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INUTECH: Conversation with a watch repairman

inutech bobby timonera mindaviews column

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 11 February)  – I haven’t worn a watch since I lost a Calvin Klein maybe 15 years ago (a gift, of course, because I won’t ever spend that much money for a watch.) The clock on my phone is enough, except when I’m out for a run then I strap on my Garmin.

But my wife asked me to have her wristwatches fixed. She needs one on her wrist, those designed for men with a big face and highly visible hands, as she counts her patients’ heartbeats. These she prefers, instead of pulling out her phone from the bag, unlock it, and start the app, then close the app, hit the power button, and put it back in her bag.

My first stop was Gaisano, because I like the comfort of being in the mall, and go window shopping as the technician checks on the watches. Better than being out there in the streets, looking for a parking space, walking under the sun, waiting until repair is over, enduring the heat, the dust and the noise. But the technician at the Gaisano didn’t report for work. Come back on Monday, I was told.

The watch repairmen of Iligan congregate in one part of town, along Quezon Ave. close to the old Gaisano. As I walked along Iligan’s main road, I was thinking which repairman to pick. There are a number of them on both sides of the street. My suki of long ago, one of those Rosales repairmen, hadn’t showed up in his corner the past 10 years or so. Then I remembered that during the Scott Kelby photo walk October last year, I photographed one of these watch repairmen, in black and white, using a vintage manual-focusing lens. I really liked the shot. I thought of giving him a print one of these days, but forgot about it. I chose his stall because it is shaded, unlike the others across the street that are only covered with big umbrellas. Although it’s high noon, I was surprised the breeze was pleasant. It’s just about 300 meters from the sea, and the wind can still reach this place despite all the concrete buildings. “I’d like to tinker with things around here when I don’t have customers because I feel sleepy with the wind,” the repairman told me later.

I showed him the two watches — a quartz that needed battery replacement, and an automatic that hadn’t been worn for maybe 10 years. How much for both watches? “One fifty for the quartz, four hundred for the mechanical, that includes parts, disassembly and cleaning, and a six-month warranty,” he said.

The quartz he did quickly. Popped in a battery and, voila! He asked me to sit on a wooden bench beside him because the self-winding watch would take some time to fix.

Another customer, a neighbor of his, came for battery replacement. The repairman offered to work on it first because it would take a while to fix the Citizen automatic. But the shy guy said it’s okay, he still had errands to do anyway. He’ll come back later.

We chatted about the merits of mechanical watches because they tend to last longer even though they are rare, as people prefer quartz and smart watches these days.

“I think I took a picture of you,” I told him. “Last October, when a lot of us photographers walked along this street to shoot everything that caught our interest.” “Really? Why would I be included there?” “I’ll give you a print,” I promised.

I left him alone as he focused on the minute parts of the automatic. I quietly scrolled Facebook, like any bored human would do these days.

A few minutes later, I blurted out, “Earthquake?!” I haven’t felt it as I was either driving or walking the streets when it happened, but of course I read it on many FB friends’ posts.

“Where?” he asked. “Agusan Sur, maybe Surigao Sur?”

Then he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with that place. Now they get earthquakes, typhoons, floods, landslides. It wasn’t like that when I was there. I’m originally from Mangagoy, married to an Iliganon.”

Now the conversation shifted to Mangagoy, the commercial center of Bislig, Surigao del Sur’s largest city. It was one busy, happy place in the old days, maybe because of the once mighty empire of PICOP, or the Paper Industries Corporation of the Philippines.

He said he couldn’t believe PICOP’s downfall; it was such a huge company. I reminded him of our very own National Steel, which employed maybe 4,000 workers during its heyday.

I know a few from Mangagoy, I told him. Mayor Lawrence Cruz for one. My neighbor Tom, college buddy Jun, fellow high school Math whiz Faustino, Butuan photographer Michael. “Yeah, I know Lawrence,” he replied. “He attended John Bosco. He already left for college when I was in high school.” Everyone I knew who’s from Bislig all attended De La Salle John Bosco College.

I talked about my frequent visits to a neighboring town, Hinatuan, which was also affected by Typhoon “Sendong” in 2011. Like my city, it was their first major disaster, too. A few more typhoons, and even earthquakes, followed later, damaging the PAGASA doppler radar station there.

As I looked across the street, my eyes followed the tall building to its highest floor. “That building has gone tall,” I said. “Yeah, eight stories.” I count only seven. “Maybe Iligan’s tallest now? I remember it wasn’t that tall when it opened business years ago.” He said city engineers kept coming back when the building owner started adding floors, some issues maybe.

“The old building that used to stand there, it was my Lola’s.”

“Who’s your Lola?” “Bebang Timonera.” “Who’s your father?” “Pedring.” “So you’re Nang Nena’s son?” “Yep.”

“I hadn’t noticed you back then, maybe you didn’t come here often? Jong (my younger brother) came to me several times for his watches, for repairs, for batteries. My stall used to be in front of your Lola’s building, close to your Mom’s parlor. I was there for maybe 20 years.”

Work kept me busy, I said, and I moved to Manila for a while.

“I remember a jeweler right outside my Mom’s parlor, who I asked to do some repairs,” I said. “He died years ago,” he said.

And I told him I used to experiment in Jun Ruedas’ darkroom when I was exploring black-and-white photography in my youth. Jun’s studio, for the B&W ID pictures of yore, occupied part of my Mom’s parlor in the old Timonera building.

“I think Jun has moved to Cagayan de Oro. They have some properties there, I heard. A photo studio won’t earn you money these days,” he said. Even the photo laboratories that cost millions to build have gone out of business, I thought.

“Jun was with me when I photographed a firing squad by the MILF in Lanao del Sur in ’97,” I told him. “Jun was shooting video, I was the only journalist taking pictures. I was running out of film, luckily Jun had one in his pocket and gave it to me.”

The repairman asked if we still live in Palao, in that compound where the Timoneras live. I built a house elsewhere, but my brothers and sisters and cousins are still there, I said.

He talked about my sister Baby, if she’s still at City Health. She retired this year, I said. “How long has your Mom died? Five years?” He’s correct. And my father’s siblings? They still around? Sadly, I told him, only Tito Ben is alive.

The shy guy finally came back for his watch’s battery. But the Citizen automatic’s small parts were still in disarray.

After touching on a few more topics—like the GenZers in red passing by ahead of Valentine’s — finally the repair was over, nearly an hour since I arrived. My wife should be happy with the two good-as-new watches.

I handed him a thousand, and told him to give me back four hundred. But he gave me a five hundred bill. Why? “Giving you a discount. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you earlier,” he replied.

I said thank you for the repairs, bid my goodbye and started walking the few blocks towards my car, with a smile on my face despite the sun above.

Wow, what a nice face-to-face conversation with a stranger. The pandemic years deprived us of that. With someone who knows a lot about the people around me, and vice versa, yet we never crossed paths. Or maybe we did, just strangers to one another. Darn, I didn’t even get his name, nor gave him mine.

For curiosity, when I arrived home, I checked my hard drive for those October pictures. I only shot him up close with his watches and tools, not from afar that would show his shop’s name. Of course I wouldn’t shoot him from afar; I’m after his skilled hands, the expression on his face as he pries open the watches with his tiny tools, patiently picking those microscopic screws and springs and gears one by one.

I fired up Google Maps, searched “Golden Star” (the tall building across), and shifted to Street View. There is his small stall, dwarfed by the giant commercial signages above him. I zoomed in. It’s not even three feet wide, a glass cubicle in the upper third, full of tools and watches and parts in bootleg Tupperwares that covered his face. He was wearing a red shirt when the Google Car passed by sometime in August 2022. He was focusing on his repair, I suppose. In the lower wooden part of his kingdom, painted white, are big bold letters in red, blue and gold: “ROBERT’S WATCH REPAIR SHOP. We buy GOLD.”

(Robert “Bobby” Timonera enjoys tinkering with gadgets, starting with typewriters, mimeographing machines, film cameras and darkroom equipment since his college days. He’d often DIY his way when it comes to obtaining otherwise expensive technology, not just to save money, but also for the challenge. In this column he shares the “inut” ways he has learned along the way. You can reach him at bob at mindanews dot com. He is also editor in chief of MindaNews).

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