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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 and 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 it, after I get it running again. Especially if, as sometimes happens, the whole job takes me only 20 minutes.
    As I was giving the man my 2 bucks for the clock, I happened to mention that the trouble was often 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 did get it fixed. 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 wound it harder I could fix that."
I listened to 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 will feel bad keeping it if I do. When I mentioned the 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 unwound 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 investigate.
    The first thing I did was to remove the brass works from the wooden case, and then I disengaged the chimes from the clockwork. I opened the mainspring drum, and I found that the end of the spring had been bent backwards so it couldn't hook onto the winding shaft anymore. I carefully unbent the spring, and got it to hook up again, but then I found that the ratchet that holds 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 tiny 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. If you put too much oil, too big a drop, it will run and the oil will drain off, so you end up with not enough oil there. And the streak of oil will gather dust and gunk that can eventually clog the works.
    So all this took me 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 something serious was wrong, but what?  I put the clock on the shelf for a few days, pondering the question.
    Still being something of a novice with clocks, 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. 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 done? But now I figured I was going to have to take that step, and hope that I could figure it out as I went.
    I went ahead and unscrewed the four nuts, and then I separated the plates. Clicketty-ticketty: there went all the little wheels; now there was no turning back. I took out the escapement mechanism; this is the delicate back-and-forth piece that makes the clock go tick-tock. I took out only those pieces, then put the rest back together, so I could investigate the gear train.
     It turns out that it 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 you've done already. I got everything back together, and then it didn't take me long to find the trouble.
    It was serious. When the mainspring had broken loose, it had kicked back so hard that it bent one of the gear shafts. Once I found it, it was easy to see. The bent shaft would only turn a little bit, before jamming against its adjacent gear, then it would turn no more.
    So I took the plates apart again, and removed the bent gear. To fix it, I made a truing jig with a square block of aluminum, in which I drilled a hole the right size to hold the wheel shaft; I also drilled a hole in an aluminum bar, to slip over the other end of the shaft and use for a lever. Using this rig, I carefully straightened the shaft, levering it little by little until the shaft would turn in the block with no wobbling. Then I reassembled all the gears back into the clock plates, and the whole train ran smoothly 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 would start by itself, 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, or a little more.
    As of this writing, the clock has been running for three days and it's running as accurately as can be. I've hardly had to adjust the balance wheel at all to time it. (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.)
    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?" he demanded. "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.


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 until 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. So as I was pacing up and down 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."  All the kids had been issued a ticket by their teachers, so as to keep 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 waiting line in his embarrassment. I said, "Come on, I think we can get you in."
    I took his hand and brought him inside, and I found a teacher in the hubbub. I explained the situation, and asked the teacher if he could help me find this boy's class. The teacher said, "Of course," and he took the boy and went off with him to get him situated.
    So, soon it was time for me to perform the show. It was one of the really challenging ones, being an exceptionally large group, and being summer school, with discipline less rigorous than regular school. During the show, the kids started crowding the stage more than once, starting to climb up, trying to grab props; all the teachers were running among them shouting and trying to restore order. I did my best to keep everything happy and upbeat (thank goodness for microphones), and pretending not to sweat. I found out later from the teachers that from their perspective, everything went much better than they had been expecting, and they were all thanking me profusely after the show. I can hardly imagine what they were expecting, or what usually happens with this group.
     But as for that little boy that I found in the hallway, in my hurry of spirits before the show,
I never even asked his name, or found out where he ended up sitting. I don't think that the boy even knew, at the time, that I was "the guy".
    Well, I was sorry I didn't see him afterwards, and I hope he enjoyed the show. He reminded me exactly of the sort of thing I might have done when I was his age.

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