Updated: Aug 10, 2021
(EDITOR’S NOTE — 1120 Press is thrilled to present the following story by Joseph Smith, a Maryland-based writer and the founder and publisher of Butter Lamb Press. “Walking Around Town with a Grandfather Clock” marks the sixth installment in the 1120 Press “VOICES” series and, in this piece, Smith chronicles the impulse that inspired him and his daughter Molly to trudge around Prince George County one day with a grandfather clock in tow. This story first appeared in Alternative Incite, a Zine founded by Smith. Issues of Artificial Incite can be purchased at 1120press.com and at Butter-Lamb.com)
“You want this?” my boss asked, pointing to a faux-wood grandfather clock.
I’m still not sure if he asked me because I was the closest one to him or because he somehow knew I would say yes.
“Definitely,” I replied and then stopped what I was doing to grab the giant timepiece and put it in my truck. I didn’t want any of my co-workers to even think they had a shot at it.
Why I was so covetous of this thing is tough to explain, but I was — and I knew exactly what I was going to do with it the moment it became my property. I wasn’t going to dust it off, bring it home and make it the center piece of my living room. I wasn’t even going to use it to keep track of the time.
I was going to use it to make some muthafucking art.
I’d been looking for such an objet d'art for some time. Yet, what exactly I was looking for I couldn’t say. “I’ll know it when I see it,” I told myself. And the moment I saw the clock, I knew I wasn’t lying. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight (who falls in love with a fucking clock?), but there was something about the clock that drew me in.
Before I go any further, I feel it is necessary to pause and mention the mixed feelings I have for clocks.
Generally, I like clocks, especially old analog clocks, because I’m intrigued by the clever mechanisms that make them tick and enamored with the craftsmanship that makes them beautiful. I also appreciate their silent and stubborn persistence in a digital world that would brush them aside as obsolete relics of a bygone era.
At the same time, I despise clocks for constantly reminding us that time, our most precious resource, is always moving, always slipping away, and there’s nothing we can do about it. How often are we told to “live in the moment” only to have the innumerable clocks in our midst remind us again and again that moments are fleeting and soon we will run out of them altogether. All of us know, inherently, that all things, good or bad, must come to an end, but clocks seem to take a perverse pleasure in informing us when those ends are upon us. Be it the angry alarm that ends our sleep or the tone at the top of the hour that reminds us to call it a night, clocks have always been the unyielding taskmasters who control our lives.
Secretly, I dream of the day when I can ignore their demands, when I am free to do what I want, when I want. And yet, I cannot deny my affinity for the one I wear on my wrist or the decorative one I bought for the mantle that fills the house with a chime-melody every 60 minutes. Schizophrenically, I can’t live with them and I choose not to live without them.
At more than 5-feet tall and encased in a walnut-brown plastic that looks like hand-carved wood — (until you get within 10 feet of it) — the clock’s presence certainly does catch the eye. So too does its face, which has elegantly scripted numbers and silver and gold designs that sparkle when they catch the light. Since I have no use for the clock in my house (especially since it doesn’t work), I keep it out of the way, in the corner of my garage.
One day last fall, when it was still warm out, my elderly neighbor walked by while I was working in the garage. The garage door was open, and she looked in to see what I was up to. (This wasn’t out of the ordinary. The old biddy is as nosy as the day is long and she’s always looking to see what I’m doing.) She saw the clock and walked up my driveway to inquire about it. She said she was an admirer of clocks big and small and she wanted to know where I got it and what I was going to do with it. I told her I had a plan: I was going to bring it to odd locations and take photographs of it. My nosy neighbor didn’t know what to say, but the look on her face told me she didn’t approve.
Am I a photographer? Hell no. I enjoy taking pictures (with either a camera or a phone) and can appreciate a well-composed photo offering a unique perspective, but photography is not where my skills lie. I get lucky on occasion, but for me, taking photos is little more than a lark. All too often, I set out to capture a wonderous moment or beautiful scene (which sounds like something a photographer would do) but fail, and then walk away wondering why the image I’ve trapped in pixels doesn’t quite capture what I saw with my eye.
Given these frequent photographic failures, I don’t know why I was so keen on taking pictures of this clock. It was just something I felt I had to do. I’d say I was merely following a creative impulse, but it was more than that. The urge to have a photo shoot with the clock was like a creative mosquito bite that just wouldn’t be denied. Thus, the minute I got the clock home, I brought it into my back yard, which is somewhat forested, and snapped a few photos of the clock in the midst of some trees and bushes. That soothed the itch for a little while, but I knew it would come back with a vengeance.
Enter my youngest daughter, a young lady I affectionately call “Molar.” I might not be a photographer, but she is. A former art teacher of hers got her into it and, as it turns out, Molar has something of a talent for the artform. Not only has she won first place in a local photo contest, but she’s even sold some photographs at a handful of street fairs and bazaars. Like any supportive parent, I’m always looking for ways to encourage her. So, I told her about my plans and asked if she wanted in. She did, so, early one Saturday morning, we put the clock in the bed of my truck and hit the streets looking for unique places to take some pictures. I had a few places in mind — some abandoned train tracks that I’m mildly obsessed with, a few murals folks have painted on sides of shuttered businesses, a sidewalk in a busy commercial area — but some of the best photos feature the clock in places we happened to stumble upon.
I figured we’d be out for a while, driving like lunatics to-and-fro. Yet somehow it never occurred to me that I’d have to do so much walking with a giant clock perched precariously on my shoulder. (We could only park so close to some of the places we thought would make good photos.) The clock wasn’t heavy, thanks to whomever decided to make it out of plastic instead of wood, but it was still an awkward thing to carry along city sidewalks, in and out of alleys, and up and down stairs.
We saw quite a few people during our photo shoot but, oddly, not one of them stopped to ask what we were up to. Maybe it was obvious. Maybe we live in an area where a guy walking down the street with a tall electric clock balanced on his shoulder isn’t that strange. Maybe we don’t care what other people are doing if it’s not on social media.
Whatever the case, no one said a word to us, which made me wonder what I would have to carry to attract attention. At one point, we came to a small neighborhood park with a narrow creek running right through the middle of it. Since I didn’t care what happened to the clock, I thought it might be fun to take a picture of the clock in the water. It took some doing to position the clock while straddling the creek and I came close to falling in more than once. Yet, the two guys waxing a Lincoln in the shady parking lot about 30 feet away didn’t even seem to notice we were there. To be fair, we weren’t out there to attract attention. We just wanted to have some fun with photography, but I still found it strange that no one found our antics interesting enough to say, “Hey, look. A clock in a stream. Neat.”
More interesting than the apparent disinterest in our photo shoot, however, were people’s reactions to the pictures themselves. I showed a few to some friends on several occasions and posted the snap of the clock in the stream to a photography thread on Twitter, and in every instance, people remarked, thinking we intended to make some statement about time and loneliness or degradation or, in the case of the clock in the stream, about time running out for humanity to do something about the environment.
I intended none of this, of course. The notion of using the clock to convey some message or make some point never occurred to me. I was just following a creative impulse. Since no one ever asked, I never explained myself.
And I just let them keep talking about the photos and drawing their own conclusions.