Friday, December 28, 2012

My Life as a Watch Man

Photos of me from 30 years ago show a young man dressed about as I am now — blue jeans, button-down cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The glasses changed from the aviator style to something more classical (less 1980s, that is) and I augmented the thinning hair with beards and goatees until I finally settled on my current look a decade ago. So while I've never been a fashionista,  a close observer would notice some attention to detail, within the rigid limits of straight male style.

Here's an example.

Coming home on the train yesterday, I noticed a man with a tie that caught my attention. Its swirls and blue-green tones looked exactly like something I would ear. He had a grizzled look, prep-school baseball cap turned backwards, probably a coach or aging jock, approximately my age. We stood by the door, both leaving at the same station. I decided to break through the thick silence among suburban male commuters and remarked, "I really like that tie," I told him, as a third man, whom I recognized from the regular slog to New York, looked on.

"Yeah, it's a Jerry Garcia tie," he said.

That explained the magnetic attraction — I have two Jerry Garcia ties, beloved gifts from my marriage, and they are essential to my personal style on those rare occasions when I wear a tie to the office.

"I've got two of them myself," I said. "I love the design." After at least 15 years of steady use, they still look great.

The man standing with us chimed in with a comment about the Grateful Dead. Suddenly, we three strangers had a bond to tie us together. The first man, Grizzled Jock, had met Garcia several times while a college student.

"He keeps making money even after he died," he mused.

The doors opened and we went our separate ways. The talk inspired a New Year's resolution — wear more ties. I have a lifetime collection, enough to keep me in fashion in the most formal of work environments. My closet includes two orange-and-black ties, purchased at the Princeton University Store, required wear for any alumni events I attend (as well as the occasional corporate event at the Harvard Club in New York). I've got plenty of plain blue, yellow and pink shirts perfectly ready to be worn with my black and dark-blue khakis and brightened with ties from J. Garcia and other purveyors of men's style, often with an Art Deco motif.

Besides ties, the urge for ornamentation exists primarily on my right wrist. I've always enjoyed watches. As a teen I gravitated to the trendiest 70s look with leather bands sporting multiple buckles. When I graduated from college, my father gave me an inscribed TAG Heuer watch with both digital and analog displays. It constantly broke down and multiple repairs couldn't keep it running. I soldiered along with forgettable watches until I experienced a time-keeping epiphany at a flea market on New York's Upper West Side in the late 1980s. A watch dealer displayed an incredible Art Deco watch with a rectangular face and a sleek gold-toned band. I had to have it and I bought it immediately. For decades it was THE classiest watch I had, the perfect detail for swanky nights on the town and serious job interviews. This was nicknamed the Deco watch.

My stable of watches grew over the years. Each purchase remains a sharply etched memory. As a student of Russian history, I jumped at the opportunity to buy Russian watches newly available in the West after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the USSR. in September 1989, while on my honeymoon in Italy, I bought a Raketa watch with an intriguing design; it included an adjustable monthly calendar, beginning in 1981 and concluding in the inconceivably distant year of 1999. Its blue face and cyrillic lettering gave it an exotic air. This is the Honeymoon watch.

In the 1990s, I inherited a Greenwood watch — thick square crystal, chunky metal-link band, from my friend Rena Frank,. whom I had known since 1980 through Project Dorot, which connects the Jewish elderly with visiting volunteers. Before she died in 1994, Rena, a Berlin native who escaped to London in 1938 and then on to New York in 1952, gave me the watch, which belonged to her brother. The watch had deep meaning as it came from this treasured friendship, and its connection to a vanished European world.  I call it the Rena watch.



Over a decade later, at a display stand at the long-vanished International Pavilion at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, I celebrated the start of a new job by buying two more Russian watches. One had a dark-green face and the name "Kommandirsky," in script cyrillic letters. The other, truly awesome, piece was the Poljot brand (Russian for "Flight") watch. This had stopwatch functions and remains the thickest watch I'd ever seen, so massive and unyielding I nicknamed it the Soviet Bloc watch.

For years, these watches satisfied my fashion needs. They ranged from the understated and elegant Gruen and Greenwood to the show-stopping novelty of the three Russian watches. They became the signature of my personal style, to the extent a man can break out of the the dictates of officewear. I'm content to follow the khaki and button-down look. Indeed, I joke that I could pull clothes out of my closet blindfolded and they would inevitably go together. And if I happened to pull down a plain blue shirt, then any tie would also look good.

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

I started thinking about contenders for the title of my personal Queen of Soul in late June, after I attended the American Roots Music Fes...