“A bouquet of sharpened pencils,” a line from a good movie, yes, but also something I would always see on my father’s desk. It’s what I imagine whenever I sharpen a pencil, releasing that earthy varnish scent that reminds me of his office, complete with drafting table and T-squares.
With these images and scents, I start a story.
I was at a bookstore with the family, browsing supplies for summer craft, and I found myself being drawn to the pen and pencils rack. There were these pencils, in packs of three, all blue and labeled with officious gold–Lyra Robinson 1220’s from Germany it said. It’s not a make I can readily recall, not like Staedtler, Faber or even good old Mongol, but I kept looking at it, drawn to it.
Cheap they were, even cheaper than the black-yellow staples we’ve put in schoolbags, both our own and now of our kids. So I purchased a pack, took it home and when I had the chance, sat down to carefully sharpen the tips into smooth grey-pointed cones. Yet I still could not say why these pencils, these blue sticks from an unknown maker, asked to be brought home, to my desk already crowded with laptop, clicker ball-points and favored fountain pens.
A few days passed, I used the pencils that turned out be a delight, telegraphing the texture of paper up their shafts as their tips rasped their bold dark marks, siphoning out the contents of mind, making these visible to my tired eyes.
Then came an impulse I thought I had outgrown. I put a pencil in my mouth and chomped. Ooops, shouldn’t do that. What was it our folks always told us, “you want to get lead poisoning?” I stopped after the first chew, not because of fear of misrepresented graphite, but because of vanity. Brandishing a pencil with teeth marks is unseemly for someone my age after all. Thinking to check if the pencil was too visibly defaced, I examined the mark, stared at the cratered wood. Then it all came back to me.
I had inherited my father’s desk box. It’s a box we’ve both taken to having, it could be an old cigar box, or a biscuit tin. Anything into which we can throw our desk’s odds and ends, ballpoint pens in want of refills, ink-pots empty and ready for cleaning, erasers gone hard and brittle, and yes, those pencils made short by use or broken off eraser tips. And in my father’s box I had found an oddity.
My father was an architect you see, and damned brilliant if you ask me. He’d doodle into the wee hours, sketching ingenuous new ways to solve problems of space and occupancy. He’d use drawing pencils with their technical looking codes denoting the darkness of their mark, the softness of their core. Old Staedtler 2 and 3B’s, or Faber HBs, those were his tools, all professional looking with glossy rounded ends, not a single one with convenient but inadequate pink erasers on their rears. But there was one exception.
I’ll have to go digging in the attic to check, to hopefully find, that I didn’t discard it outright. But in my father’s desk box there was one ratty old pencil, whittled down to half its original length, but still with that intruding eraser on its rear tip, and with bite marks on both wood and brass. In my heart looking through memory’s eyes I know it was blue and labeled in gold: a Lyra.
And with this recollection, a revelation.
My wife knows the signs very well. If I am down or looking for a lever big enough to move a stubborn world, I go to a bookstore and just linger. I look at notebooks, paper clips, fasteners, Bic look-alikes, Bic originals, styrofoam globes, clicker Sharpies, black-white illustration boards, even the greenish stuff they now call yellow pads, and yes, at all those pencils. It’s an impulse that doesn’t always end with impulsive purchases. Oftentimes I just leave, making sure I look frustrated enough, telegraphing a failure to find the elusive lest the guards think that an hour’s visit had ended with me leaving with something I did not pay for. I can even tell you how to spot the plainclothes guards. They try to look casual, browsing the stuff on the other end of the shelf, but keeping you in their peripheral, and wearing patent leather shoes that look better under blue uniforms.
The guards might not understand, not how anybody can simply linger without any thought of larceny, but I think I do, now, finally. My father always made it a point to see what a country’s stationers can offer. I remember spending hours with him at Swindon in nearby Hong Kong, still in the store when closing time came near. And at Borders in Washington DC–I looked at the paperbacks, he looked at design and architecture heavies. It was a sweltering summer in DC but I don’t think the heat and humidity outside were what kept us in the store for hours.
Good books are nice to be around, even better if they are skirted by the stuff for creating new things with paint, glue, or even those typewriter ribbons of old. And my reason for being in these places is not so complicated. It’s where I would be with my father, simply looking, enjoying it’s offerings—all free unless you want to bring something home—and keeping each other company. With everything in the place having a purpose, a use, a function, you can’t help but eventually find something that would suit your own.
My father passed away almost a decade ago, but I still go to the old familiar places, for the same unspoken reasons, but also with one more. Its where I go to regroup, to find my center by simply wandering, in a convenient inner city setting. And it’s where I now go to answer the question, “what would Pop do?”
This story, originally published in www.mediumelectric.com on March 24, 2013