A Parker T-Ball Jotter: the first pen I remember using with pleasure, probably in the fourth grade. The pen was made of stainless steel and grey plastic. The neutral tones blended nicely with the graphite-smeary interior of the pencil case at the front of my loose-leaf. At some point the grey plastic developed a crack that filled with blue ink.
Ink: the Jotter's was gummy and sweetly fragrant. I wish that it were available to the nose as well as to memory.
This pen must have come from the OK Bookshop, the source of all school supplies, a corner paperbacks and stationery store on New Utrecht Avenue, Borough Park, Brooklyn, under the El tracks. The owner of the store sat at a desk in a small alcove. He used a device on his shoulder that allowed him to talk on the telephone hands-free. My mother once checked with him — or with someone else who worked there — as to whether Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels were "appropriate" for readers my age. (They were.) Ian Fleming's work no doubt put that worrisome question in her head.
As a boy, I must have liked this pen's multi-sectioned name. "Hey, Mike, what kind of a pen is that?" "It's a Parker T-Ball Jotter." Like "United States of America" or "John Fitzgerald Kennedy."
A variety-store ball-point pen, transparent red plastic with a white push-button mechanism. Push the plunger down and the point appears. Press the little button on the side of the pen and the point retracts. I cannot remember writing with this pen, but I remember using it as a walkie-talkie one night while spying in a Robert Hall clothing store in Brooklyn. (The rest of the family was shopping.) Espionage and cryptography were major factors in my childhood, which drew considerable inspiration from U.N.C.L.E. and Clifford Hicks' novel Alvin's Secret Code.
[Lost years: a long blur of Bics, Flairs, and Pilot Razor Points.]
The Faber-Castell Uni-Ball: I wrote my dissertation with it, or them. Many Uni-Balls!
The Uni-Ball was part of a work routine that I remember as strangely pleasant. I wrote in longhand on legal-sized pads with a Boston University Law School imprint. These pads had an enormous left margin, great for endnotes and revision by accretion. (I've never seen such pads since, though I know they're still around.) Every weekday, I'd write, then type (first on an Olympia manual, later on a Panasonic electronic typewriter). In the afternoon I'd walk to a photocopy shop in the Coolidge Corner Arcade (Brookline, MA) and get my typescript copied before editing. I often added a trip to Beacon Stationery to buy envelopes, folders, and another Uni-Ball or two.
The matte black plastic, the flat clip, the funny notches at the top of the cap: all features of a simple, beautiful design. For a long time, the Uni-Ball meant "writing."
"Please don't get me a fountain pen": I remember telling my wife Elaine that while disserting. Yes, she was thinking about a present to celebrate the end. I'm not sure how it is that fountain pens were in the air. Elaine wrote with one — an inexpensive Geha with an incredibly smooth nib. I'm guessing that my pleasure in trying the Geha made a fountain pen an obvious choice.
The pen that Elaine gave me was a Montblanc of Uni-Ball-like simplicity, made of stainless steel, not "precious resin." It was, of course, just what I needed. I wrote with it through my first years of teaching and turned into a serious fountain-pen fan, switching early on from cartridges to bottled ink (the hard stuff). And then the grippers inside the slip-on cap began to lose their grip, and a shirt pocket turned black, and it was time to put the pen in its case and find another.
I had no idea how complicated finding another fountain pen would prove. I started with a Sheaffer that refused to dispense ink. (I knew nothing about cleaning a pen, nor did the people at the office-supply store, who just gave me a refund.) Getting a pen turned into getting pens, all relatively modest, before I found what has become my everyday writer, a Pelikan, purchased in the summer of 1998. This pen has green stripes, a fine nib, and takes bottled ink. It has never leaked or failed to write. Its maintenance has involved nothing more than an occasional flushing with water and — just twice — a dab of silicone paste to keep the piston moving freely.
My Pelikan has taught me to think about price in relation to use: this pen has turned out to be a much less expensive proposition than, say, a ten-year supply of Uni-Balls. Since 1998, virtually everything of any length that I've written, I've written with this pen (including the draft of this post).
Thank you, Elaine, for not listening to me, all the way back in Brookline.
Happy National Handwriting Day to all.
National Handwriting Day
Friday, January 23, 2009
By Michael Leddy at 6:23 AM