Wednesday, October 15, 1997
Repairman's skills put to test

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Throughout the summer, Matthew Sargent would grab a quick lunch and hurry to the new downtown Lazarus store.

He'd eagerly press his nose to the shiny plate glass windows and peer inside. As workers scurried about the Fountain Place store installing shelving, lights and mirrors, he'd wonder where his watch repair shop would go.

Then he found out that no matter how hard he looked, he'd never see his spot.

The old downtown Lazarus closes Friday and re-opens Nov. 6 in its new quarters. Matthew's balcony level watch repair shop at the old store closes today. With no room in the new store, his shop will never re-open.

"Everybody's downsizing," he reasoned over a gyro at the Temple Restaurant. Matthew was my guest this week at "Lunch with Cliff," the weekly meal where I get to hear what's on people's minds.

He said he was depressed at first after hearing the news. But that soon passed.

"The new store's smaller. There's no room for my shop. I understand." He just blamed it on the bad luck that has followed him all year. "I will remember 1997 as a year of ugliness. It started when my divorce became final in January. Then I moved. And then I moved again."

Twenty years ago - before Matthew's time - there were enough customers at the old store to keep six repairmen and two master watchmakers busy. As business dwindled, so did the staff.

When Matthew took over three years ago, he had a staff of four. His last assistant left in August. He looked for help for about a month, but gave up the search after he was told the shop would not be part of the new Lazarus store.

He's spent part of his last weeks cleaning out the back room. Between customers, he packed decades worth of claim tickets and spare parts. Drawers labeled "Crowns," "Stems," and "Hands," essentials of the watchmaker's trade, were emptied of their final contents, plastic forks, paper napkins and packets of taco sauce. Matthew picked at his sandwich as he talked about the shop's closing.

"There's a theme running through my life," he said. "Every time I try to get something to last, it falls apart because of other people."

He smiled. A look of satisfaction spread over his face. His life's theme came to him at lunch one day. He was sitting alone, reading the paper, watching the goings-on at the restaurant.

"My brain works at 100 miles an hour," he said. "I can't just sit and eat. I need something to occupy my mind. It helps me get through what I consider to be a tremendous waste of time. I eat to live. I don't live to eat.

"So, I'm always thinking of something. It's the world according to Matthew."

In his world, anything that's broken can be fixed.

"I'm very proactive. I see what needs to be done and I go at it."

He gets this from his father, a man he calls a "mechanical genius." His dad would fix clocks and refrigerators and cars and urge his son to watch him work.

Taking cues from his father, Matthew became an auto mechanic. After 10 years of too many customers wanting car repairs made on the cheap, he moved on to fix watches. It was no great leap for him to go from machines that keep time by miles per hour to time pieces that tick off days by the second.

"Both repairs are mostly about gears and ratios and timing," Matthew said.

"Besides, if someone didn't want their watch repaired correctly at least I knew it wasn't going to blow up on their arm."

After today, Matthew's time is up. He can get by for a while on unemployment compensation. But he has no hot prospects.

He has glanced at the want-ads. He's hit the library and cruised the Internet. But, nothing excites him.

"I'm tired," he said. In three years at the watch shop, he never took a vacation. He did have one four-day weekend. But he spent that moving.

"So, once this is all said and done, my first priority is getting some rest for two or three weeks."

Don't look for him to recline in his easy chair or visit some exotic locale.

He just bought a house in Mount Washington. It's a fixer-upper.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

RADEL ARCHIVE