If you know me, you know I have a soft spot in my heart for old watches. I love the mechanics inside devices that pre-date the quartz-and-battery era: the little springs, the pivots that turn on tiny jewels, the craftsmanship and artistry that are embodied inside them. The accuracy of watches was improved markedly in the 19th century, my hazy memory tells me, after trains collided when one engineer left too early, or the other left too late.
These days my crappy Wenger Swiss Army watch keeps better time than my Raymond Weil automatic, but it is far less interesting. Open it up and you see plastic and a battery that can be replaced, but not much else. The Weil watch has a glass bottom through which you can see the movement, including a weight that swirls to-and-fro as my arm does, which keeps the mainspring inside tensioned so that the watch keeps ticking without requiring a battery or the need to be wound.
Neither of these are as interesting as my 150-year-old Waltham pocket watch. Pop open the case and not only do you see the intricacies of the movement, but also beautiful patterns on the case called "Damaskeening."
One day, I may bring this watch to Chris Carey at Watertown Watch and Clock. Old school watch shops like the one Chris and his wife run are about as easy to find these days as Republicans who think Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but this one will clean and repair your old Waltham watch and will offer free advice, including "that clock isn't really worth repairing."
All this watch talk reminds me of visiting Europe back in the summer of 1983, after my sophomore year of college, when I took the little bit of money I had earned in May and June and met up with my old friend Peter Cook to busk on the streets of Paris, Rome, and Florence.
I arrived in London and quickly set my sights on meeting another friend, Bond (his actual name), in Amsterdam. I would probably have wandered those pot-infused streets aimlessly had Bond and his traveling companion not encouraged me to visit every museum I could, my favorite of which soon became The Stedelijk Museum. I had never visited a modern art museum like the Stedelijk prior to that and was immediately drawn to the irony of the pieces. One installation in particular, called "The Beanery," immediately resonated with me. A recreation of a bar in Los Angeles, the Beanery evoked numerous subtexts and metaphors by replacing the bar patrons' heads with clocks. My mind swam with the possible messages that the artist, Edward Kienholz, was conveying. Walking through the piece, it struck me that we are ruled by time, constantly checking our watches to tell us what our next move will be, not paying attention to the people we're with but at time itself, instead of letting it pass unnoticed.
Forty years later, we humans are still governed by the clock, but not nearly as much as we are controlled by our smartphones, whose screens hold our attention for hours a day. For a moment, I was imagining that The Beanery would be more fittingly evocative of our current human condition if the clock heads were replaced with smartphones. But the analogy doesn't really hold: Many of the figures in that installation are looking at their drinking buddies, and the ones who aren't are either inebriated or simply standing alone, as if pondering life. A truly apt modern version of The Beanery would have each figure staring down into their hand, not even bothering to pretend they are interested in speaking to the person they just bought a drink for.