gotten a good one for free.
There were many things my grandfather didn't understand about me. He often said I looked like the Devil or, worse, a hobo. The fact is, I like being comfortable. I used to find wearing a watch distinctly uncomfortable, on the order of frequent shaves and starched shirts.
An elegant watch first found its way onto my wrist in true hobo style. This happened in Beverly Hills. I lived across an alley from Beverly Hills proper. I'd moved from New York to Los Angeles with forty-five dollars in my pocket, which may have been due to my unprofessional appearance. My former employer called me into his office only to comment on the fact that the knees of my trousers were, alas, intolerably baggy. Dismissed from one job, unable to find another, I decided to try my luck in another town, in theory more relaxed, on the other side of the country.
Though legally in the wrong postal code and tax bracket, I arrogated the right to throw garbage out on the Beverly Hills side of the alley behind my bungalow. Rich folks have more attractive and sanitary cans.
Some people are compelled to look into garbage cans before heaving stuff in. I'm one of them. It's not always a good idea. There was a chopped-off head in a bin in the basement of the building I once lived in on 119th Street in New York. The head had belonged to a fellow who was also not a fastidious shaver. I could've dumped the bag in another bin and left the head for someone else, preferably a uniformed official such as a garbageman, to discover. Instead, I panicked and called 911. Six squad cars, sirens blaring, soon appeared. At least twenty policemen wanted to take a look at the perfectly harmless head. I spent the rest of the morning being asked nosy questions by half a precinct, which caused me to be late for work. A few days later I had to show up in court and tell my story. I was forever tainted with murder and scandal, but it didn't change my habit of peeking into and occasionally rummaging through garbage cans.
On the bottom of that Beverly Hills garbage can was a broad strip of leather with ugly buckles, the kind of thing worn by short guys who want to look tough. I picked it up. Strapped to the slave-bracelet was a battered watch. The crystal was scratched, fogged, cracked. I would've tossed it back if I hadn't seen the phases-of-the-moon dial at 6 o'clock, under the watch-within-a-watch second hand. There were levels, layers to the watch. When I cut it from the hideous band I saw it was made of gold. The pleasingly curved back was stamped 18k. The brand became legible with a few shirttail wipes: a Swiss make I'd heard my grandfather mention with admiration.
That particular watch corporation, according to the yellow pages, had an office in downtown Los Angeles.
The man who looked at my ruinous find called it "complicated." He said he thought the watch was made in the late 1940s, but he'd have to check the serial numbers to be certain. I told him not to bother. He was wearing a starched white lab coat over a neat shirt and tie. There was something Swiss about him, despite the Midwestern accent. He asked me if the timepiece had been in my family a long time and I said yes, it had.
Although my watch's outward appearance was a disaster, the technician was soon able to tell me the movement was in good enough order and that the whole could be restored for around sixty dollars. I said, “Let's do it,” hoping that by the time the work was completed, this outlandish sum would've found its way into my pocket. Didn't occur to me that the mechanical lump of 18k gold could be sold to get me out of a tight financial spot.
The watch brought me luck. I got a job. Not an especially brilliant one, but two weeks after being hired, I had sixty extra dollars to throw around on such extravagances as watch repair.
The nice man in the neat lab coat trotted out my watch on a tray lined with red velvet. I couldn't believe what I beheld, a gleaming thing of beauty, post-War optimism expressed in ticking, well-oiled gears of gold. I stared, didn't want to soil it with my touch.
“Needs a good band,” the watch repairman said. “I'd recommend something in alligator to set it off. A watch like this one deserves it. Let me show you a few of our styles.”
Quality watchbands, I soon found out, don't come cheaply. I kissed my first LA paycheck goodbye. Having paid, I asked the man what my watch, newly restored, might be worth. He gave out a figure in the low thousands. More than enough to deliver me from manual labor, yet someone had thrown the watch away. I briefly thought about selling the thing, but a month later I had another job at an outfit where a gold watch wasn't entirely out of place.
When I traveled back to New York to visit my grandfather, he was pleasantly surprised that I was working in an office and had acquired the habit of wearing a watch. I took it off for him to admire. But when I told him the story of how the watch came into my possession, he shot me a look that plainly said he thought I'd broken in somewhere, boosted the thing out of somebody's house. Amazing how a small matter like not shaving regularly will make people think that way about one, even family members.
My grandfather asked if I'd left it with the police first, in the custody of their missing property strongbox. I said yes, of course I had. I suppose people actually behaved that way in his time. Even if you found a fat wad of bills in a phone booth, you brought it to the police station, or else you were a yegg.
My complicated calendar watch stayed on my wrist for five happy years before I walked past a fatal shop window back in Manhattan. There it was, on a black velvet tray. Silvery face, plain, honest and free of ornament. It had emerged from the same factory as the watch I was wearing, a model called a Seafarer. The name stirred up fantastic visions of the maritime life, of deep-sea diving adventure. The band was a monster, fake lizard dyed aqua. Seeing it on that beautiful watch made me angry, indignant. I went inside the shop and was doomed.
The place was stacked to the rafters with antique silver. Sterling formed in every shape from soup tureen to pastry trowel hung from the ceiling, filled cabinets and showcases. Under glass counters were stacks of trays heaped with cast-off jewelry and old watches. The one in the window cost less than I would've thought. I told the salesman, who, I remember, was severely walleyed and friendly, “Slap on a band a human being could wear without cringing and you've got a deal.”
I walked out of the shop a man who owned two watches. Why on Earth would any man need two watches, unless he's aboard a ship out on the open ocean? To say nothing of twenty or thirty, but that's how it goes once you've got the sickness.
Pure avidity made me buy an American watch that seemed interesting at first, but no longer convinced me after a week or so. It boasted one of the first tuning fork mechanisms and its quadrant was futuristically transparent. You could gaze inside, but that watch had no guts or life. Circuitry and colorful wires aplenty, but no soul.
I took this humming gizmo back to where I'd bought it, a subterranean rabbit warren of a shop in the far reaches of the Upper East Side. The shop's window was at pavement level. You looked down into it. The low window was filled with tragic clown paintings and fake Canalettos, Third World fetishes, seedy jewelry and old watches displayed on stunted stands. More bizarre merchandise--furniture, ironwork, luggage--spilled out onto the sidewalk, vomited up from the cramped basement.
The shop was a corridor, a gangway, barely three feet wide. If there were two customers in the shop, physical contact was inevitable, as in a game of TWISTER. Objects were mounded together, hidden behind other objects, stacked, piled on either side of a cleared strip. A Chinese runner ran underfoot, its color no longer discernible. There was cloudy chemistry glassware, beaded lamps, empty picture frames and others that would've been better off left empty, welding samples, airplane dashboard components, taxidermied animals, outer garments of fur with the heads and snarls intact, a human skull encrusted with silver and turquoise.
The only articles that interested me, the watches, were of a jumble to match. Small paper tags, hand-lettered in a crabbed cursive, identified slim platinum jobs and plastic crapola alike. The good stuff was priced to move. Watch dealers from the high-rent places on Madison Avenue flocked incognito to that funky basement. They bought prodigally and didn't haggle.
The shopkeeper was a curly-haired, gypsyish fellow. He had bright blue eyes, a syrupy Russian Jewish accent tinged with Mexican cadence. His name was Ilya, although I heard him called Elijah and El Ruso as well. His people got tired of pogroms and commies, split for Mexico in the early 1930s.
Ilya was a chess demon. There was always a game in progress in the back of the shop. His opponents were mostly fat guys. A wonder they managed to wedge their way into the place, let alone maneuver into one of the battered club chairs beside Ilya's watchmaker's workbench.
These obese old men had similar tastes, tending to vests with many pockets and pipes filled with sweet-flavored shag. The basement shop had a 7-foot ceiling and was constantly choked with cloying gray-blue clouds. Ilya added hashish boogers to his tobacco, but smoke and business never interfered with his chess game. Behind his fluorescent blue eyes were encyclopaedic moves and gambits, an odd connoisseurship of antiques, balances, gears and mainsprings, at least five languages.
A few months of poking around the shop, a few buys and it got to the point where I'd be invited to sit in a club chair across from Ilya to be checkmated like a patzer, or pick up his game for a few moves while he pitched and prodded a customer. He said he enjoyed extricating himself from the imbecile scrapes, the chess disasters I got him into.
A big percentage of Ilya's tubby pipe-smoking pals were US Navy veterans. They could point to black and white photos in the weird mosaic of cruisers, destroyers, sub-chasers and aircraft carriers on the basement walls and say, “I served on her for X years. Captain was a man named Blah. He was all right,” or, "he was a grade-A asshole." Then they'd go on and on about the Navy life.
Ilya's main topic of chit-chat was Mexico City. He loved the place. When he talked about La Capitál it was always the way it had been in the 20s and 30s, prosperous, clean, mad for Deco. Whatever loot his parents smuggled out of Russia went into a fabulous duplex near the Zócalo and a white Packard. Ilya pulled old photos from a drawer. No mistaking the curls and non-photo blue lupine eyes glaring white in halftone or sepia. Russian Jewish little Lord Fauntleroy done up as a vaquero with a genuine Colt Peacemaker at his side.
Ilya still had the pistol, he said. Still had the car and the apartment too, even though he'd rented out most of the rooms.
He buzzed down to Mexico City frequently, to buy more stuff with which to cram his shop and his New York pad. He never said when he was going, or whether he flew or drove. He never took requests. His shop stayed shuttered for weeks at a time.
I was in the black leather chair, using a Toltec mortar for an ashtray, in deep trouble on the chessboard, when I casually pulled the space-age Atom-o-tron I bought from Ilya from my chest pocket. I told him I didn't like it any more.
He took the watch, removed it from the collector-style zip-loc baggie, shook it, rapped it against his workbench, smeared the crystal with his nicotine-stained thumb. “Why not? Works good.” (Which sounded like “Vy nyat? Veykz gyoot,” spoken by Cantínflas during his sleepiest siesta.)
A simple exchange led to an hour-long argument on reverse aesthetics, Mexican black magic, Swiss and Gringo racial characteristics. In short, why I wanted to trade a soul-free electronic gadget for a mechanical watch and whether I had the right to do so.
Ilya's coarse graying curls rolled into horns. His pipe became a pitchfork. The irises of his neon aquamarine eyes became the downward-pointing serpent triangles. "So, you wanna trade? No problem." He had just the thing for me, he said. He got up, slalomed through a thicket of clumsy sculpture, shoved aside stained glass windows, fake shoji screens and an owl-head fireplace set. He unlocked a glass case lit from within. He reëmerged rubbing a lump of stainless steel against his overalls. He tossed it casually and said, “I'll do you this one.”
What I caught was heavy, a diver's watch with a steel-mesh bracelet like the fine chain mail of a shark-proof suit. I'd never seen anything like it, although the brand symbol was familiar to me.
I tried to force my eyeballs to unbulge, kept myself from doing a backflip from the club chair. I stuffed the diver's watch in my pocket. “Done deal. Your move.”
Ilya checkmated me in no time.
The big diving watch worked fine, for three days. Then it started gaining time like they were going to raise the price. After that it slowed down in exhaustion, or from nitrogen psychosis. Finally it stopped cold, dead.
Why did I love that thing so much? What was its appeal? The closest I ever got to deep-sea exploration was washing dishes. Occasionally, I have nightmares where I'm swimming in shark-patrolled, moonlit waters. These bad dreams always end with me being painfully eaten.
The inanimate diver's watch would've worked fine as a macho bracelet. I could've threaded the dial with halyard or hawser and worn it around my neck. Instead, I brought it back to Ilya.
“Not working,” I said.
He looked up from the chessboard. His opponent, Fat Sam the Engine Man, had fallen asleep. Sam's pipe was in his lap, still lit. He was drooling maple tobacco juice onto his fisherman's vest of many pockets.
Ilya took the watch without looking at it, put it on his cluttered workbench and said, “No problem. I fix.”
Half a year later, hoping to prod him, I asked Ilya if I could look over his shoulder while he worked on my diver's watch. He nodded, flicked a forked tongue over his full, moist lips. He stood and approached the bench, rummaged through drawers until he found it and sat down to operate. I looked on in helpless horror as he pounded and mauled my watch with hammer and tongs, a screwdriver, a can-opener and a butane lighter. I asked, then begged him to stop, to give it back to me. I said I'd heard of a guy downtown, in the Chinese diamond district.
It was true. I had heard of a man with a reputation for being able to fix anything, from a woman I met who recently got out of the second-hand watch trade. The man had an Italian last name and was, she said, the last of a breed.
Ilya said, “Be my guest.” His phlegm-rumbling laughter propelled me out of his basement towards Chinatown.
Dancona was the name engraved on a lone brass plaque among laser-blasted plastic business shingles, the only one featuring the Roman alphabet exclusively. His office was on the second floor of a building near the ramps of the Manhattan Bridge. The place had become a micro-mall for garish gold and jade kitsch.
Mr Dancona had sprung from the pages of BLACK MASK. A man known as The Watchmaker in the underworld. He tinkered timepieces while his minions committed the spectacular crimes he masterminded. He wore a loupe at an angle across his broad pale forehead. His cube of an office featured a cubical black iron combination-lock safe, an oaken desk, and a green-visored lamp suspended from the ceiling on a cord. The big square window was hung with wooden Venetian blinds to keep the sunlight striped. Outside, cars rolled onto and off the bridge.
Dancona groaned when I set the bagged diver's watch on his bare green desk-top. He said a name. He seemed unsure of the pronunciation. The name meant nothing to me.
“Swiss guy. Or French, I forget. Maybe Swiss-French, like from Lausanne or Geneva. Head designer at the firm for one year. He drew gorgeous stuff…but no practical sense at all.”
He held my watch in one hand as though it were a small robot who died heroically. He slid his loupe from the groove it had worn in his forehead to the groove around his right eye. He examined the watch slowly, from all angles. “If I can get it open, I can fix the movement, but…” He said the impractical designer's name a second time, “…didn't understand jack shit about gaskets. Probably never get it closed properly again.”
The band was of a piece with the case, the Swiss Frenchman's way of preventing Philistines from imposing their bad tastes on his design. “Gonna cost you,” Dancona said.
The Watchmaker got the mechanical movement running again. It turned slowly, convalescing, on a spinning many-armed Sputnik above Dancona's workbench. Dancona was apologetic, explained his difficulties in tracking down the mystery gasket. The watch corporation in question had sleekened its operations in North America to one office in Pennsylvania. With a sad twinge, I remembered the office I'd visited in Los Angeles. That laboratory was now gone, the pleasant lab-coated Midwesterner put out to pasture.
Pennsylvania didn't have the piece. Neither did the home factory in the Motherland. They hadn't kept much around to remind them of their aesthetics über alles mishire.
Dancona handed back a once-virile watch, no longer able to hold itself together, hanging limp in its pieces. He exuded disgust: at his own failure, at the watch corporation's deviation from its stolid course, at Ilya (yeah, he'd heard of the guy), and at me for having brought the ill-conceived chunk of steel to him in the first place.
I refused to surrender. Over the years, I'd picked up a few pieces from a stand in the bowels of Grand Central Station. A portly man, his wiry brother, the wiry man's athletic son, occasionally the wiry man's wife and athletic son's mother worked the stand, crowded into a crawlspace behind a glass counter over shelves crowded with old watches. The wall behind them and the rafters of the tiny booth were claustrophobically hung, like the bat-lined mammoth caves in Northern Mexico, with legions of other old watches. Watches busted and awaiting repair and watches repaired and waiting to be claimed by their owners.
The teeming watch stand was strategically located beside a walkway crammed twice or three times daily with commuting clock-watchers, clerks called to account for their time or check on how others manage theirs, punctual clock-punchers.
"You bring it, we fix it," their sign said, without qualification.
The portly man looked at what I'd brought him. The wiry man examined it also, and the athletic son. They had a consultation and agreed. The condition was grave, but the thing was rare. Brought back to health and wholeness, my diver's watch might have value in the thousands of dollars.
The Atom-o-tron I'd traded for it set me back $200, but what was the true substance of that bargain?
I consigned a damaged machine which might once have seen the ocean's depths to the gnomic underground watch repairmen. In exchange, I received a cardboard ticket, not unlike an old train ticket, with a number printed in red. The red numerals are engraved on my memory.
The phone conversations were polite. The visits I made to the booth under Grand Central were cordial, convivial. I came to feel a part of the cave-dwelling watch family, but the upshot of my visits was always the same. Nothing doing on the big shark-proof chronometer.
My diver's watch hangs in a zip-loc plastic body bag with my name and number attached to it on a tag like the ones the coroners at City Morgue put on the big toes of corpses, from a hook in the pullulating ceiling of a desperately crammed shop buried beneath a train terminal for all forlorn eternity.
There's another fatal shop window a block or so from Grand Central. Behind plate glass, another midden of cheap junk with good stuff seductively scattered in tray upon tray, drawer upon drawer, showcase after locked showcase. The place is run by Hasidic Jews. They speak Russian and Yiddish to each other. It's a rough block, or used to be. They check you out before they buzz you in.
The man who admitted me had the curls, the prayer-shawl/shroud undershirt, the beanie. His face bore a patient, kindly look. He let me look around without interference, without the hard sell. When I came up from my squinting, old watch-scrutinizing crouch and got ready to go out into the weather again, he asked what I was really looking for.
Put on the spot, just to have something to say, I stuttered make, model and year of a watch I once saw, admired and couldn't afford. It was like asking for a gasping coelacanth at the Kosher Fish Mart, an easy excuse to leave without buying anything.
The orthodox shopkeeper went behind a curtain and came back a few minutes later with the watch I'd named. Not the specified year, but close. He obviously knew the watch's value. No point making a low-ball offer. He said come back next Friday because he'd have something for me. We shook hands, which he seemed not to be in the habit of doing.
The Hasidic salesman wasn't surprised to see me back at his shop. He knew my type. He went behind the curtain and returned. He handed me a small yellow manila envelope, unsealed.
What slid into my hand was perfect and simple. A diver's watch, no—the diver's watch. There was no haggling. I got cash from a machine and paid. I stayed in the shop until early afternoon, when they closed up for the Sabbath. The shopkeeper leaned on his counter. He seemed pleased to have finished off the business week with a good sale. We talked about things other than old watches.
story by Matthew Licht, © 2008
All rights reserved.
For a long time, I never felt like wearing a watch. Then, after a timely windfall, I became obsessed with old watches. But I'm better now.
This story, like The Adze, is in my book The Moose Show (Salt Pubs.). If you like it, please buy a copy and help keep a small, independent publisher in the biz.