A TIME WARP ON SECOND AVENUE…Where Is the World We Used To Know ?

| July 2, 2012 | Comments (0)

Buried somewhere in the middle of George Orwell’s “1984” is a haunting description of a tiny shop that somehow, because of its insignificance, has escaped the gaze of Big Brother. It is a dark, cobweb-ridden hole-in-the-wall in a down and out neighborhood.  Inside there is no grim monitor on the wall; the place is presided over by an old codger who babbles on about the old days, the days before WAR=PEACE AND JOY.

But despite its gloomy atmosphere the old shop is not depressing. To the contrary, for  Winston, the hero of “1984”, the dank  cavern is a refuge of joy and light, a place where freedom reigns, where  people are still humans, still individuals with their own private thoughts, their hopes and dreams. Big Brother and the totalitarian state he embodies are no where to be seen.

Yesterday I felt I had walked into the pages of Orwell’s novel when I stepped into Josef’s Repair Store at the corner of 45th Street and 2d Avenue in Manhattan. What prompted my visit was a watch band. Several years ago I bought a SWATCH wrist watch. Ever since the purchase of this time piece, I had been plagued by the band breaking. Badly designed and made of plastic, it was a classic creation of  our culture of the disposable. The  band would crack after a few weeks’ use; at one point I almost lost it when the watch fell from my wrist while I was riding the subway. Had it not been for a vigilant and helpful fellow passenger who nudged me and pointed to the floor where the watch lay, it would have been gone.

Having the band changed at the SWATCH store was costly and there was no alternative for replacement;   only another easily broken plastic strap and, due to its rather idiosyncratic, three-pronged design, no other store would work on it.  I puzzled about what I should do. Chuck the damned thing in the garbage and buy another watch ? A snazzy, thin, expensive Rolex ? Go to Chinatown and find  an attractive knock-off  from the Peoples’ Republic of China ? Or just  forget about wearing a watch all together ?  Why did I need a watch anyway ? Being a “retired” person, I had no need to cleave to a tight schedule.  My presence was no longer demanded  in windowless meeting rooms where endless confabs stretching for hours  would consume afternoons tousling over whether the word “manage” was preferable to “administer” in the composition of a report that  nobody was going to read !

Besides, my trusty cell phone told me the time in the upper right hand corner of the screen. A wrist watch was really superfluous. The techological clock had struck the hour, so to speak, and it was time to walk free and watch-less. But somehow my arm seemed naked without a watch; I felt I was not a person who could be taken seriously without one. Glancing periodically to check the time gave me dignity and gravitas. Especially these days  now that I really have no where to go, checking the time would  look good to anybody who might, by chance, glance at me. They wouldn’t know that I was headed for the gym or Starbucks or returning home for an afternoon siesta or just going to sit in the park and feed the pigeons. For all they knew, I was hurrying to a conference about networking or global-warming. Yes, a time piece was still a necessary part of my persona. A comforting disguise.

Sharing my disgust with my Swatch, I complained to my ever-sympathetic partner who suggested I go to Josef. But WHO was Josef and WHERE was he located, I asked. Working in a backwater office of the United Nations on 45th Street just by Second Avenue, I had never in 25 years come across Josef’s Repair Shop even though my partner said it was half a block from my office. Following his directions, I proceeded to the corner of 45th and Second and found myself standing in front of what appeared to be an abandoned store. The windows and glass door were so dirty and smudged with the soot of time that I couldn’t see beyond the grit and grime. There was no sign either. Obviously, an enterprise that had gone bankrupt and was closed.  Convinced that my partner was mistaken, I turned  and was about to walk away when a a sari-clad Indian lady emerged through the gloomy door with a wide grin on her face. She was clutching two pairs of high-heeled shoes, murmuring to herself with a wag of her head, “Oh…veddy  cheap and veddy good !”

Convinced by this happy testament that there must be something going on behind the dirty door, I entered the tiny shop and was astounded to find it jam-packed with people, the kind of people, I could instantly sense, who know what a good bargain was, the kind of people, unlike me, who would comparative-shop at three places for a pair of socks before making a purchase.

Alone behind the counter was an elderly  man who I assumed was Josef. Despite his age, he was strapping and athletic, smiling as he moved about doing what seemed to be many things at once. Two other sari-clad ladies waited bare-footed while he worked on their sandals, a man in a three-piece suit had come in with a damaged umbrella – imagine in New York City, repairing a damaged umbrella ! – and there I was with my watch. Expecting to wait a bit before my turn came, I was surprised when Josef looked up briefly from his work,  glancing at me  with a quizzical, friendly “Yes?”

I decided, prone as I am to wordiness, that a long-winded explanation was NOT in order so I simply said, “Watch band problem” placing the irritable time piece in his out-stretched hand.  As he leaned over  the counter and his shirt sleeve moved up  a few inches, I saw engraved on his arm blue tattooed numbers. His eyes caught my glance as he replied with a thick Eastern European accent, “OK, it will be just a minute !” Somehow, and it is beyond me how he managed, Josef seemed to work simultaneously on the broken umbrella, the worn-down sandals and my troublesome band. He labored with what I can only describe as a joyous rhythm, fingers deftly selecting sharp, delicate  instruments with the dexterity of a brain surgeon.

Within five minutes he held out my Swatch which now had a handsome black leather band in place of the hated plastic strap. The nettlesome three prongs had been catered to by his making  a trio of tiny, exactly indentical incisions as only an old-world craftsman could do. Not looking up from the sandals, now the focus of his attention, he said simply, “Ten dollars.” Far less than the price of a Swatch replacement and a handsome piece of work that I was sure would last for a long time.

As I looked up from the counter  after fastening the watch to my wrist, I saw a large portrait on the wall of the much-revered Rabbi Schnersson, one of the leaders of New York’s Jewish community; I sensed Josef must be a religious man.

Stepping out into the sunlight from the dark of the shop, I realized what a blessed time warp Josef was.  And how he defied the throw-away culture of 2012, repairing, for a song, items that today were meant to be thrown away after a bit of  wear and tear. Fixing a crushed, five-dollar umbrella was a thing of wonder to me.

I also reflected on the inky numbers I saw on Josef’s arm. Somehow they reminded me of the story told me by my nonagenerian  friend, Melvin. After three years in Auschwitz, Melvin’s mother and the camp’s other other surviving inmates were liberated by the Allies in the Spring of 1945. Half-starved to death and dis-oriented, many of the prisoners were at a loss as to what to do. Not Melvin’s mother. Pulling out a cache of bills hidden in her bosom, she marched through the dreaded gates and announced, “I’m going to the beauty parlor ! It’s time to look good ! I want the world to see me at my BEST !”

What is it they say ? You can’t keep a good woman down ! Here’s to Josef and Melvin’s Mom ! Today’s world would never produce such people.



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