The Watchmaker

Published January 8, 2017 by 99 Pine Street

The old man peers into the case. “I worked on this watch.” He says it ‘vorked on this vatch’. He screws the loupe from his eye. “A good timepiece. Your grandfather’s? He is still living?”

The fusty workspace, redolent of watch oil, is smaller than the one Henry visited with Granddad, at street level on Main Street, its sign in Gothic gilt letters: D.A. Gordon, Watchmaker. This is in a tired building in a decaying downtown block, neighbored by social-service providers, lawyers, tax preparers, a home-loan agency, a cell phone shop. Like all clients and customers, Henry announced himself on an intercom outside the street door to be buzzed in. The plain-box elevator, as slow as time passing, deposited him in a dim sixth floor hallway. He found the door, the name in smaller Gothic letters, plain black on a frosted-glass window with mesh reinforcement.

“Yes, my grandfather’s. He died last year. I came here with him at least a dozen years ago. No, more.”

Granddad had called it a conductor’s watch: an Admiral, nearly two inches wide, open-faced, filigreed silver case and gold numerals, initials THM engraved on the back. Every railroad conductor had one, he said, checking trains’ progress by drawing watches from vest pockets, fob chains looped through vest buttonholes and anchored by tchotchkes in opposite pockets.

In Henry’s early teens, Granddad wore it – an idiosyncrasy — in his jacket breast pocket, the chain looped through a lapel buttonhole. In Grand Central Station, he would look up to check it against the great stationhouse clock. Later, after twice lengthening the chain and finally unable to bring the watch into focus, he gave it up.

The watchmaker screws the loupe back in. “Yes, I see that. Twenty-two years. 1989. A simple cleaning.”  His face is as deeply lined as a Dürer etching. The bushy Harpo Marx hair Henry remembers is thin now, bone-white: Einstein or a Harry Potter wizard.

Henry was in his teens when Granddad brought him downtown to visit Mr. Gordon. Maybe the watch just handed across the cluttered counter, each visit scrupulously engraved inside the case in Lilliputian characters, a chronographic health history.

“You wear a wristwatch?” The old man’s gimlet eyes have noticed the white on Henry’s suntanned wrist.

“I’m embarrassed. A digital.” He has it in his pocket. It shifts time zones seamlessly when he visits Grandma in California. It has an alarm, stopwatch, timer.

“Everyone has them now. But you use this sometimes?”

“Now and then in Granddad’s memory. I might take it to visit Grandma next month. She’d like seeing it. But it’s stopped running. Didn’t keep exact time when it was working.”

“Of course. Even the best lost or gained a few seconds. A small price for wearing such intricate craftsmanship.” The old man makes it seem a virtue to keep up with neither the crowd nor the precise time. He peers again, pries the back with a tiny screwdriver, cups the works in the palm of his hand. “Mmm-hmm.”

Henry remembers a plate glass window displaying unusual jewelry: earrings of semi-precious stones, one-of-a-kind artisan bracelets. Passersby would stop to admire, Granddad said; then, looking deeper into the shop, see the watchmaker and remember where to come when a watch needed repair. The jewelry helped pay the rent for a man who wanted nothing more than to mend clocks and watches.

Granddad occasionally bought something for Grandma. Walk-ins are unlikely up here, but there are a few necklaces and brooches in a dusty glass case. Loyal customers may still buy to support a last-of-a-kind craftsman. Henry will look closer later. Carol has seemed distant.

There can’t be many new customers. The yellow-page listings under Watches Serv & Repair could only replace a strap or a battery. A listing would probably cost Mr. Gordon more than new customers brought in. Henry found him in the white pages.

“An excellent timepiece,” the old man says. “Needs a mainspring. A collector’s item. Watches like this command a high price, perhaps several thousand. I can look around. You’d sell it? After your trip to your grandmother, of course.”

Several thousand? Carol’s home renovations required a second mortgage. Grandma, thank goodness, offered to buy his plane ticket. But he hasn’t come to sell a legacy. “Noooo. I don’t think so. Hadn’t thought of that. Granddad had this from his father – my great-grandfather. It’s worth repairing?”

“Of course. If the parts are still available. It will be worth more in working order. Pocket watches like this are scarce.”

“The parts aren’t all the same? Not standardized?”

“Ha!” the old man laughs mirthlessly. From a drawer he extracts a flat case with a dozen vials the size of a pinkie finger. He uncaps one, pouring its contents into a triangular ceramic dish, and peers through his loupe to seize a tiny screw in his tweezers.

“They never standardized. Different companies, different threads. Sometimes different from the same company.” He holds the screw up for Henry’s inspection with a rock-steady hand, then pours the screws back into the vial like a pharmacist funneling pills. From a drawer below he takes another case, and again pours out the contents of a vial. “My leftovers.” A thin smile: “Bastard sizes. My orphanage.”

Even without a loupe, Henry sees that they are all different. “Imagine! I had no idea. Yes, let’s bring Granddad’s watch back to life. I’ll think about selling it, but I certainly want it working. How long will it take?”

“Two weeks, three at most. Are there more?”

Henry visualizes the old jewelry box. “Yes. A silver wristwatch. And a gold from his retirement. And one of those self-winders.”

“Bring them when you come back, if you’d like.”

“Perhaps.” He glances at the jewelry case. A trinket for Carol might do what $40,000 of renovations hasn’t. “I may.”

Mr. Gordon pencils his phone number on the stub of a numbered cardboard tag that he ties to the watch, carefully tearing off the stub. “I’ll call and leave a message. Telephone first, please; I arrive late and leave early nowadays.”

The elevator down feels like a time-warp machine. Henry walks out, blinking at bright sunlight and shiny cars in what seems a different century. He is tempted to do a street poll: Anyone wearing a wind-up watch? He finds his car and drives home.

That evening, the watches are in the time-cracked leather jewelry box along with cuff links, tie clasps, and a tiny scimitar — an ivory crescent embracing a minuscule gold star — that once had been on the fob. He can hear Granddad: Gently, young man. That’s a delicate piece. Your great-grandfather’s. A Masonic symbol.

Three watches. Like having your savings in a mattress. Heritage doesn’t pay the bills. He might keep just one to remember Granddad by.

Two weeks later, the watch is ready. Henry arranges to come at mid-morning Saturday. Buzzed in again, he takes the time-capsule back up to the wizard’s inner sanctum.

“Ah, Mr. MacNamara.” Mr. Gordon rummages in a drawer, winds the watch, checks the time, hands it over.

“Guaranteed another twenty-two years?” Henry jokes.

“Of course, if you can find me among the living.” That thin smile. “And did you find another of his timepieces?”

Henry takes the silver wristwatch from his pocket and puts it in the old man’s hand.

“A Longines. A fine piece.” He winds it carefully, takes off the back with the twist of a blade and studies it through the loupe. “I saw it in 1985. Needs cleaning. Otherwise seems in good condition. Old enough to be a collector’s item. Did you want to sell it?”

“I might. What’s it worth?”

“There is a small private market I can explore. I act as middleman for a ten percent commission. I’ll show you what the buyer would pay; they respond in writing.”

Henry learned to tell time with this watch. Granddad would hold it up for the little boy on his lap. Now, Henry, the big hand is at the top and the little hand is at four. What time is it?  “That sounds reasonable. In any case, let’s put it into shape. Could you find out its worth and accept an appraisal fee if I don’t sell it? Something on a slip of paper, so my own grandson will someday appreciate it. Or I might sell it.”

“Won’t charge much. Give me a few weeks. Did you want me to look at others?”

Henry takes out a gold Elgin, the back engraved — Terence H. MacNamara — to mark Granddad’s twenty-fifth year with the company. Radium hands and dots on the hours. Hold it to a light bulb, Henry, then hurry into the closet to read the time. The numbers glowed green. Seven or eight years old, he’d spent an afternoon in and out of the closet.

Mr. Gordon winds, examines its face, opens it. “Also a wonderful timepiece. I can probably still replace any worn parts. Not as old as the pocket watch, although probably of significant value. I last had it twenty-four years ago. It is clean; perhaps not used much after that. You’ll sell this, or just have me restore and appraise it?”

The gold secondhand sweeps around the face. Granddad’s testimonial was black-tie. A family table in front, he at the head table to receive a standing ovation. At home two weeks ago, holding it to his ear, Henry had heard muted applause behind the ticking. Maybe this would be the one to keep.

“For now, let’s restore it. And find out its value. I mean apart from sentimental value, with the inscription and all.”

“Of course. I see that you have another?”

A stainless-steel Seiko automatic. Granddad, a gadgeteer, had hardly worn the retirement watch before finding this. Look, Henry, it winds by itself!

“Definitely a collector’s item. The quartz soon came, then the digitals. You would sell this?”

“I think so. For now, though, let’s just restore it. Determine its value. While you have it open, could I just see how it winds itself? I mean, I know in theory – Granddad explained it to me – but I’ve never seen the inner workings.”

He’d been in his teens. It has a little flywheel inside, Henry, whose weight is off-center so it goes around when you move your hand. Granddad slipped it off his wrist. Hold it to your ear, rotate it. Each rotation had produced an audible clunk.

Mr. Gordon unscrews the back. “Take it in your hand. The winding mechanism is quite visible.”

Henry sees the off-center flywheel rotate, sees a cog transmit the impulse to wind the mainspring. “Fascinating. It winds in either direction?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And how many revolutions to wind fully?”

“Walking briskly for an hour, arms swinging, was supposed to wind it for a day. You should consider selling it. Collectors love these. It has less sentimental value than the others?”

“You’re right.” Henry could pay down some of the mortgage, perhaps find something for Carol in the showcase. “Absolutely. I don’t need them all as keepsakes.”  The pocket watch is still on the work table. “Might I take a look into the railroad watch? Borrow a loupe?”

“Of course. Here. Squint as you screw it into your eye socket. Good.” He opens the watch and puts it into Henry’s hand. “The magnification can make you giddy. Bring your hand up until it comes into focus.”

The wheels and cogs are huge, like the machinery in Charlie Chaplin’s parody of modern times. Henry peers; gears swim into view, meshing with others. Gears still deeper in.

And there, as though in Grand Central, is Granddad. He takes this very watch out on its extra-long fob, checks the time. Gives Henry a thumbs-up, then steps behind a gear and is gone.

No, not gone. Just out of time.




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