Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Men and Their Pens

If someone were to come to my office and listen while I answer the phone, or sit next to me as I endlessly work my way through four hundred emails, they might wonder where the excitement is – where do I get my stories from.  It’s not like something happens and I say, omg I have to write about this.  Ok, sometimes it is like that, but this story is not one of those exceptions.  Seriously, where is the excitement in writing about pens?
Once again, Noam has asked me for another box of retractable pens - medium-point, blue ink.  I searched in all of the obvious places and found none, then remembered a few drawers of the oft-forgotten filing cabinet in the hallway were designated to the holding of old office equipment, like rolodex cards, legal-sized copy paper, rubber bands that had long since lost their flexibility. At the bottom of the first drawer I found, business-sized envelopes with MIT’s address in the corner, whose purpose diminished rapidly since email’s takeover. Moving the envelopes revealed loose two-packs of wet and dry screen cleaner. I opened a ‘wet’ one and it was dry. The dry one was crispy, and on its way to disintegration.  I threw them all out, because I always imagined that if I died unexpectedly, someone would open the drawers to those cabinets and say, “How could we have entrusted someone like this to be Noam’s assistant?  Why didn't Bev throw this stuff away? Why did she live at all?” Then I would be embarrassed, (except I would be dead), as if I had failed at my job or gone to work in my underwear, because people – whomever they are - would have assumed my overarching lack of organizational skills as evidenced in that one cabinet.
That is, however, where I found an old box of blue-inked medium-point pens, circa 1995, exactly like the ones Noam preferred. Sadly, like the screen cleaner, they were completely dried out, so after I finished ruminating about where, exactly, the ink had disappeared to, I ordered new pens and gave him a box of twelve, keeping another box in my drawer, because I knew Noam.  In one single visit to his home office a couple of years before, I had excavated dozens of pens, and a large crooked pencil carved from a tree branch, from a pen graveyard buried beneath an accumulation of papers and folders piled to the left of his desk. That was not the first time I had rescued a plethora of pens from his home office.  It was a recurring event, though that visit was to be, it turned out - and please forgive me for this - my penultimate visit.
Not long afterwards, Noam and I were sitting together looking at the next week’s schedule.  I held a group of papers he also wanted to talk about. The one at the top had the words “Check with me” written by him in the margin, and when I asked what he wanted me to check with him about, he asked, “Can you order me another box of pens?” I asked him what happened to the box I gave him. “I lost them. I put them somewhere and I don’t know where,” he said. By now he had moved out of his home and into a condo in Cambridge, so there was no way of knowing where his pens might be. I took the box from my desk and handed it to him, pulling out one pen for the day he came to me again, asking for a pen.
“Noam, last month some people from Norway sent you a beautiful Cross pen and pencil set.  Where is that?” I asked, thinking that Noam Chomsky should have a decent – even classy – pen set.  When he returned my gaze with a blank stare, I asked a slightly different question: “Do you remember the Cross pen set you received in the mail last month?" I suppressed the urge to mimic my mother’s remark whenever we opened a nice gift from her, “That wasn’t cheap, ya know!," lest we fail to appreciate its value.  Instead, I said, “My father always used a nice silver Cross pen for his crossword puzzles and to pay the bills.”  He nodded and told me he did not remember receiving a gift of a Cross pen set, and I scribbled a note to look for it in the crevices of his office desk and between book piles, planning also to take a peek in his briefcase. In the meantime, I ordered him another box of cheap retractable pens, knowing their shelf life was totally dependent upon their user.
I remember my father yelling from downstairs one Saturday afternoon in our brown-sided, green-shuttered 6-room Cape-style house. “Where is my Cross pen? Who borrowed my pen and didn’t put it back?” Put it back to where, I now wonder, since he didn’t have an office. He spent a lot of time in our den, which boasted a black and white TV on a rolling brown laminated cart with aluminum legs, a brown and white plaid sofa, a dark wood side table, and a lamp. My mother groomed the den's orange and yellow shag carpeting with a rake. There wasn’t room for a desk, so he may have kept his pen on the top of his tall mahogany bureau, along with his watch, cufflinks, cigarettes, lighter, matchbooks (the corners were used as dental floss after meals - and you could call the 800 number on the cover to earn $10,000 a year, which was a lot in the mid-sixties), a comb, a pile of change that overflowed from his bulging, jingling change pocket, and his reading glasses.
Then, the inevitable.  “Everyone come here and help me look for my pen!" he would bellow. We knew to run to him quickly - usually me, my younger brother Paul, and our little sister Denise were home. We kids reasoned to one another that my father sometimes yelled, using the big Catholic swears, because he had “a temper.” That’s just the way it was. I remember that my mother bought a couple of them for him at Christmas and on his birthday, which seemed an extravagance, as they didn't have a lot of money.  My handwriting was flawless, even elegant, when my father let me use that pen, a sleek, silver, fine-point classic model that opened with a ritzy little twist.  Its smooth and confident glide, and the sureness of sweep and flow of ink on paper was addictive. I wondered if Noam felt the same way about his cheap retractable pen as he scribbled his tiny, barely legible notes in margins, or crowded them on a single legal-sized sheet of unlined yellow paper as he prepared for a class lecture.
My father's Cross pen was so much a part of him that he asked me for a new one with extra refills for Christmas some years after I grew out of giving him my childhood usual: a bottle of Old Spice after shave, or monogrammed handkerchiefs, which my mother ironed before folding them into small squares and depositing them back into the top drawer of his bureau.  The bureau upon which he presumably kept his pen. It was probable that none of his search party had borrowed his pen, and in the end, the pen always turned up. I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet it was somewhere he had left it.

When Noam left that day, I noticed the multiple vertical stripes of ink just above his pen-holding shirt pocket, the result of forgetting to click his pen closed, and I asked him if he wanted me to order a pocket protector, but he declined.  He said he had one somewhere, and would look for it.  Good luck with that, I thought.

1 comment:

  1. Great post indeed. I certainly could use your help tracking down the myriad pens I misplace.

    The TV tray description brings back so many memories of my grandmother's many televisions in her house: she ran an in-house nursing home, so six TV's could be blaring in the house at any given moment. She had at least three of those trays.

    And old spice certainly takes me back; it seems to be a southern staple.

    I'm sure Noam is very grateful for the immense help you've given him. Are you sure you don't want to brave the cacti, summer heat, and margaritas of the Southwest?