My Rolex

By Don Mitchell


I put on my forty-year old stainless steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual when I need to impress someone. I take it out of the drawer and shake it a few times to get it running, snap the metal clasp in place, trying not to catch any arm hairs in it, and I’m cool. Guys nudge each other – check out the old dude with the Rolex. Wonder what he deals.

It’s a potent artifact.

A few years ago a woman friend dragged me to a Unitarian convention in Rochester, and since I wasn’t a Unitarian I figured I might as well wear my Rolex and be even more out of place. I’ve heard that if a Unitarian is caught wearing a Rolex there has to be an exorcism.

On the way to Rochester we stopped at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, a place with an old mansion, some formal gardens, and an unusually hot and wet amphitheater. My friend, a Buffalo Philharmonic violinist, wanted to show me where her violin imploded in the amphitheater during a summer concert. She was playing, and it just crumpled. Instead of doing air violin she sat there with spruce, maple, and Evah Pirazzi strings in her lap, until it was over. She knew it could be rebuilt.

I knew the Rolex would withstand the Sonnenberg Gardens because “200 meters-660 feet” was printed on the face, along with “Submariner.” I’ve never heard anybody sound that out so I don’t know if it’s sub-mariner, as in a superhero, or submarine-er, as in Navy. If a submariner needs a watch good for 200 meters, something’s wrong, like the hull’s imploded or the other sailors, offended by his pretension, have compressed air into a torpedo tube and ejected him and his Rolex.

In the Sonnenbeg Gardens mansion we met an ex-nurse docent-hostess who said unflattering things about Buffalo for no good reason, as people around Rochester will do. She had trained at the County Hospital in Buffalo, where she had encountered ethnic groups that had been new to her. Those were her words: ethnic groups. The code wasn’t hard to break. I didn’t think she meant Basques looking for sheep or Tuvan throat singers looking for a recording studio or Hmong or Sea Dyaks.

I got my Rolex in Fiji, speaking of ethnic groups, in 1968. In those days if you wanted a truly waterproof watch your choices were Rolex or Omega. I wanted a Rolex because of Apollo 8: Boorman, Anders, and Lovell orbiting the moon, Christmas 1968, reciting Genesis. I screamed Church and State you fuckers! Church and State! at the TV, but the Omega-wearing bastards kept reading from the Bible on my tax dollars.

I wasn’t worried about the vacuum of space anyway; I was headed for the rainforest, hot and wet, and wanted a watch that wouldn’t fill up with water and stop.

As soon as I landed in Fiji, on my way to Bougainville, I got a cab over to Suva to look for a duty-free Rolex.

I thought I might have to bargain for it.

When I was eleven my mother took me to Juarez. She told me in Mexico you had to bargain for things, that it wasn’t like the Kress Store in our town where the marked price was the price and you paid it.

I wanted to buy a sheath knife – that’s what I told my mother. In fact I wanted a dagger, because I had read Macbeth: Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle towards my hand? Come let me clutch thee.

I wanted a horn-handled dagger with the Mexican eagle at its end, and a tooled leather sheath to put it into.

I didn’t do well in the first small shop, where no price was marked.

“How much?” I asked, pointing, and when the man said “Two dollars” I blurted out “One” and ran out. My mother suggested that saying “Would you take a dollar?” and waiting for an answer would be better. She led me along to other shops and I got a palpable dagger for fifty cents off, as I remember.

Bargaining in Mexico seemed more thrilling than trading toys and pogs at home in Hawai’i. I might point out that we kids played with pogs in the fifties, then forgot entirely about them until they reappeared in what, the eighties? Our simple childhood game, hijacked by collectors, Mainland kids who have never seen a pog doing its traditional job, capping a milk bottle, its little tab asking to be pulled. Which you do. Then you play with it and lose it. Then your mother grabs the bottle without looking, the milk splashes out, and you’re in trouble.

Modern pogs are made in Smithville, Ontario, a place I have visited because an Englishman I used to do some consulting for lives there. During the first anniversary dinner of my second wedding that man from Smithville took advantage of a conversational lull to announce that he and his brothers used have contests in which the object was to force a condom over your head, yes, to pull it down over your face, and to breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose, being careful of the mucus, though that added a certain note of reality to the trick, using reverse circular breathing, inflating the condom into a conehead, until it blew. First one to bust the rubber won.

I went upstairs for some condoms and we sat around the table, men and women alike, trying to force them over our heads. I was glad the curtains were drawn. I turned my condom inside out hoping the lubricant would help, but it didn’t. No one, not even the aptly-named instigator Peter, could do it. This made me doubt his story. No condoms broke but the marriage finally did, which led to considerable dickering: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to dicker for the Rolex because by then I was out of practice. I told the cabbie to wait and went down the line of Indian shops. Each shopkeeper – No Sir we have only the Omega watches, they are very nice – directed me to the next. Finally there one was, in a fly-specked display case, next to silver Zippo lighters and short-wave radios – my Rolex, in a green box with a red wax seal.

How much, I asked.

For you, sir, one hundred thirty dollars US.

I was not eleven anymore and understood who had the power in that shop, so I gave him traveler’s cheques and, heat-oppressed brain and all, emerged into the hot dusty Suva street with my Rolex, as in the world is my, Oyster. Perpetual.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

2 responses to “My Rolex”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    Late-arriving readers need to know that when TNB shifted to its current version, old comments were not transferred.

    • I didn’t think to put such a message on my old pieces.

      I couldn’t be bothered to transfer most of them.

      Then again there weren’t many even nearly as good as this.

      I played with pogs at school. There were also a few of us who would draw watches on our wrists, carefully inscribe R, O, L, E, X on the ‘face’ and then go around flaunting our Rolex watches.

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