Well, here I am, happily seated with my reasonably fancy fountain pen and reasonably fancy paper, and one thing is certain: Fountain pens leak. However, in the same way that shaving with a straight razor has left me with a couple of nice scars, and the same way that roasting coffee beans in an iron skillet has charred a bit of hand meat, it appears that writing with a fountain pen is going to leave a few marks too, albeit of the kind that will eventually wash off.
In fact, my November hunt for a reasonably fancy fountain pen began exactly three years ago, on the day I quit drinking. I didn’t know it at the time, but the decision to go from being an active drunk to a passive one was going to free up a whole lot of time, and if you had told me that in a couple of years I’d have enough time to write my blog in pen and ink, I’d have offered to buy you another round.
I know it was three years ago, not because I remember that kind of thing but because my friends do, and one of them emailed me a quick note to say congratulations. I’ve always resisted commemorating the date because all the years of sobriety in the world don’t matter if I fail to get through today. However, after three years of bare knuckling it, I reckon I can let myself feel a little satisfaction, and maybe even allow myself a little hope that this is forever, and then put a dollop of dream on top and imagine a life where one day the craving is gone, like a distant dead relative you always hated who’s been gone so long you can’t even remember what he looked like.
On Saturday, when I decided to get a reasonably fancy pen, the shop was closed, so we returned on Monday, pushed open the dusty sliding glass door, and entered a tiny room where the kindest looking grandfather was sitting behind a big desk eating Caesar salad out of a plastic container. “Are you the fellow who called the other day?”
I figured he didn’t get a lot of calls. “I am.”
“What kind of pen are you looking for?”
It was a reasonable question since I was in a pen shop and had driven all the way there not once, but twice, and on a holiday weekend no less. “I don’t know.”
I could see that the next most reasonable question was, “Why are you here, then?” but like any good grandfather he started telling me stories, beginning with his time in the Far East. “Here’s my photo album from when I was in Japan.” He pointed proudly to a picture after pulling out an old sheaf of faded photos from the 70’s and early 80’s. “That’s a stack of used Japanese car motors.”
I tried to appreciate the Japanese aesthetic of ten pallets of old motors and two or three workmen in hard hats, but failed.
He continued. “First time I went to Japan was in 1978. And it was a weekend so I wandered into a store and bought this pen, a Pilot ‘Vanishing Point.’ He reached into the display case and pulled out an old fountain pen.
“That’s nice,” I said, unsure if it was or not.
“Thank you. And from then on I started collecting them until I retired a few years ago, and my wife said, ‘You still have your old office and it’s filled with junk, why don’t you throw away all that junk and get all these danged pens out of my house?’ She had a point because I had hundreds and hundreds of them, so I bought a couple of display cases and bought myself a web site and moved these big leather chairs around to accommodate visitors and here I am, in business after retiring from business.”
I could see that his pens for sale were mixed in with pens from his personal collection and it was hard to tell which was which. Each pen appeared to have its own rather dramatic and detailed life history, and I wasn’t sure but that I might somehow be obliged to hear them all.
“I don’t know anything about pens,” I said, which was exactly the wrong thing to say to a kindly old fellow who was filled with facts and information and tales from long ago. “I’m kind of getting away from doing all my writing on the computer and decided to try writing the old-fashioned way.”
“Well, here’s one you might like. I wouldn’t advise you to start at the high end of the scale, $45,000 is a lot of money for a first time fountain pen user.” He bent over and pulled out a pretty green one and showed it to me.
I had to lean against the wall to steady myself when he said “$45,000,” so I shakily asked, “How much is it?”
“This one is $70 but I’ll give you a 20% discount.”
I exhaled, sensing something in my price range that would even leave money over for a carton of milk. “Wow, thanks.”
He scrunched his eyebrows. “Tell you what, let’s make that 25% off.”
He shrugged. “Better yet, you can have it for $40.”
This guy was a tough bargainer, but he needed to do the bargaining against someone other than himself. “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s okay. You seem like a nice young fella. What color ink do you want?”
This seemed easy. “Black?”
“We can do that. Now I also have a cannabis ink, made with cannabis. First one in the country. I’ve been working hard to get it into those, what do you call ’em?”
“Yes, those. Cannabis ink. Next year it is going to be a best seller. Not a smoker myself, but the young folks sure seem to puff it up like crazy. But for now let’s get you some black ink. I’ve developed several different blacks. Let’s go check ’em out.” It sounded like we’d be hiking to an adjacent building over at the Ink Development Plant, but actually we just took two small steps which put us on the other side of the office, in front of a cluttered table covered with a dozen different ink bottles. “I recommend we don’t go with the waterproof black, as a beginner you will be glad about that. Let me show you how to fill your pen up.”
He performed what seemed like a simple operation were it not for the fact that every move threatened to pour black ink everywhere. He finished and handed me the pen. “Here, try it out.”
I put it to paper and the ink magically, smoothly, beautifully followed the nib without the slightest effort. I grinned. “This is great!”
“Yes, it is,” he said, handing me a giant wad of tissue paper to wipe off the giant black smear that covered most of my hand. “You might want to hold ‘er a little higher up. And I’ll throw in a bottle of this.” He gave me a white plastic bottle.
“What is it?”
“It’s my own proprietary ink remover, it will take the ink right off a starched white cotton shirt. But don’t drink it.” Finally he handed me a couple of stacks of Japanese writing paper. “I can’t give you these but you will like this paper,” he said. “You know, kids anymore can’t write cursive.”
“And they can’t read it, either.”
“Yes, that’s a fact.”
“And they are atrocious spellers because the spell checker does it all for them. We used to use our brains a lot more when we had to write stuff down with a pen and paper.”
“Yes, we did.”
“So what kind of stuff are you going to be writing about with your new pen and all this nice new paper?”
“Stories about bicycles, mostly.”
“Yes. And maybe even one or two about fountain pens.”
He nodded sagely as if I’d finally said something that made sense.
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