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July 19, 2019

My father’s clock: A memory

June 16, 2019
Radburn Plaza in Fair Lawn, New Jersey is pictured in April 2005. (Rickyrab at English Wikipedia Commons)

I was about 11 years old the first time my father took me up to the tower to go inside the giant clock. We climbed a wooden ladder past crisscrossing beams into an atrium-like aerie housing the timepiece that overlooked my hometown of Fair Lawn, N.J.

My father managed the brick building, a block-long commercial property, and owned one-fourth of it, too. He alone had access to this private space, along with responsibility for keeping the clock running. The Radburn Plaza Building, constructed in 1927 in an English Tudor style and now a registered landmark, loomed over the town’s central business district.

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The ground floor had a bank where I opened my first savings account (complete with passbook), the barbershop where I got my first haircut and the soda fountain where my friends and I read comic books, drank cherry rickeys and parked our bubble gum under the counter. Offices on the second and third floors accommodated local lawyers, accountants, architects and other professionals.

The clock qualified as our local version of Big Ben. With its Roman numerals and black wrought-iron hands, its four faces pointed north, south, east and west. Until then, I, like most everyone else, had seen the clock, topped by cupola and weathervane, only from the outside. But now, thanks to my father, I could see the whole apparatus at work: the clanking gears, the heavy iron weight that powered its movements. It felt like being backstage, behind a screen in a movie theater, beholding a long-kept secret.

Perched up there, you could see the town, former home to Lenni-Lenape tribal people, then a Dutch farming settlement and finally a thriving suburb only 11 miles from Manhattan. You could see the train station in one direction, the post office in the other.

Every once in a while, the clock would stop. My dad could fix most anything — I’d seen him take apart and then put back together refrigerators and washing machines in the residential real estate he also oversaw, and he knew what to do under the hood of a car, too. But this clock required technical expertise beyond his reach, and he would have to call in a specialist to oil it and wind it up.

“People in our town depend on this clock,” my father explained to me that day in the tower. “Any time it’s broken, people ask me how soon it’s going to be working again. An old lady once told me she stayed at home all day looking out the window and had nothing to do but watch the clock.”

As it happened, my father never watched any clocks. Nor would he take his time at anything, much less waste it. He always ate fast; food was merely fuel to fill him up. He drove fast, too, usually tailgaiting. “We’re making good time,” he would often say out on the road. He was always in a hurry, always coming and going, but mostly going. He had rents to collect, apartments to renovate, superintendents to pay. He left our house before our family woke and came home only after we went to sleep.

I never understood his behavior back then. What’s the big hurry, I would wonder. Of course as a fifth grader, I figured I had all the time in the world.

He rarely found time to be much of a husband and father, as he himself later acknowledged, largely clueless about how to be either. Most family gatherings bored him silly. He lacked whatever gene enables our species to relax. At the dinner table, he usually appeared preoccupied thinking about all the chores he still had to do. He inherited this work ethic from his own father, an uneducated immigrant from Austria who succeeded in business and put all three of his children through college.

My dad died in 1997, at age 70, just three years older than I am now, likely the result of never slowing down to take better care of himself. He made good time, then ran out of it. The Plaza Building still stands, that giant clock, put up three years after his birth, once mechanical but now electric, still ticking away.

It takes some of us a while to learn our lessons. But now I know. Time is all we ever really have to call our own. But that’s true only until we no longer do.

Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, grew up in Fair Lawn. He is the author of the memoir “Playing Catch With Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age.”

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