Material Culture

I like things. I’ve always been like that. I’m acquisitive. I have so much stuff that I routinely have to go through it get rid of some of it. I used to feel guilty about my acquisitive tendency, but I’ve become reconciled to it in the last few years.

My desk

I’m fascinated by things. I don’t remember when I first started haunting thrift stores, junk shops, salvage places, but I know that I was very young. There was something compelling to me about things that were old, things that had been so well made that they’d survived when shoddier things would have to have been thrown away, something fascinating about what time, and much handling, does to things. I liked the sheer variety of utilitarian things because they seemed to me to be a concrete expression of the ephemera of human experience, of the daily grind of, for example, working in an office. I like old office supplies, the heavy old Royal typewriters like the one my father used when I was a child, old staplers, hole punches, mechanical pencils. I wonder, always, whether the offices where these things were once so useful still exist, if people are still working there, or if perhaps they’ve been torn down.

I especially like old fountain pens. This is partly, I think, because I write so much and partly because I come from a family of writers. I’ve used a fountain pen for as long as I can remember and have been collecting them for at least twenty years. When I say “collecting,” I don’t mean that I’m stockpiling rare and expensive pens. Firstly, I don’t have the money to do that. Secondly, I buy pens to write with, not to look at.

I’ll go through long periods where I won’t buy any pens, but then I’ll start buying them again. Not many, just one or two. I couldn’t afford to buy more than that because they’re not cheap. In the beginning, I told myself that I was searching for the perfect pen and that when I found it, I’d stop buying pens. But I could never content myself with a single pen for long, no matter how nice it was. You might think that perhaps my standards are too high. It isn’t that, though. I love all my pens (the ones I have kept, anyway; the others I sell). It’s not that I become disappointed with the pens I have. It’s that I want more. I crave variety.

I’ve bought and sold many pens online. I’d never been to a pen show, though, until last weekend when there was one in Philadelphia, where I live. I didn’t need any new pens, of course, but I did need work done on a couple of pens I already had, and I needed someone to show me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic. The Vacumatic has a unique filling system that is not used anymore and is difficult to figure out. I knew there would be someone at the show who could explain it to me, so I packed up my Parker and headed for the Sheraton on 17th Street where the show was being held.

It seemed everyone in the pen world was there. There were lots of dealers selling both new and vintage pens, along with other writing equipment and arcane sorts of office supplies and pen ephemera. I was in heaven! I caught just a snippet of a conversation as I was wandering from one table to another. One of the dealers was talking to a customer:

“You have to have passion for something,” he said. “Passion is what makes life worth living!”

I suspect everyone there would have agreed. Most of the interest was in the old pens, the ones that had seen lots of use but which had been so magnificently conceived and constructed that they now, almost a century later in some cases, could still be used.

The biggest attractions at most pen shows, though, are not the pens. Anything can be bought online now, even the oldest eyedropper pens from the nineteenth century. No, the biggest attractions are the nibmeisters, the guys who repair old pens and, in particular, custom grind nibs. They can take a medium point and grind it down to a fine, put an angle on it for what is called an “oblique” nib, turn it into a “stub” or an “italic.” You don’t have to go to a show to get a custom-ground nib. You can mail a pen off to be reground. That takes a while, though (sometimes months), and, more importantly, you might not be entirely happy with the results. The nib might be too fine, or it might be scratchy. You won’t know, though, until the pen comes back, and if you aren’t entirely happy with the regrind, you’ll either have to settle for less than what you wanted or pop it back in the mail again and endure another long wait. If you get a nib ground at a show, on the other hand, you can sit there while the work is being done. You can try it out and give it back immediately to the nibmeister for an adjustment if you aren’t entirely happy with it.

I had a nib I wanted worked on. I’d started collecting Pelikan pens. I love Pelikans for several reasons. First, they hold more ink than most other pens, and second, they feel very good in the hand. Third, they have what are called “responsive nibs,” meaning nibs that give somewhat if pressure is applied to them so they feel just a little like how old quill pens must have felt. Their nibs tend to be a slightly broader, however, than the nibs on the pens I was used to, so I had brought my latest Pelikan to see if something could be done to it to give it a crisper line. I asked James Baer, of Monomoy Vintage Pen in Newton, MA. He’d shown me how to fill my Parker Vacumatic, so I thought he might also be able to help me with my nib. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing any grinding at the show. He directed me instead to a young man named Tim Girdler sitting just a few tables away.

I had to put my name on a waiting list and then wander around the show until my turn came.

“What do you want?” he asked like a cook at a lunch counter. I had a Pelikan, I explained.  It had a “fine” point, but I’d started with Japanese pens and their “fines” were much finer so the Pelikan seemed a little “blobby” to me. I told him that I’d like him to put a slight slant on the nib, to make it into an “oblique” because I knew that would give me a crisper line.

He asked me to write something so he could see how I wrote, the angle at which I held the pen. After I did a little writing sample for him, he said he didn’t think that an oblique was really what I wanted.

“Let me try something,” he said. He took the pen and began to rub the nib on a little piece of emery paper.

“Now try it,” he said as he handed it back to me.

It was better, but still not what I wanted, so I gave it back to him and he got out his little motorized grinding stone so that he could work more aggressively on it than the emery paper would allow.

“How’s this?” he said eventually, and then added “you’re going to hate it.” I knew why he’d added that. He’d flattened out the nib like a stub, but he hadn’t bothered to smooth it yet. He wanted to see if I liked the line quality of the new grind before he put in all the effort to make it write smoothly.

He was right, I did hate it. And yet, and yet, it had just the line quality I’d been looking for. The only problem was that it was scratchy, but I knew that was fixable.

“I like it!” I exclaimed, a smile spreading across my face, “except, of course, for the fact that it is very scratchy.” I gave it back to him and he went to work on it again with the emery paper.

When he finally gave it back to me it was perfect. I mean it was really perfect! It had exactly the line quality I wanted, and it wrote very smoothly. He cautioned me that it would never write quite so smoothly as a regular nib. That’s the thing about italic nibs, he explained, they aren’t scratchy if they’re ground properly, but they aren’t so smooth as a standard nib either. There’s a sweet spot on them, he explained. You have to hold the pen at exactly the right angle or you’ll get a little drag. A standard nib is more forgiving, but it’s also less distinctive.

He said I had sixty days, or something like that, during which I could still have adjustments made, so I took his card, just in case. I’d heard him say to the person before me that he’d been a seminary student. I was surprised, though, when I looked at his card, to read “Tim Girdler Pens: Ministering Through the Perfect Pen.” He had made my life better, I realized, through the work he’d done on my pen, through the concern he’d shown for what I wanted.

I’m so happy with with my “new” pen, I’m just writing and writing, so happy now to have my pen just the way I want it. Passion is indeed what makes life worth living. Tim Girdler has it. It must have taken him years to become so skilled as he is now, skilled at something that he must always have known would never be in great demand. Tim Girdler has passion and he uses it to make people’s lives better. He isn’t the only pen person who cares for more than his own material wellbeing. Rick Propas, of “The PENguin Fountain Pens,” once offered to send me a whole tray of pens to practice repairing–for nothing, just because he could tell I shared his passion. I’d never met him either, but only corresponded with him via email.

Passion is part of what attracts me to things. You can see it in the design of things, in how they’re finished, in the attention to detail. You can see, in things, the shape of human aspirations. There’s a humanity that pervades things made by human beings for human purposes. This is even more evident, I think, in things that have been used. That’s why I like the patina of use. It shows the humanity of the thing, or the humanity that clings to it. I can’t get enough of that, or enough of the things that speak in that way of other peoples lives.

So I keep buying things, especially old pens. There’s a line I love in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy, who has just learned he’s dying of cancer, is talking to his son about mortality. “The human animal,” he explains, “is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”

I wonder if it isn’t life everlasting that I’m looking for. I feel sometimes, when I’m trawling through other people’s discarded possessions, or sitting at my desk surrounded by things I know once belonged to people now long dead, that life everlasting is what I have in my things. It’s as if I’ve taken the lives of these other people up into my own, as if, in that way, I’ve created a timeless connection between us, a timelessness that is a little eternity of its own.

(This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch under the title “Living in a Material World.”

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