Monday, February 20, 2017


At the start of 2016, I had a bad feeling. Time was not working right. Some weeks were as snappy as days, others were as elastic as months, and the months felt as if they were either bleeding into one another three at a time—Jabruarch—or segmenting into Gregorian-calendar city-states. Feb. Rue. Airy. Something was wrong with the world.

One day in February, I took a ride on the subway. This was a rare occurrence. Since turning forty, I’d started to suffer from a heightened sense of claustrophobia. A few years ago, I was stuck for an hour in an elevator with a man who weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds and his two grocery carts crammed with bags of Tostitos and bottles of Canada Dry, an experience both frightening and lonely. The elevator had simply given up. What if a subway train also refused to move? I began walking seventy blocks at a time or splurging on taxis. But on this day I had taken the N train. Somewhere between Forty-ninth Street and Forty-second Street, a signal failed and we ground to a halt. For forty minutes, we stood still. An old man yelled at the conductor at full volume in English and Spanish. Time and space began to collapse around me. The orange seats began to march toward each other. I was no longer breathing with any regularity. This is not going to end well. None of this will end well. We will never leave here. We will always be underground. This, right here, is the rest of my life. I walked over to the conductor’s silver cabin. He was calmly explaining to the incensed passenger the scope of his duties as an M.T.A. employee. “Sir,” I said to him, “I feel like I’m dying.”

“City Hall, City Hall, we got a sick passenger,” he said into the radio. “I repeat, a sick passenger. Can you send a rescue train?”

A rescue train. My whole life I have been waiting for one. Sensing the excitement of someone suffering more than they were, the other passengers moved to my end of the car to offer advice, crowding in on me and making me panic all the more. One man was particularly insistent. “I’m a retired firefighter,” he said. “I’ve been doing this twenty years, folks. Seen it all. This man here is hyperventilating. That’s what he’s doing. Twenty years a firefighter, now retired.”

“I’m going to take an Ativan now,” I said, fishing a pill out of my breast pocket.

“Do not do that,” the retired firefighter said. “It will only make you hyperventilate more. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

A middle-aged woman approached me. “You have to imagine,” she said to me, in a Polish accent, “that eventually the train will move. That eventually we will come out of the tunnel.”

Shamed into not taking the Ativan by the retired firefighter, I looked down at my wrist. I was wearing a new watch, the first mechanical watch I had ever owned. A brief primer: Since the late nineteen-seventies, most watches have used a quartz movement, which is battery-powered and extremely accurate. Mechanical watches, by contrast, are powered either by hand-winding or, in the case of an automatic watch, by the motion of the wearer’s wrist, which is converted into energy by means of a rotor. Mechanical watches are far less accurate than quartz watches, but often far more expensive, because their bearings are more intricate. All contemporary Rolex watches, for example, are mechanical. The difference between quartz and old-fashioned mechanical is that your child’s Winnie the Pooh watch will likely keep better time than a seventy-six-thousand-dollar Vacheron Constantin perpetual calendar in rose gold. A quick way to tell the two kinds apart is to look at the second hand. On a quartz watch, the second hand goose-steps along one tick at a time; on a mechanical watch, it glides imperfectly, but beautifully, around the dial and into the future.

Looking at the smooth, antiquated mechanical glide of my watch’s second hand, I felt, if not calm, then ready for whatever happened next. As the conductor’s radio flared on and off with promises from City Hall (my rescue train never came), as the passengers around me discussed my fate, I wondered: Can you hold your own world together while the greater world falls apart? The visible passing of time, second by second, seemed to provide a kind of escape route, even as my body remained within the metal shell of the stricken N train. Three seconds, inhale. Three seconds, exhale. The watch was a Junghans, from Germany, derived from a design by the Bauhaus-influenced Swiss architect, artist, and industrial designer Max Bill. I had bought it at the moma shop for what in my early, innocent watch days seemed like the astronomical price of a thousand dollars. Its no-frills, form-follows-function shape evoked civility in a time of chaos, a ticking intelligence in the face of a new inhumanity. The train slowly moved again. The Polish woman smiled at me. We shuddered into Times Square and I was, for a few moments in time, safe.

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