Reprinted from May 1995
“I want to buy a stem.”
RB looked up from his bench into the stern face of a stranger.
“What’s that?” he asked unbelieving.
“Gimme a stem for a standard 1686,” the fellow stated.
RB managed a tight smile. “Let’s see the watch.”
“Oh, I left the watch at home,” the fellow said. “Just need a stem.”
“Do you think you can put the stem in all by yourself?” asked RB politely.
“You’re a watchmaker then?”
“You better believe it!”
“Oh, well that’s great!” RB exclaimed. Glad to help an old buddy out. Say, where you working at pal?”
“Doing trade work, huh?” asked RB trying to work up a cordial conversation with the reticent fraternity brother.
“Nope,” the fellow answered. I just like to tinker around with watches, that’s all. Fix my wife’s and kinfolks, and for their neighbors and friends.
“Saves ‘em some money - and I do pretty good myself too,” he added.
I could tell that RB wanted to strangle him.
“I guess you didn’t notice my sign outside,” RB said. “I’m a retail operator, not a wholesaler.”
“Yup,” the bootleg watchmaker said. “I know what kind of operation you’ve got here.” (One could read just about anything into a statement like that.)
“Well then?” RB said, when the man just stood there. If RB thought that “declaration of policy” was going to discourage this leech, he sure had another thing coming.
“Well, it wouldn’t hurt you none to let me have just one little stem, would it mister? After all, I bet you got a whole mess of ‘em. Come on now, how about it fellow?”
Boy, it really was disarming, the direct forthrightness of this moocher. For a minute there I could have sworn that RB was actually going to give him a stem. Talk about nerve, gee!”
RB took a deep breath. “There are several material houses in town, you know.” He sounded a lot more tolerant than I knew he was. “Why don’t you try there?”
Amateur Andy looked shocked. “It’s a heck of a long way down town, Buster, that’s why,” he let RB know. “Besides that, I don’t know where to go.”
“I can tell you where you ought to go,” said RB quickly, and I could see that devilish glint in his eyes and was almost sure he would. But instead he ripped the address off an old invoice and handed it to Andy. “Why don’t you take the freeway,” he advised. “It’s shorter.”
But Andy leaned forward and held out his thumb and index finger to indicate a measurement of about an inch. “You mean to stand there and tell me that you won’t sell me one little bitty stem?”
So RB sat down. “I told you before,” he said, “that I am not a wholesaler,” but to get rid of the fellow, he added, “tell you what I’ll do, though, if you want to pay regular price, I’ll sell you ONE stem, okay?”
Amateur Andy looked absolutely shocked. “Why you just want to make a fat profit on me,” he accused. “A big fat profit!”
That got RB a little hot under his size 15-½ collar. “I want a fair price, if that’s what you mean,” he shot back at the bootlegger. “It’s just not my policy to sell watch parts directly to customers of anybody else. In a way it would be like supplying a competitor!”
I could tell that it made Andy feel good for RB to consider him worthy enough to be called a competitor, but while RB was looking for a stem, he kept drumming on the counter. It must have taken a little too long for an important man like him to wait, so finally, disgusted with RB’s service, he spun around and stalked out, muttering something about never trading in this place again, which was a happy thought for starting off the new day. After a while I asked RB, “Why didn’t you want to sell to him, you sell to Pete Learner all the time?”
“Well hon, it’s a matter of principle,” he explained. “You see, Pete - well, he’s taking a correspondence course in his spare time, trying to improve himself, and someday he wants to quit his job on the milk route and work as a real watchmaker. This guy, though, he’s a botcher. It’s him and his kind who give the trade a poor reputation.”
When It Rains, It Pours
Well, you know how incidents like these seem to come in bunches. A few days later, a pompous old “birdie” colonel from the air base came into the store, chomping on a five-cent cigar. (You can still get ‘em for a nickel at the PX.)
With characteristic overbearing attitude, he jerked the watch off his wrist and slammed it down on the counter.
“Just needs a little winder upper there, mister watch-tinker!”
From across the room, I could feel RB cringe at his tactless words.
“Waterproof crowns are $2 sir,” said RB politely.
He’d hardly got the words out of his mouth before that old buzzard exploded. “How much!” He cupped his ear as if to indicate he hadn’t heard properly.
“Two dollars!” RB shouted back. “All in American money - gold, silver, or green paper bank currency.” (You see, we used to operate a concession at a military base, and these old soldiers really respect you a lot more if you show a little backbone and refuse to let them intimidate you.)
“You see, colonel,” RB went on, “it takes some technical skill to put a watch crown on properly.”
The old hero just snorted. “Ridiculous! Ridiculous! That dinky little button, two dollars! Ridiculous!”
He sputtered and spewed and almost fell into it right there in the most conspicuous spot in our jewelry store, and I could tell that RB was getting pretty hacked off too - and there I was in the middle of those two stubborn mules undecided to run or pray for rain.
“Why I could screw the d… thing on myself!” the old trooper stormed. “Then screw it!” RB yelled back.
Finally to get on with the chore of making a living, RB offered to compromise with the Pentagon.
“Tell you what, colonel. I concede that putting on a crown is just a little thing - less than nothing at all to man of your great intelligence. So I’ll let you have a crown for a dollar and you put it on yourself, okay?”
You might find this hard to believe, but you know, that foolish old goat jerked out a dollar and he couldn’t have been happier if he’d won a major battle.
So RB shuffled around his bench and came up with a box full of miserably designed, assorted crowns he’d kept in his bench for years – probably just waiting for such an occasion. He plunked the box down on the counter and said, “There you are sir, just help yourself.” Then he stepped back to enjoy the show.