Since I’ve opened this new blog with very little in it yet, I thought I might as well fill the wait between my weekly Star columns with selected reposts (or, in some cases, just posts, since they’d never been posted before) from columns past—from Penman, which began in the Star in 2000; Barfly, which ran in Today from 1994 to 1999; Man Overboard, from Men’s Zone in the early 2000s; T3; and Manileño from Filipinas magazine from 2003 to 2010. So here goes.)
Penman for August 21, 2000
FOR PHILIPPINE Star readers who may not know me from my earlier incarnations (no offense meant to the Gautama; the only thing Buddha-like about this Butch is his midsection) and who may be wondering about the column title, “Penman” refers both to a story I wrote a few years ago, “Penmanship,” and to my long and abiding fascination with old fountain pens, about a hundred of which I’ve collected over the past 15 years.
Most of these beauties from the 1920s up to the 1940s came from antique fairs and garage sales in the American Midwest, where I lived for a few years, and from more exotic nooks and crannies such as a backstreet pen shop in Edinburgh and a sidewalk vendor in Saigon. Some I’ve received as generous gifts from friends (a clutch of Parkers and Sheaffers from Franz Arcellana—pens he actually wrote his stories with—and a breathtaking Japanese maki-e lacquered pen from poet Jimmy Abad).
Now and then—say, after a few months without adding a new-old pen to the trove—I satisfy my urges by getting one on the Internet or, less often, by taking a deep breath and paying full price at the local mall (although I once found a very nice pair of new Parker Duofolds selling at practically half-price in a department store in Cebu). Still even more rarely, I’ve come across some astounding bargains in my own backyard—an antique stall in Ermita (a Montblanc 146 and a much-sought-after 1959 Sheaffer PFM V for P650 each), and a stationery shop in Binondo (a rather uncommon Parker VP for P350).
Never mind what these names mean, if you know or care nothing about pens: just think of them as exquisitely lovely, useful, and—to some people who collect them for more than aesthetic reasons—quite valuable objects, some which have sold at auction for over $10,000 (no, that’s not your grandfather’s Wearever or Esterbrook, for which you’d be lucky to get enough for a movie and a hotdog sandwich). I have an awful suspicion that most of the good pens we must have once had in this country—any colony with a highly-literate bureaucracy should have been swimming in a sea of blue-black ink—would have long had their gold nibs pulled and melted down in the smithies of Meycauayan to make someone a pretty trinket or a gleaming incisor.
Imagine my surprise when, last weekend—on one of those trips to the mall where the sleepy-eyed husband gets deputized by the wife in resolute quest of a wedding present—I strayed into a tiangge stall selling the usual santos and hardwood benches and spotted, in a corner of a glass case, the unmistakable flat-top cap and gold pocket clip of a 1920s pen. I asked to see it, and my hands shook as I confirmed that I was holding a near-perfect example of a Swan Eternal No. 48, a huge fountain pen as fat as a cigar (it’s a boy thing, this pen envy) in a gold-trimmed rosewood finish and the biggest nib you ever saw, a No. 8 (most fountain pens, by comparison, sport nothing bigger than a No. 2). The patent date on the clip said “Jan. 19, 1915” although the pen itself was made, according to my trusty references, between 1924 and 1929. Hallelujah! But first I had to ask, in a dry croak, “How much?”
The man behind the counter consulted a woman who was doing the books. “Five hundred,” she said casually. I felt faint: P500 for a fancy Bic may be outrageous to you, but if they had ten of these and I had P5,000 on me I would have bought them up and retired on the profits. The pricing also told me that the sellers had probably found the pen among other effects in a large estate (you had to be very rich to own an accessory like this in the late ’20s) and had, themselves, paid very little if anything for it; many old pens come as bonuses to buyers of many-drawered antique cabinets, or even of cigar boxes, where they tended to be kept and forgotten.
I forked the money over. The man hesitated and my heart skipped a beat. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we don’t have a small box to put it in.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” I managed to say, taking full and final possession of the Swan and sticking it into my pocket, where I was certain that God Almighty had always intended it to belong. Surely, there was more than a touch of justice here. How many times, during my months in England, had I revisited and salivated over the fabulous pens on Portobello Road, going home to Norwich with little more than a jar of bagoong and a packet of Chippy from the Filipino food store at Earls Court? Just how many of the half-dozen Pinoys who can tell a Swan Eternal from a Rubber Ducky stumble into one, in a mall buzzing with Nokia ringtones, and get to bring it home for the price of a phone card?
I treated Beng out to a lunch of noodles and siopao and proudly showed her my prize find. She herself prefers to pick up old blue and ruby-red bottles, but has developed a grudging respect for and even some expertise in my objects of choice—once spotting, at a cowshed fair in Ohio, a circa-1930 lapis-blue Parker Duofold Junior which I bought for $5 and later traded for my first Montblanc. “It’s gorgeous,” she agreed, “but you should have asked for a discount.” Spoken, I suppose, like a true shopper.
But this wasn’t shopping, Beng. This was serendipity, for which I can only thank my lucky stars and, yes, you, for dragging me out of my Sunday-morning stupor to find kitchenware for newlyweds.