Note: A friend tells me she likes my stuff but it needs pictures. No one looks at anything on Facebook without a picture, she says. I immediately thought of this piece. I only wrote it because I thought it was one of the dullest things you could write about. It was a challenge. But no one is gonna stop what they’re doing to read a piece called “Fountain Pen”. I know I wouldn’t. So I’ve added pictures. Old school sexist advertising pictures even, keeping with the current Mad Men vibe, though I’ve never actually seen Mad Men. It worked too, a zillion people read this. Nothing like a lady holding a Bic to get people’s attention.
Listening to an old Jack Benny radio show. Christmas shopping. Jack buys a fountain pen for $4. I looked it up–that’d be $64 today. It’s not gold plated or anything, it’s just a fountain pen. And they don’t even make a joke out of it being expensive. People used to pay a helluva lot of money for a technology as simple as a fountain pen.
Ball point pens came in at the end of WW2 (I like to think the ball point pen factory had until then been making B-17s or Liberty ships or huge artillery pieces). They sold at Gimbels for $9.75. That is $125 dollars in today’s money. I just asked my wife if I could have $125 to buy a pen and she gave me one of those looks. Did husbands get those looks in 1945, or did it seem like a bargain? Or maybe state of the art pens were like iPhones now. Something a man just had to have. A guy would whip out his ballpoint pen to sign a check and a crowd would appear, oohing and ahhing.
In 1954 Parker–remember them?–sold millions of ball point pens priced from $3 to $9…that is, from $25 to $75 dollars in our money. How much did a pen cost to manufacture? The shipping costs were close to nothing, and they certainly seemed to sell themselves so advertising would have been fairly limited. What an incredible business to be in.
Bic hit the market in the sixties (“Writes the first time, every time!”). It was about then that prices began to tumble. And tumble. Soon ballpoints were cheap and disposable and not classy at all. I have a vague recollection from the early sixties that a pen was a big deal. You’d have it in your breast pocket, visible, you’d pull it from your pocket with a flourish, with grace even, and do a bit of the Norton on The Honeymooners thing–your hands swirling about, getting ready for the big moment–before you signed your name. Then carefully the pen would be returned to its pocket. A cool thing, a pen. By the seventies, though, they were just cheap plastic things with blue, black or red caps (green was a rarity), they left thin, weak letters on paper, not the heavy, masculine lines of a manly, expensive pen. But the post-war boom was over, everyone was broke, quality replaced by quantity, and we had endless amounts of paperwork to sign. A pen was just a pen, a tool, with about as much significance as a plastic spoon. They came in boxes of I think eight, office workers would just stuff one in a pocket and no one ever noticed it was gone. You didn’t go to Gimbels to buy those pens. You went to Newberry’s or Zody’s or Kmart. You could still buy really nice pens–I found one, recently, from back then. A Papermate. It’s heavy, solid, shiny, and when I ran it across my arm (no paper being handy) it left a firm, decisive, manly stroke. It felt good. It felt powerful. A guy could get laid with one of these. But a Bic? Good luck.
I follow the Wikipedia link to rollerball pens. Rollerball makes me think of Rollerball, James Caan vs the Man, a sport more ridiculous than hockey, even. Bob Miller is the announcer. Bodies litter the rink like bodies once littered the ice when there were only six teams in the whole NHL and not many rules. I love Rollerball. It gets me excited, that game. If I were Canadian I’d want to play it. But it’s a movie, fiction, not real. Hell, it’s from my high school days, the seventies, when we used Bic disposable pens and wished we made enough money to write with something better. Now we use rollerballs, the pens. They used to be exciting, rollerball pens. They came in boxes, black, blue, red (and sometimes green). They have different point thicknesses. They were sexy, somehow, like you could bring a couple boxes to that secretary down the aisle, the gorgeous, perfect one, and she’d remember who you were. Rollerballs exuded a sort of state of the art coolness. Women liked that. I always had boxes of them in my desk drawers, and knew where vast stocks lay in supply rooms. My desk here at home is littered with them.
Alas, I rarely use them anymore. I jot notes with them, maybe, little marks on post it notes. I make quick calculations. I scrawl sentences in my increasingly degenerating penmanship–never good to begin with–that later, often as not, wound up typed somewhere. Sometimes I just grab a few old rollerball pens and toss them in the recycle bin just to thin them out. To think these once had office sexual power. Now they’re not even relics. They’re just wastes of space.
A couple years ago I was in an office with all these built-in cabinets. We were using all of the cabinets but the last one was locked. Three whole drawers we could not access. They weren’t empty…you could tap them and tell that. You could tap them and tell they were nearly full, in fact. (Life long office workers have percussive skills like that…you can garner all sorts of information rapping lightly on doors, cabinets, machines.) Finally I made some calls, pulled in some favors, and got someone to find the key that would open them. A small crowd circled round as he pulled open the drawers The lower ones were full of various odd pads of paper, file folders in a myriad of colors, things like that. Dullsville. The bottom drawer held ancient technologies–calculators, an adding machine with extra tape rolls. We looked at them almost nostalgically. An intern asked what they were. I let her have the electric pencil sharpener. She lolled it about in her hands, studying it, wondering. I described how you inserted the pencil in the hole and let it whir. It sounded obscene. I doubt it sounded obscene way back when. It was new and exciting once.
But it was the top drawer that blew our minds. It was a treasure trove of a long lost department that disappeared in lay offs who knows how long ago. Maybe a decade even. Certainly the secretary had been let go, the poor thing, because this had been her pride and joy, the supply drawer. Anyone in the department looking for something, they found it here. And it was left untouched, not even plundered. HR must have come in and walked them out, that whole department, on an hour’s notice. And this drawer was a time capsule of a long lost analog time.
Money had been good then. I’d never seen such a well stocked supply drawer. Pencils–pencils–in numbers 2 and 3 (I can’t remember what the numbers meant), and colored pencils, red and green. You’d correct things with red pencils back then, draw long red lines through sentences, leave helpful criticism in the margins. I don’t know what green pencils were for. There were erasers too. Big block erasers, the pink for pencils, the heavy whitish ones for ink. And there were lots of those pink erasers you’d slip over the end of a pencil when you’d worn the built-in eraser down to a stub. And then there was this plastic box full of hundreds of those little erasers but in all sorts of colors. Blue, pink, green, yellow….pencil erasers as fashion statements. Wow. I opened the box up and picked one up and it began to crumble in my hand, like papyrus. Same with the bag of several hundred rubber bands. I could see no use for so many rubber bands, aside from a righteous rubber band fight. (I used to love rubber fan fights, I was a great shot. You shoot me, I hurt you. But they’d shoot me anyway.) I tried to draw a bead with one, and it disintegrated in my hand. It takes years to reach that state of decomposition. Years sitting in this coffin of a supply drawer, in the dark, unused, forgotten.
What must have been hundreds of post it notes in a riot of colors were heaped in a corner of the drawer. Lots of pastels, some vivid pinks, so vivid guys would never have them on their desks. I dug through the pile to see what was underneath. There was a beautiful wooden box. It was of walnut and put together lovingly, polished, with copper hinges and looked like a miniature royal coffin. Something you’d find tossed aside in a looted tomb in the Valley of the Kings. I had a helluva time opening it. It had been frozen shut so long the hinges needed some WD40. I jimmied it open with a letter opened (the drawer had a whole arsenal of them) and there it was. A magnificent fountain pen. A Parker. Silver and shiny and authoritative. The executive model. The Salesman of the Year model. It was heavy, an ounce at least. I put it to a post it note and the ink flowed immediately. It left a strong masculine line across the note. I pulled out a larger post note and wrote my name. It look like an executive’s name. One of the ladies passed by. I showed her the pen. Ooooh she said. Wow.
I put the pen back in its box and put the box back into the drawer. I wanted that pen. But too many people had seen it. You just don’t pocket a sterling silver pen. But I wanted that pen. People around me were talking excitedly about their new iPhones. But I remember when a pen like that meant something. So on my last day on the job I went back to that drawer, looked around to see that no one was looking, and copped that pen. It’s on my desk here now. Occasionally I’ll sign something with it, something significant. It feels big and manly in my hand. It leaves a bold signature. Brick in big strong letters, just right for a big strong man. Show me your pen, I think aloud, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Then I put it lovingly back in its box, and put it back on the desk behind the computer monitor. Otherwise it gets in the way as I type.