Just in case you’ve been tuned out for a while, I’ve been stationed in Manhattan full-time since late June 2017, writing periodically about what’s happening in The New York. I’d been working on a story around riding the Staten Island Ferry for a very specific purpose, but it got stuck in the machine and won’t come out. What I hope you’re about to read, though, did come out.
This morning a friend sent me a long diatribe about Ralph Lauren’s watch collection. Ralph Lauren is that writer’s personal hero. I tried to read some of it, but it was so boring, so loaded with adulation of Ralph Lauren and his exquisite taste in everything that I couldn’t read very far. Ralph’s cars are worth more than the GDP of Poland. They’re the inspiration for his new line of watches. “If you got money, you can travel” is the line in an old Yiddish story. Ho-hum, another rags-to-riches story about unbelievably fantastic success, not-so-cleverly disguised as a sales job. That’s why that writer gets paid and I have to slog away at my computer just to remain sane.
I have nothing against Ralph Lauren, with the possible exception that he changed his name from Ralph Lifshitz. But I can’t say that I blame him. “Polo” goes much better with Lauren than it would with Lifshitz, a name that might have condemned him to life as a plumber in Brooklyn, where he was born. At least he doesn’t try to hide that. But Brooklyn is cool these days, all the rage since Manhattan fell out of favor with the hipsters.
I have some of Ralph’s shirts. They have that little figure on the front, the brown horse upon which sits a guy dressed in blue and white and wielding a long stick.
They do not have a handy pocket in the front, that perfect place to clip your Parker Jotter. Many’s the time I have thought about tossing them all and replacing them with shirts that DO have a handy pocket on the front. What has Ralph got against pockets? Would the presence of pockets on your short-sleeve Oxford cloth shirts be an admission that you actually work for a living, unlike Ralph Lauren, who presides over a vast empire based on fashion, a guy who designs watches for fun? Give me a break, please.
Ralph’s shirts (I bought mine cheap at an outlet store on the Outer Banks of North Carolina) are very nice. The cloth is substantial, and some of the buttons are backed up with a little tab of fabric. The buttons do not fall off after six months. His stuff looks sharp and wears long. But what does it have to do with Polo? Polo comes from India, or China, or Iran, or Mongolia, or Pakistan. No one really knows. You do need a horse to play it, which, these days, means you also need a good chunk of bucks just to operate the horse. This was smart marketing on Ralph’s part, linking his clothes to a sport that only rich guys play. I read that he delivered his first line to various stores himself, right from his office in the Empire State Building, which was another bit of smart marketing. Since then Ralph has made a pile of bucks, and he probably has a pretty nifty collection of just about everything that a guy living one of those designer lifestyles should have.
It just so happens that I have a pretty nifty watch collection, hidden in the top drawer of a very nifty little cabinet named Bisley.
I bought Bisley at the Container Store on Lexington Avenue with no clear idea why. But it happened that all my watches fit perfectly into the top drawer. But now, since my watches are out of sight, I usually forget to open the top drawer, select one, and strap it onto my left wrist. That’s how it is when you get old and you haven’t got an attention span or a memory or a routine. So be warned: out of sight, out of mind, and therefore out of time. I even forget that Bisley’s there.
If Ralph can tell the story of his watches, I can tell mine. And that’s what I’m going to do, right here and now. I’ll bet it’s even more interesting and a lot funnier. So here they are, left to right, just like in the picture.
The first one with the white face and the red second hand that ends in a little ball is a Mondaine. It looks like the clocks in Swiss railway stations. It’s simple, easy to read, n’est-ce pas? One wide-eyed day in July 2o16, before I moved to the City and became street-smart, I was leaving Grand Central Station. And I walked right into a trap: a watch store named Central Watch. That’s where this jewel caught my eye. They didn’t accept credit cards, so I gave them all the cash I had, which was $18 short. But wonder of wonders, they said, “Just bring us the rest tomorrow.” I couldn’t believe how trusting they were. After I got home, I looked the watch up online. It cost half as much online as it did at Central Watch. “Yeah, but we’ll give you a two-year warranty.” That’s what they told me. I handed them the $18.
The next one, the gold one, is a Seiko Quartz with a mirror face. It’s not real gold. It wasn’t expensive. It just looks it. I had seen a thin plain gold watch on some guy’s wrist, and it looked quite elegant to me. When I was in Switzerland learning to teach Transcendental Meditation, on my free time I’d go down the mountain into a very charming little watch shop filled with little clocks and very fine Swiss watches, presided over by a slightly chubby little watchmaker dressed in his white watchmaker’s costume, like a scientist in his laboratory. Everything in that shop just shimmered with Swiss precision. Day after day I dreamed about which Swiss watch I would bring home to the US. There was an automatic self-winding watch named Eterna that seemed just right for a spiritually-emergent guy like me. But a guy on my meditation course said, “Forget it. Swiss watches are nothing but trouble. When you get back to the US, just buy a Seiko Quartz.” And that’s what I did.
The next black beauty is a rare bird. After I bought a (pre-owned) Saab convertible in 2012, I became enormously proud, so proud that I started to buy all kinds of things to identify myself as a Saab owner. I bought Saab T-shirts and Saab books and Saab key fobs. To this day I have no idea why it all happened. By the time I bought my Saab, Saab was already in the throes of bankruptcy, on its way toward total extinction, the unprofitable victim of too many years as an extremely safe, over-engineered car typically owned by fanatical architects and socialists. So when I saw this watch somewhere online, I had to have it. I emailed Japan. I emailed two places in Sweden, and even Czechoslovakia, for crying out loud. Then I emailed France. VOILA! They had it! I sent them a very reasonable amount of money, and they sent me the watch. It’s patterned after the turbo boost gauge on a Saab 99. Most weeks it’s my favorite. It may be the only one in New York City. A young guy on the train saw it and went berserk. He asked for my phone number and said he’d call in a few days. Male bonding is what wrist watches are all about. That was two months ago. The guy still hasn’t called.
The Bulova, with the black face, gold hands and crown, is a very recent acquisition. I was walking along Lexington Avenue—which may be the last bastion of small retail in the US—nothing much on my mind except, 1, money burning a hole in my pocket and 2, the eternal feeling that something’s missing from life. It’s a funny combination of circumstances, one that makes a guy bleed money. The shop where I found it is a tiny and charming: Benoit Jewelers on 827 Lex, on the east side of Lex just past 63rd. They don’t have so much as a website. They do have classical service. If you need a watch or your watch needs a battery, go there. I wasn’t there long enough to learn too much about the store. The man I met, who must be the owner, is a real old-fashioned European merchant. This is rare, folks.
The next one is a stainless steel Seiko Quartz that’s exactly like the stainless steel Seiko Quartz watch I bought for 65 bucks in a store in Raleigh, NC, about 25 years ago. It was very handsome very simply, with eminently readable day/date symbols (see?). All I ever had to do for that watch was to replace the battery every five years or so. Its little quartz step motor just kept on stepping forward until the sad little moment when it didn’t. And, bereft by the departure of my noble and reliable Japanese friend—which caused me to lose faith in all things material—I went out and bought something totally disposable, some tawdry Timex thing that had a dual display with hands and a digital readout, all black plastic and square, too. By no stretch of the imagination was the Timex elegant. After a short while, nostalgia hit. So I hit eBay, where, lo and behold, my old Seiko friend waited for me. It’s a real classic, almost like a Rolex but minus the rigors of wearing a Rolex and maintaining a Rolex, which I hear is a rather pricey annual event.
The next one, another black beauty that appears to have luminous hour marks and hands, was a birthday present I bought for myself when it became apparent that no one had any plans to buy me a birthday present. I reasoned it this way: I had never purchased an expensive watch. I was becoming older. I needed something to wear on my wrist to assert my aging masculinity and to proclaim my growing authority. Presto! A Lum-Tec watch magically appeared on the horizon. It was only four hundred dollars. Compared to a Patek Philippe or a Vacheron Constantin, four hundred Georges is peanuts. It came in a nicely padded box with a couple of different wrist bands. It has three minor dials with their own little hands. I can’t read any of them. I can’t read its tiny little date number. I don’t know what to do with the two buttons that flank the crown. The watch is supposed to be easy to read in the dark; hence the name “Lum-Tec.” It’s not. It’s sole saving grace is that it’s drop-dead fighter-pilot cool in bright sunlight. And it’s subtle, almost sneaky. That’s why they call it the Phantom. I’m gonna sell it on eBay one day. Maybe.
The last one? Funny you should ask. It’s maybe not so interesting. ‘Way back before I had much to do, I wandered around town. One day I got stuck & lost in Macy’s, which is very easy to do. It’s the world’s largest store. The watch department, like everything in Macy’s, is enormous. It’s too big to photograph. I wandered through it, innocently, eyes wide open. I found a man from Bangladesh, talking to a saleslady. He wanted to see the world at peace. He wanted to help unify the various religious factions on Earth, and he wanted to do it by talking to people. He was a good man, no doubt. The saleslady was from Long Island. She smiled a lot. She liked the man’s noble intent. The conversation drifted onto another field, and so did I. I had a purchase to make. World peace would have to wait for a few months, while I made up my mind what to do about it.
There are more watches in Macy’s watch department than anywhere else on Earth. I’d put money on that. Macy’s has every fancy brand name watch, including the watch every watch fanatic knows: the Movado museum watch, the one with the plain black unmarked face, gold hands, and the little ornament at 12 o’clock. The clerk at one counter wore one. I noticed it. She liked that. “It proves how much he loves me,” she said. I’ve seen that watch too many times. Thankfully, it now has a less dressy offspring, one with more color, more markings, a readable day/date window—and a little circle at 12 o’clock. That’s the one that went home with me. It’s pure fashion, nothing else. It doesn’t make phone calls or announce emails or give me car insurance quotes on demand. But it’s fun and colorful to wear, and it offsets the cheap Wrangler cargo pants I buy at Target.
I have no picture of my Casio Solar Atomic watch. It was a technological miracle, solar powered and completely self-adjusting, because every day around 4am, it received a radio signal from the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. It was always knew exactly what time it was and what day it was and whether it was daylight savings time. The only catch was, 1, you had to set it to the time zone you were in, and 2, that it had to be in the right place to get the signal from the atomic clock, and 3, it had to be in the sun to keep its charge. Despite all that sophisticated technology, it was dirt cheap—about $70. It came with a tiny but very thick instruction book I had to consult every time I tried to use it. It could show the time for every major city on Earth. It had a stopwatch and a timer and an alarm, and, and…one day, when I went to put it on my wrist, I saw that it had stopped.
I was a little sad, because that watch held such promise. I just tossed it in the kitchen can. That was the first time I threw a watch in the trash.
I hold onto the Swiss Army Watch at the top of the group photo, even though it doesn’t work. It was my father’s last watch. He had a bunch of ’em. He liked watches, too.
I ♥ NY