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You Break It, I Buy It

    For $2, how can you pass up a vintage West German chiming mantel clock, even if it's busted?
    I was at a yard sale, and this handsome wood-case brass clock caught my eye, with its
"$2, Needs Work" sticker. I thought, it's the rare clock that can stump me for long, and the problem is usually something so simple that I often feel guilty for keeping someone's once-treasured timepiece, after I've gotten it running again. Especially if the whole job takes me only 20 minutes.
    As I was giving the man my 2 bucks for the clock, I happened to mention my experience that the trouble was usually something easy to find and correct. My big mouth: the man's eyes lit up with a wild, wistful hope, and he said, "Do you really think you can fix it?"
    Nutz; I wanted this clock, but the thing obviously meant a lot to him; I began to feel that I wasn't going to be able to keep it, if I could get it repaired. The man went on to tell me it had been a wedding present from his mother, many years ago. "Eventually it started running slower and slower," he told me, "and I thought that if I kept winding it harder, I could fix that." I listened to all this with a sinking feeling, for several reasons; this clock has been abused, and I'm still going to have to fix it, and I really can't keep it. When I mentioned the usual necessity for periodic cleaning, as well as oiling to keep a clock running well, the man was surprised.
    "I didn't know that," he told me with interest.
    Well, for starters, I could see that the clock needed more than just a cleaning. The mainspring had let go and come down with a violent run, and the clock couldn't be wound anymore; it just went "kek, kek, kek" when you turned the key. I didn't press for details of how that had occurred, because the man had already given me a pretty good idea, and he didn't feel good about it. I gave him the two dollars, and I took the machine home to operate.
    The first thing I did was to remove the brass works from the wooden case, and then I disengaged all the chiming works from the main clockwork. I opened the mainspring drum, and I found that the end of the spring had been bent so it couldn't hook onto the shaft anymore. I re-formed the spring around a mandrel, and get it to hook up again, but then I found that the ratchet that's supposed to keep the spring from unwinding, was also bent. I fixed that too, and now I could wind the clock. But before I did, I reached in with some little tiny paint brushes and solvent, and I cleaned all the gunk from every pivot point and all the gears and pinions; then, using a toothpick I put a tiny dot of clock oil on each spot that requires it. Just the right size drop will stay put with surface tension, and it will keep the end of the shaft (the pivot) lubricated. Too much oil, too big a drop, will end up giving you less oil, because the drop will run and the oil will drain off. And you don't want oil running here and there, collecting dust and gunk that can eventually stop the gears.
    So all this took me only an hour or two, and now I was ready to see how the clock would run. The machine ticked weakly, then stopped. I got it to run for a few more minutes, feebly, and then it wouldn't run any more at all. Now it was obvious that serious surgery was going to be required, but what was the problem?  I put the clock on the shelf for a few days, pondering these questions.
    I've tinkered with a number of clocks, but one thing I had had never done is to separate the two plates that hold all the gears. I've always feared I would end up with a mare's nest of chaos and confusion. All the shafts and gears will teeter and fall this way and that, and to get it all back together, every teeny shaft has to be lined up with its tiny hole in the opposite plate, all at once. How is that possible? But now I figured I was going to have to take that plunge, and hope that Yoda would show up in a vision, if I got stuck.
    I went ahead and unscrewed the four nuts, and then I separated the plates: the dreaded plates. Clicketty-ticketty: there went all the little wheels; now there was no turning back. I extracted the escapement mechanism; this is the delicate back-and-forth piece that makes the clock go tick-tock. I needed to remove only that piece, then put the rest back together, so I could run the gear train and find out which part was not running free.
     It turns out that it really wasn't as hard to reassemble everything as I had feared. You just work your way from one side to the other, carefully guiding each pivot into its hole, while gently squeezing the plates together just enough to keep the ones in place that are there already. I got everything back together after removing the escapement mechanism, and then it didn't take me long to find the trouble.
    It was serious. When the mainspring had sprung loose, it had kicked back so hard that it bent one of the gear shafts. Once I found it, it was obvious. The bent shaft would turn a little bit, but it would soon reach the jamming point against its adjacent gear, then it would turn no more.
    So I removed the bent shaft from the works, and I fixed it. I made a truing jig with a square block of aluminum, which I accurately drilled to hold the wheel, and also made an aluminum bar with the right size hole, to use for a lever. Using the block and lever, I carefully straightened the shaft, levering it little by little until the shaft would turn in its hole with no wobbling. Then I reassembled all the gears back into the clock plates, and the whole train ran beautifully with no binding at all.
    Then I put back the escapement assembly, and got all the other parts reassembled into the clock and adjusted; then I wound the mainspring just a little. The clock started to run, ticking cheerfully. It was now so well cleaned and efficient, that the balance wheel wouldn't stay still, no matter how carefully I tried to stop it; it would start itself again, ticking with a solid quiet murmur like a beating heart.
    I also cleaned and adjusted the chime and strike mechanism, and it all ran properly, chiming on the quarter, striking the appropriate hour, and keeping excellent time. The whole job was a full day's work, plus a little more.
    As of this writing, the clock has been running for three days (it's a 31 day clock) and it's running as accurately as can be. I've hardly had to adjust the balance wheel at all. (The wheel has an ingenious mechanism for doing that: a pair of weights on the wheel moves in or out, adjusting the speed of oscillation the way a ballerina will make herself spin faster by pulling her arms in closer to her sides.)
    But, also as of this writing, I have not returned the clock. The man has no idea that I even mean to. But when I bought his clock a week ago, one of the last things he said to me was, "Do you think you will be able to fix it?"
    I did think so. But will I be able to return it?



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Piano Man

    I accompanied my friend John to his afternoon gig playing piano in the elegant lobby of the Red Lion Inn at Stockbridge.
    For three hours I sat and listened with great enjoyment, as he played through his endlessly varied repertoire of jazz, ragtime and classical pieces. I love John's playing. But the patrons filed past without a sideways glance: the full-length mink coats, the impeccable Italian suits, being ushered to their places at tables accoutered for the cream of American privilege.
    John played on, and after he finished his last set, he shut the piano and went off to the bathroom. Then I sidled over and gingerly sat down on the gleaming bench, opened the piano, and hesitantly began to play a rendition of my one Scott Joplin piece, Maple Leaf Rag. I was eager to try out the beautiful Steinway instrument, but I felt awkward to touch it in that place, after John's creative and masterful playing. 
    So as a result of my reticence- fear, actually- my playing was lukewarm at best, and in the second movement of the piece I lost my place altogether. In a controlled panic, I faked along dismally for a few bars, and when I managed to find my way again, my only thought was to conclude as gracefully as possible and get out of there. Which I did, finishing with a conclusive phrase, in what would ordinarily be the middle of my arrangement. I never felt the music at all; just embarrassment.
    After I was done and had shut the cover of the piano, John returned, and we were chatting as we put on our coats to leave. A lady came over to us from an adjacent sitting room around the corner, and she walked up to me, ignoring John completely. She said to me, "I loved your Scott Joplin."
I never blinked, but I thanked her, and she walked on.
    Probably, the lady had just arrived, and hadn't been there when John was playing, but it was still pretty funny. The master plays his heart out for three hours and is pretty much ignored, and then this bum sneaks in and plays a hideously stumbling rendition of one-half of a piece, and then the bum gets the glory. 



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Two Show Stories

A Nice Tip -

    A young boy was watching me set up before a show, and his conversation was somewhat rude: skeptical and confrontative: 
    "What is this for?" "A kid I know can do that!" "Why do you have horns?"
    I was nice to him, although busy, and I told him that he would see how everything works, once the show started; not to worry.
    So I played the show, and afterward the boy was completely changed. He came politely up to me and asked, "Do people ever give you money after you play?" I explained to the boy that when somebody decides that he wants me to do a show, he'll talk to me beforehand, and we'll make an agreement of what I'll get paid to come and do it. 
    The boy said, "That's not what I meant. I mean, do the people who watch you ever give you money after they see it?" I said no, not really. He said he wanted to give me some money, and he solemnly presented me with a nickel.
    I accepted the nickel, and I put it in my pocket with sincere thanks.

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Rescue -

    This happened before another show, a very large summer school show. I had finished getting my stuff set up and ready on the stage, and I was pacing back and forth in an empty hallway behind the performing hall, waiting till it was time to go in. I could hear the hectic noise from inside, where the teachers were wrangling all the kids into their places; there were over a thousand young boys from two parochial schools, and maybe 150 staff and teachers, all men. So as I was pacing back and forth out in the hallway, I saw a little boy huddled against the wall by himself, crying. I went over to him and asked what was wrong, why wasn't he inside?
    He said, "I lost my ticket." The tickets didn't cost anything, but all the kids had been given one, for some reason of keeping the event organized.
    The boy was trying to put a brave face on it, but he was clearly in deep distress, and he had snuck away out of the line somehow. I said, "Come on, I think we can get you in."
    I brought him inside and found a teacher in the hubbub, and explained matters, and asked if this boy could be let in without his ticket. The teacher said, "Of course," and he took the boy and went off with him to find his class.
    I performed the show, and it was fun in its way, but it was one of the really challenging situations; the kids started storming the stage more than once, grabbing props and stuff, and all the teachers had to run among them shouting and trying to restore order. This was summer school, with discipline a bit less rigorous than regular session, but it was still a bit shocking. I never let it rattle me, but I kept everything happy and upbeat, and pretended that this happens all the time. I guess, for these people it does; they're used to it. (Earlier, when I had been negotiating the show over the phone, the teacher had commented that they could stop the show at any point if I needed it, so they could discipline the kids. These comments puzzled me, and caused me some uneasiness. Why would he be telling me that?) As it turns out, everything went better than they expected, and the teachers were thanking me profusely after the show. 
     But as for that little boy that I found in the hallway, I never even asked his name, or found out where he ended up sitting; in the hurry of spirits before the show, I neglected to do that. I'm not even sure the boy was aware, at the time, that I was "the guy".
    Well, I hope he liked the show. I did feel a real bond for him; he reminded me exactly of the sort of thing I might have done when I was his age.


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