Watch Repair and Other Sources of Inspiration02:39
Esther Cohen teaches Good Stories at Manhattanville College. She’s the author of 5 books, including Book Doctor, Don’t Mind Me And Other Jewish Lies, and God is a Tree. In previous columns, Esther has written about what makes a writer and how to get the words out.
The story of our life is not our life. It is our story. --JOHN BARTH
Great to read about you on WEbook. I’m interested to know as much as I can about all of you, your stories, and your writing. Here’s mine:I was late (I am rarely late. I don’t like to keep anyone waiting. But sometimes it’s inevitable. Subways, buses who knows what). It happened one day when I was to meet two women I’m doing some freelance writing for. I earn my living in many ways. Some of them involve words – not words that evoke necessarily (although evocation is something I’m always trying to do). Sometimes I just write Words for Hire. I was late, walking quickly, but not all that quickly, because I was wearing high heels for my appointment.
I was thinking about what I was handing in. Was it good enough? Would I have to rewrite it? How would the women – my clients – respond? They are young and unpredictable.
I was walking down Broadway, from my apartment in the 70’s, to 65th Street, where we’d planned our meeting. The women lived out of town. I was behind two friends, a woman and man, in their late twenties or early thirties. They were both very thin – a little too thin, actually. Too thin makes me nervous. I have never been too thin. And never will be, either. I’m just not a thin type.
The woman said to her friend (they were both dressed in black. Not just any black, but black trendy – tight and new and asymmetrical in a way I knew meant Now). “I can’t believe he’s another married man with a wife named Sandra. There must be hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Who knows. Maybe there are a million married men with Sandra wives.”
When she said that, I immediately started thinking of a story to write. One woman, her lovers, and all their Sandra wives.
Someone else said to me, years ago at a party – I was in the Village, and the host was a man I did not know well, a playwright type, although he could have been an actor or a scenery painter. He had that theater-y personality. Why do so many of us look like what we do? I’ve wondered that for years. An attractive woman, my age more or less, introduced herself to me. She had the ease of someone who introduced herself often and well to all those around her. I imagined her walking through the bus, shaking hands with strangers. Her first sentence was a memorable one: I’ve been with seven Sams. I saved this sentence in my forever folder, thinking: What a title. What a Story. What an art exhibit: Pictures of All My Sams.
Maybe Sams and Sandras is the title I’ll use, one day.
Later in the week, I went to 47th Street to have the crystal on my husband’s watch replaced. I’d borrowed his vintage watch one day, in order to look more official (why the vintage watch looks more official than my Swatch I’m not sure. But it does.) The crystal broke the day I wore it. I’m not sure how. It just did.
My friend Marion used to sell jewelry on 47th street. She told me that the watch makers there are masters, although she didn’t have a specific recommendation. I looked online to find out where to go, and wrote out a list of half a dozen. (Imagine a block anywhere in the world with half a dozen watch repairmen. They were all men. It seems to be a man’s job, even now.)
The block itself is from another time, another place. It’s all jewelry – diamonds, watches, earrings, rings. Immigrant men from all around the world are standing in the street, entreating every single passerby to sell their gold, or buy it. It’s like being in a foreign country somewhere – Hong Kong or Marrekesh, maybe – and not New York City in 2009. I visited many watchmakers, just to see them. They were born all over the world. In the end, I settled on Rafael, from Tajikistan. He made his own tools – beautiful wooden knobs of all shapes and sizes, with long metal points of every possible width and length. There’s not a watch that exists, he said, that he couldn’t fix. It so happens that I had a drawer full of broken watches. Don’t ask me why. I buy them at flea markets for their beautiful faces, intending one day to find someone like Rafael. Now all the watches in my drawer work. And Rafael’s story (famous rabbi father, seven brothers, his curved path to learning about watches, and life) reminded me of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. One of my favorite authors. Now maybe I’m the one who’ll write Rafael’s story…
Tell me about your week. I wait to hear.
Here's a second poem for inspiration:You write about the life that's vividest.
And if that is your own, that is your subject.
And if the years before and after sixteen
Are colorless as salt and taste like sand—
Return to those remembered chilly mornings,
The light spreading like a great skin on the water...
--FROM "GROUND SWELL" BY MARK JARMAN