Drinking in the Glow of the Odeon Clock

In "My Obsession" writers take a single object in a bar and explore its significance. This month: How the clock in a literary landmark made Jason Diamond feel like a New Yorker.

When you get to the part of Tribeca where West Broadway meets Thomas Street, it’s hard to stop from glancing in the window of the restaurant that peels around the corner of the two streets. You’ll no doubt see the bar packed with patrons, but if you look long enough, you’ll notice the neon pink-and-green clock that sits in a lonely spot to the right of the bar. A small circle on a long wall, it illuminates the entire scene.

Inside, the Odeon probably doesn’t look that different than it did 35 years ago. The “glittering, curvilinear surfaces” and “good light and clean luncheonette-via-Cartier deco counter,” Jay McInerney wrote about in Bright Lights, Big City have faded a bit. From the red-and-brown banquettes to the Weimar-era fonts scattered on bits of ephemera, it’s like you’ve stepped into a noir or French New Wave film. Yet it’s the clock that sits just above the bar that has become my life’s MacGuffin. I can’t explain my obsession with it; perhaps I’m jealous of how it has just enough space to itself.

Lynn Wagenknecht, her future ex-husband Keith McNally and his brother Brian opened the Odeon in the autumn of 1980 in a part of Manhattan that had been all but forgotten. It was that period in New York where things looked like Taxi Driver—a version of the city I’d grown up obsessed with, especially after I first read McInerney’s slim novel at 15 in my safe Midwestern suburb. A few years later, in my early 20s and three weeks away from moving to Brooklyn, I read it again. It was June, over 100 degrees and swampy and I was on my back trying to fix a clogged drain in the restaurant I worked at. My co-worker, a complacent stoner, kept asking why I wanted to be a part of what he always called “the rat race.” I got up, tried washing off whatever goo I had caked all over my hands, and told him darkly, “Because I want to do things like snort cocaine in the bathroom of the Odeon and hang out with interesting people.” I know I delivered it with enough calm to sell it.

“It was the first thing we purchased for what would become the Odeon.”

The truth is that I didn’t want to do blow at the Odeon; I just wanted to go there, see it. But it’d take me about five more years. When I first arrived in the city, I stuck to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. My New York stretched the last days of electroclash at Luxx; DJ nights in the dank basement of Lit; Metropolitan for free beer; anywhere for free Sparks; and Daddy’s, where my roommate and I instituted Pinball Night on Mondays. The bottom corner of the island of Manhattan didn’t have much to offer me.

Until one day it did. I showed up early for a meeting and sat at the bar, nervously drinking a glass of lukewarm water, when the clock first caught my eye. It appeared like the room’s accidental nucleus, as if they’d put it up first and then built a restaurant around it. It turns out that its design is well-known among neon enthusiasts. A product of The Electric Neon Clock Company out of Cleveland, Ohio, the design was patented in 1940, and came with the option to top the clock with a company name to give it a more personalized feel; models now fetch upwards of $3,000 apiece.

Wagenknecht and McNally purchased theirs in May of 1980. They’d just signed the lease for the former Towers Cafeteria space, a luncheonette opened in the 1930s when the neighborhood was a manufacturing hub. The couple, visiting New Orleans for Jazz Festival, wandered into a candy shop that Wagenknecht believes was “actually the front room of someone’s house,” drawn by the glowing pink-and-green timepiece in the window. “We weren’t as interested in the candy as the clock,” she admits. They convinced the owner to part with it, tied it up in cardboard and string, and hauled it back on an overnight train back to Manhattan. “It was the first thing we purchased for what would become the Odeon.”

I take comfort in knowing I can always go visit it there. The Atomic Age design recalls a time when the future seemed to teeter between growth, wonder and fear. It’s also a reminder that there’s always something to discover. That after all these years, my definition of happiness in this city is a quiet Martini at the Odeon bar, basking in the glow of its curious clock.

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Jason Diamond is the author of the 2016 memoir Searching for John Hughes (HarperCollins/William Morrow). He has been published by the New York Times, Esquire, The Paris Review, Eater, Pitchfork, Bon Appetit and many other outlets.