Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Have Played the Role of Hiram

“Florence, there is nothing wrong with your clock!” bellows Alexander Phillips, the village clockmaker of Bar Harbor, Maine, leaning over the counter on his elbow to achieve maximum volume. Florence looks like a Florence, willowy, white-haired, and elegant, and she laughs at him as the door swings shut behind her. Alex fetches her time piece, a square mantle clock with a rendering of Mount Desert Island on its face, from the warren-like recesses of his shop, low-ceilinged, and smelling of old oiled brass.

He has looked at it. Nothing is wrong mechanically. Heads bent together, they go through a checklist of potential maladies. Has she been winding it the right way? Has she jiggled it, just so, to get the balance wheel going? Beside them on the counter, a tall hour glass in a wooden frame has spent itself out.

The ticking of a hundred clocks, meting out the moments, nearly drowns out their conference: Dark and dour English tavern clocks. Camel-humped Tambour mantle clocks. Cuckoo clocks with Bavarian milkmaids dancing from a spring to the rhythm of the second hand. If one of the clocks weren’t keeping a good second time, Alex would hear it, like a mother knows which child is sick. But they all keep good time, and underneath them plays, subdued, the “Moonlight Sonata.”
Between the clocks, Alex has pasted various signs, now faded. They all say, “Do not touch,” in various languages: Serbian, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin. When cruise ship passengers stop in town, Alex persuades them to translate the signs for him. Which one spoke Latin, he does not divulge.

At the counter, maintenance issues resolved, Florence and Alex discuss a price. It sounds like a conversation they have had before.

He argues it down.

She argues it up, but he wipes his fleshy palms on his soiled denim apron and lifts his craggy brows at her, as if insulted, and the price stays where he wants it, with no further haggling.

Interactions like this one may sum up why, for the last twenty years, Alex has worked in the underground floor of 110 Main Street, his shop accessible only by a steep wooden staircase hidden from plain view. If his shop, where he specializes in the repair and sale of antique and custom clocks and watches, made a bit more, he might move into a street-level space with higher rent, where the tourists and the daylight could find him easier. Instead, on days like today, in the dim, yellow fluorescent wattage leaking from overhead, he labors at his work bench with his constant companions: the clocks, ever noisy; a chocolate labrador named Finn, ever silent; and a yellowed old phone, which clangs intermittently from the wall.

“Alexander Phillips,” he says when he answers it, pressing the receiver to his ear. Under the denim apron, he wears Oxford pants, an umbrella tie, and a blue pinstripe shirt, buttoned to his rosy neck but rolled once at the sleeves. Around his neck he wears spectacles, purely industrial in function and design, with a magnifying glass mounted over one lens with a bendable wire. He pulls them on whenever something excites him. Sixty-four, he’s a stocky man, with tousled gray hair gone white at the temples. His light hazel eyes go almost blue around the rims of the iris. He has a bulldoggish face, loose, folded, happy, and as though there had been just one brush available when it came time to render him, all his features are thickly drawn, from his broad-lipped mouth to his blunt and link-like fingers, equally unexpected for a classically trained pianist, or for a master clockmaker. Alex is both.

When he answers, his voice is gravelly gruff. Though it lacks the Maine vowels, it’s still a Yankee voice: crisp, blunt, and matter-of-fact when profane.

Alex came by his accent honestly. Raised in Connecticut, which Alex likes to think of as the heartland of American clockmaking, he showed early musical promise. His parents sent him to study the piano at a conservatory in New York City. Though not unsuccessful as a musician, Alex found himself gravitating towards a family tradition and a childhood fascination: tinkering with the spinning gears of clocks. He spent his spare hours after class in the workshops of New York’s master clockmakers. Before long, he became an apprentice. He learned the trade naturally, instinctively, by feel and by heart.

That was forty years ago, but Alex still works out those lessons with the undoused passion of a boy.

“At the bench is how you learn,” he insists, opening the face of a pocket watch to reveal its innards. In his mind, it’s the only way. Of course, he explains, showing off the coiled mainspring, (“That’s the engine of the watch.”) and the balance wheel, as intricate and crushable as a dragonfly (“the watch’s heart”), there are vocational courses that people can take to learn watch repair, but only “at the bench” would a person learn all the little tricks. A graduate of the vocational training wouldn’t know, for instance, that village tinkers used to “fix” clocks with bailing wire or a cotton ball doused in kerosene and jammed into the works, or that certain clockworks, though now valued as antiques, were mechanical failures to begin with (“The Seth Thomas 124!” he cries, like a fond father’s empty scolding, “What a dog!”).

Alex sometimes makes his own custom repair parts, because no one sells the parts that he needs. To do this, he pours over old reference books in his horological library at home to figure out what the part should look like. Then, he tools the piece out of bronze stock salvaged from a junkyard. He can tell just by its heft whether the bronze has the right amount of zinc in it. The tools he uses to make parts he purchased years ago from clockmakers’ widows when their husbands had died. His newest machine is from 1935.

In homage to his virtuosity, Alex receives repair jobs from as far away as Alaska and Chile, and from names as illustrious as Leonard Bernstein and Josephine Ford, on whose name he lingers with particular warmth. “Dodie,” he calls her.

Sometimes, Alex receives an order for a custom clock. For these, he charges between $50,000 and $60,000. The last one, a mantle clock in the shape of an arrowhead, he recalls with flashing eyes, his hands fondling the air in remembrance of its dimensions. Such jobs come only rarely, though – perhaps one every five or six years.

Most work is more pedestrian. He services the clock at the First National Bank and the clock on the village green, both less than a block from his shop. Or he helps neighborhood ladies remember the right way to wind their watches. Or, as he does now, he removes the extra links from a cheap drugstore watch, belonging to nurse named Melanie, while she’s on break from her shift at the medical center.

They decide on four links; it’s the work of a moment.

“Do you want these back?” he asks.

“Not unless I grow back a couple sizes.”

“Well, you could get pregnant. Things happen.” He lifts his shoulders roguishly.

“Don’t jinx me,” she says just to shush him, pays her $5 repair bill and leaves.

It’s like that all morning. Alex stands content behind the counter as long as he can tell stories, share inane horological trivia, or make a pretty nurse blush. He rarely needs prompting, unloading his encyclopedic brain with liberality. Each clock reminds him of a story, a customer, a pet piece of history, often vague or romanticized. He could go on for hours, and does. The clocks’ incessant ticking is the music of a small solar system, and Alex is its sun.

But though content with his shop’s more trivial traffic, Alex considers himself first and foremost a craftsman. “I have played the part of Hiram,” reads a laser-printed card taped to the wall, by which Alex links himself to Hiram Abi, the master artisan who, in Freemason lore, superintended the construction of Solomon’s temple.

It’s a craftsmanship that’s dying out, though. Alex estimates that only a few thousand of his kind still exist, most of them, like himself, in the waning days of their careers. When asked about the barriers to entry for new clockmakers, he sniffs out a one-word response: “Torts.”
A climate of litigation, says Alex, has made it harder for clockmakers to take on an apprentice for work with dangerous machines.

“More trouble than it’s worth,” he adds, and rolls his heavy shoulders up and down.
Added to these difficulties is the increasing anachronism of Alex’s profession. Few people even wear watches, he points out, leaving clockmakers with the increasingly slender market of belfry clocks, museum pieces, and heirloom grandfather clocks. The new quartz watches don’t even allow for traditional repair, instead requiring the rote replacement of its entire inner workings. So easy. So cheap.

Alex himself wears a quartz watch. He used to wear a Bulova Accutron tuning fork wrist watch, a beautiful machine, the object of his obsession, with its petite tuning fork vibrating at a fantastic rate of 30 Megahertz. In its day, it was a dramatic improvement over the balance wheel, like the one in the old pocket watch, which managed only 18,000 oscillations per hour. But as the Bulova aged, Alex could no longer find the parts to repair it, and he abandoned it, adopting instead the inexpensive quartz timepiece that a customer had left behind. The quartz watch, worth perhaps $10, keeps better time than either the $2,000 chronometer taken from a British destroyer, better time than even the $20,000 English tavern clock which dongs dolefully on the hour.

Alex tells the story of a deadly train wreck (which one is difficult to tell, nor is it important; it’s part of a general principle he wants to convey) in the 19th century, caused, in part, by the failure of local railroads to adopt standardized timetables. The clockmaker’s trade, lagging behind the technological vanguard of timekeeping, seems likewise bound for a fatal collision with the future.

Alex acknowledges the downward spiral of his livelihood, and, as if in sympathy, he plans to keep returning to his workbench until equally moribund. When a local EMT visited the shop recently, Alex advised him that if he died in the shop, they should carry his body out through the back door, beneath the glinting watch chains and the serpentine mainsprings dangling from hooks in the ceiling. Above all things, they must take care not to knock over any of the clocks. His wife, dear, responsible Ellen who winds all the clocks on Monday mornings, will know which clock belongs to whom, and how much they owe for the repair, from a hand-written card affixed to its face with a bit of adhesive tape.

Beyond that, Alex has not troubled himself. He has no children to whom he could pass down the business, nor has he bothered at any time with an apprentice, the inconvenience being too great.
“My nieces and nephews might like to have the heirloom pieces,” he reflects. “I’ve got that grandfather clock from Uncle Fleischmann. He was a clockmaker. It’s got that nice, deep, German, chime. Ja! Das ist deustch!” (He does not speak German, but he likes to play at accents.)

When Alex dies, the shop, with its clocks all teeming to that moment like a hundred beating hearts, will also die (though not a moment sooner). Alex takes this philosophically, even cheerfully.

“When it comes down to it, the clocks are machines, and I’m a mechanic, not an antiquarian horologist,” he asserts. He adopts a mockingly pedantic accent for just the last two words, and he holds the magnifying piece over his eyes in the manner of a monocle.

Adoring all machines (though harboring, one must suspect, a deep fondness for the quaint quirkiness of older clocks), he finds ample consolation in the march of progress. Anything with wheels, with gears, with movement, becomes at once his darling. At home these days, he’s working on an 11,000-pound international harvester with 500-pound parts, of which he says, “It’s the cutest thing!”

He might hate cell phones, which all the young people seem to carry instead of watches, for ruining his profession, but he doesn’t. He thinks that they are marvelous devices. In fact, he suspects that we will all soon have chips inserted under our skin, much like those embedded under the skin of his two labradors. “I would get one,” he insists, just to see how it works!”
Some years ago, he even sold his Steinway. He replaced it with a Yamaha Clavinova, a digital piano that he loves to distraction. One gets the impression that as long as the future promises new devices, it may come as soon as it pleases.

And if clockmaking is a natural casualty of progress, Alex will see it off with a cheerful wave of his thick and nimble fingers, having played Hiram to the last living tick of his own beating heart.

“’Apres moi, le deluge.’ Salvador Dali,” says the clockmaker, the French words coming out chewed and spit from his Yankee mouth. After me, the flood can come.

In point of fact, those words belong to King Louis XV of France, but in Alex’s romantic and richly associative mind, it is perhaps more fitting to attribute them to Dali, who painted the clocks that he saw in his dreams, melting away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Maine Thing

Hi, friends -

Not that I write all that much on here these days, but a little bit of blog silence is coming your way. On Saturday morning I'm taking a 17-hour (because I'm crazy) bus ride (because "high net worth" will never be attached to my name) to Maine (because I've always wanted to see it) for two weeks (because it's not benefit dinner season any more, and I can escape without anyone minding too much).

But when I come back, I promise you lots and lots of musings on life that only oodles of free time on a rocky summertime coastline could inspire. You'll wish I had never come back.

A Rose

Monday, June 1, 2009

Poems for Jesus: Trust

You have never done a thing
To merit my distrust
My hedging, my second-guessing, my covering the bases
You have never done a thing
It is in me - the brokenness
That can't quite span
The goodness
The wholeness
The embarrassing extravagance of your self-giving
It's not your fault
If I come to the wrong solution
If I still calculate
With the wrong constant
You have never done a thing
But pour the fulness of mercy
Onto me
You have never done a thing
But sit beside me in the darkness
Of need and not knowing
You have never done a thing
But spin me dizzy in the dance
Until I forgot to cry and laughed instead
You have never done a thing
But everything
And I don't understand it.