I try to wear jeans or jeans-like trousers whenever possible — “five-pocket style,” it’s sometimes called, the fifth being the watch-pocket that’s tucked just above the right front one. Of course, such a pocket is in one sense as atavistic as an appendix, since no one carries pocket watches anymore, but in most of my jeans it serves as a nearly ideal receptacle for an iPhone. It was utterly ideal when I carried a smaller phone, but the iPhone sticks out a little too much, usually, and I am hoping that future trouser designers will take us smartphone users into account and (a) keep the fifth pocket where it is while (b) making it a little deeper.
I love pocket watches, though, and mechanical watches and clocks in general. Whenever I’m in London I have to visit the tiny museum of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and gaze once more at the John Harrison timepieces at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. If I were ever filthy rich, the great indulgence tempting me would not be a second home in the Virgin Islands or a Lamborghini but rather a watch made by George Daniels, the greatest living horologist.
My love of pocket watches in particular has a clear source. My paternal grandfather, Elisha Creel Jacobs, was an engineer for the Frisco railroad, and since we lived with my grandparents — we were too poor to have our own house — I was always around when he came home from one of his long runs west. I loved his leather bag, like a doctor’s, which contained his distinctive engineer’s hat and some red kerchiefs and a couple of plain aluminum cans of purified water and a few fusees. The fusees fascinated and terrified me. But more than I loved the bag I loved his engineer’s pocket watch on its gold chain, given to him after some period of service — twenty-five years, I think — by the railroad. He kept that not in his bag but tucked into the watch pocket of his dungarees or overalls, and I suppose he got tired of having to take it out and let me play with it, but if so he never showed it.
When he was dying of lung cancer — in our home, thank God, and not in the hospital — and could no longer get out of bed, I helped my grandmother turn him over to wash his ruined body and dress his bed sores, and several times he told me what while he had put away the watch for safekeeping, he wanted me to have it when he died. I was honored and thrilled by this wish. But after he died no one could find the watch; or so I was told. Only years later did I learn that my father had pawned it to fund an alcoholic binge. It had disappeared and could never be recovered.
On one visit to the Royal Observatory my wife bought me a present: a lovely little pocket watch with a glass face that allows me to watch the works enact their precise and regular dance. I never get tired of watching this performance, but I rarely carry the watch around. Largely that’s because it’s easier to carry the all-in-one iPhone; but it’s also true that as much as I love pocket watches, they tend to make me a little sad.