Friday, January 23, 2009

Five pens

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 — about 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.

Related posts
Five desks
Five radios
National Handwriting Day

comments: 12

Geo-B said...

Though not ancient, I've always been a serious fountain pen fan, never liking ball points, using a Sheaffer cartridge pen in junior high and high school. I switched to Montblancs, though never the thick expensive ones, though now I used Watermans which I love (though I've also got a Rotring in my pocket). I always have sniffed at ball points, saying you can't write well with them, but they have some good technology now.

Jason said...

Interestingly, this morning, I was was talking with my wife about how terrible my handwriting was getting. I find myself rarely writing anything by hand these days. Not that this is a good thing; it's just a fact, and my handwriting is getting worse by the year.

But I remember using UniBalls to write most of my papers as I worked on my M.A., and I did write them all out by hand first, on legal pads. Perhaps I should try a real ink pen...

Matthew Schmeer said...

I still use a Parker Jotter--it's my go-to pen. I have drawer full of them, having bought them off of ebay from Montgomery Stationery and Tecumula Pens. Using the gel refills make these a joy to write with.

But my go to pen when I really want to write for extended periods of time is one of my Parker Sonnets, with bottled ink, of course. I prefer Levenger inks, but many fountain pen fans claim Noodler's ink is the best.

I also notice a shift in my handwriting based on what I am writing with. With the Jotter, I, well, jot--it's quick, fast, and sloppy, and I can barely discern the difference between an "o" and an "a". Not so with the fountain pen--I slow down the creation of the letters, but my hand feels like it glides more fluidly and thus it feels like I am writing more naturally.

I really like this series of posts. The "fives" evoke not just memories and nostalgia, but are truly pieces of shared self. Thanks for these. I hope that someday there is a print collection in the future.

Anonymous said...

If I were penning this comment, I'd scribble in green.

Gosh, how have you hung onto a pen for TEN YEARS?! I'm a teacher, a father of two, and relatively intelligent man. But I live in a pen/pencil black hole. More often than I want to, I have to buy new pens and pencils (mechanical ones only) because the ones I had previously sprouted legs or wings, or fell into a rip in the fabric of space and time that opened spontaneously in the surface of my desk.

I'm in awe. I would never spend the dollars on a MontBlanc or Waterman because of the colossal waste of money that would be for me. Good on yer, mate, for keeping up with ONE PEN for TEN YEARS. I'm luck to get a week out of a pen or pencil before it's gone.

Peace to you.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Jason, if you want to try a pen, I'd suggest a Lamy Safari or anything from Jet Pens, a great source for inexpensive, well-made Japanese pens.

HeyTeach, if you were to get a good pen, I bet you'd find it sticking by you too.

Anonymous said...

I have a split personality and it seems I'm not alone. I've had an affection for fountain pens AND Parker Jotters since third grade. I have several of each kind of pen within reach even now. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you for taking the time to share your memories and all this good stuff. And--although I never though I'd say this--thank you for sharing your love of fountain pens with your family. Although I don't know if I had a Lamy Safari or a Pelikano first, I will never forget either one.

But even through all that, you still managed to end up with a pencil-girl for a daughter. :)

Michael Leddy said...

Anon., thanks for sharing your pen affections.

Rachel, you're the best daughter, whatever you write with.

Bae said...

Fountain pens are a pure investment. First one I had was bought at a shop called Paradise Pen. I believe it was a Cross in a limited edition color... It was eventually stolen, sadly, but many hours were whiled away writing my first script, first short story, and tons of poems. It was a purple, I believe, with a polished grip section. Cartridge filler, fine point. Never enjoyed using black inks -- who wants to think in black and white? ;-) As I write this now, I actually still have those works written with that pen... It was a greyish-blue ink.

Forward years: enter an blue Pelikan demonstrator with limited production. Hail to the Pelikans! That was the pen that taught me what writing with a fine pen was like... It too met the same fate as my first fountain pen but its replacement (luckily found another) has been in use since. Reliable, trust worthy, and utterly addictive to write with.

Now it sits (or lays?) in a protective case with the others. Venerable, it comes out only when all other muses have failed and not once has it failed to inspire. I can't help but smile when I think about the long hours spent writing... There's just something about holding a pen and watching your words form on the page.

Thanks for such a great blog... only just found it today. Definitely will be keeping up with it now.

Michael Leddy said...

Bae, welcome, and thanks for sharing your pen thoughts here.

Anonymous said...

I reread this post perhaps monthly. As a fellow stationery addict and Luddite, I find your perfect mix of detail and nostalgia deeply captivating. I am also really interested in knowing what the writing life was like in the pre-digital age, and your short commentary on your grad. school routine gives me in a paragraph what I would like to read throughout a book. Thank you for this and your many other wonderful posts!

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Anon., for reading and for taking the time to write. Your interest means a lot to me.