In the last few years, I think the pandemic took something from everyone—for me it was my job, and my life in NYC. Eleven years spent going to graduate school, forging friendships, working, and finding my place in New York City, and one day it all vanished. I am fortunate and privileged enough to have had family and friends to lean on in my hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. However, coming back to Virginia felt like moving in reverse.*
I came back to be with my family, no longer a full-time literary agent and adjunct professor, but hellbent to claw my way toward something I could love. In the meantime, a friend from high school, Kathleen, hired me to cook at her café, Battlegrounds, until I could find whatever was to come next.**
The headspace was humbling, and I was wounded. My life was changed, and it wasn’t my choice. The friends who held me up every day in New York were not physically present to provide a shoulder. But the café was filled with positivity emanating from the young people who worked with me, and the regular customers who came just to talk and indulge in a latte and a breakfast sandwich.*

One of those regulars was James, a lawyer around 40 years my senior (I’m 36 for context). James’s office was next door to the café and every morning he’d walk over for a cup of coffee with fresh cut flowers from his extensive garden. Battlegrounds was adorned each day with James’s vibrance. He’d take a seat in front of the grill and would talk to me about our experiences abroad, our love of Dante Alighieri, the food I’d cook at home, books, and eventually watches. He wasn’t big into watches, but he was fascinated by the history and the bit of knowledge I carried on the subject.*
After a few months of pleasant conversation, James popped in wearing his tweed jacket, a vest, handkerchief, and hat (like always). He said in a boisterous tone that he had something he wanted to show me and proceeded to put a Hamilton 992E railroad grade pocket watch on the counter in front of me.*
The 992E was a caliber released by Hamilton in 1930, that replaced the 992. This upgraded caliber introduced an Elinvar hairspring, a newly developed alloy that added longevity and durability, and is the meaning behind the “E” designation. And since the 992E was made in limited quantities, it is a sought-after movement amongst pocket watch collectors.*

James’s example was beautiful yet beat up. A couple of hairline cracks, and a chip in the dial…no doubt from the shock of a drop. The case was scuffed and scratched, but the watch was “working.” I couldn’t get the caseback unscrewed, but I knew roughly what it was and launched into a discussion on Hamilton’s history with the railroad industry in America. James told me that the pocket watch belonged to his father who was an Engineer for the Virginia Railroad Company, and that he left it to James. It was a heartfelt heirloom and I expressed as much to James, who then told me “You can keep it.”
My eyes sprung from the watch to meet James’s gaze in a fraction of a second, and I immediately said “no no no. You must have kids. A niece or nephew to give this to.” He told me they wouldn’t appreciate it as much as I would. I was hesitant, but for someone who had been living the last few months like they had disappeared, I felt seen. At the end of the day, I carefully brought the pocket watch home.*
I took to the online watch community and asked them how I could unscrew the stuck caseback. Somebody suggested that I breathe warmly on it, take a piece of duct tape (sticky side on the watch), and twist. It popped right off revealing the 992E movement. The movement was functioning but clearly needed a bit of love. I inspected every millimeter with the camera on my phone. Then I saw the inside of the caseback. There were a handful of numbers scratched into it. All invoice numbers from each time James’s father had his most important work tool serviced.*
The next day I brought the watch back to show James, as I was positive he had never seen the invoice numbers, and I thought he’d enjoy seeing them. I placed the caseback in his hand and said, “want to see something cool?”* He laughed and said, “what’s that?”* I took my phone out, zoomed in with the camera, and hovered it over the caseback so he could see. He asked me what all those numbers were, and I explained. James just smiled and eyes shimmered as he said, “look at that,” like a piece of his father had come back after being silent for so long. He chuckled through it, thanked me for showing him, and slowly handed me the caseback.

I couldn’t keep this watch. It’s a piece of James, and he has time to enjoy it. Instead, I wanted to find someone who could restore the pocket watch to tip-top function. Collectors of vintage pocket watches pointed me to Eric Unselt, The American Timekeeper. Eric is quite particular about which watches he chooses to work on and insisted on calling me. He said that he likes to restore watches to new, and this watch was a little beyond that. But then I told him how I received it, and that I wanted to give it back in daily functioning order. After that, Eric kindly agreed to work on it.**
He replaced many parts and cleaned the movement. The jolt that likely chipped the dial also likely once knocked the movement out of place. He had to work hard to set the movement properly. Normally Eric restores pocket watches to new condition, aesthetics included, but I asked him to leave the chipped Hamilton dial as it is part of James’s father’s legacy. Eric obliged, even though this would be the first watch in the last five years that he allowed to leave in that condition. He replaced many components in the movement, cleaned it and restored the gleam to the enamel. One upgrade that I did give the thumbs up on, though, was for Eric to mill the caseback and install a crystal, transforming it into an exhibition caseback. The part he milled out had all the invoice numbers scratched in, and he turned it into a coin that I could give to James.*
It took a little over a month to get it back. When I did, I presented the watch to James with a folder I made that included printouts of the history of the movement and the particular dial on the Hamilton. It also included the contact information for Eric in case he ever needs the watch serviced again. James was so thrilled to have it back in its new condition. So happy that he immediately started asking me where he could get a “chain” so that he could carry it on his person.*

Although I no longer cook breakfast part-time at the café, I still stop by most mornings before work with my dog, Phantom, to share a coffee with James. We chat about things he’s working on; he’s curious about the articles I’m writing; we bullshit about the world’s problems and our sure-fired solutions to fix it all. He’s a true friend and a fixture in my life.*
I am grateful for this hobby. It gives back so much more than what I put in. It’s not a stretch to say that this relationship gifted me some of my lost confidence, as soon after I found a job I love at a University that I enjoy working for, I found the RedBar Raleigh watch group that gave me a positive foundation to push forward in my hobby, and finally, I found that there is space for my voice to resonate within this hobby.

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