Flotsam & Jetsam No. 28: Traveling Companions

AM DOWN in Jakarta for a conference this week and brought two workhorse pens with me for signing books: my ever-reliable 1993 MB Agatha Christie and a 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, the classic “Big Red.”

I originally bought the Big Red for resale, but decided to keep it when I saw how clean it was. Look how sharp the milling is on the black hard rubber part of the cap:

Penman No. 29: Some Things Meant to Be

Penman for Monday, January 14, 2013 

MY LATE father Jose Sr.—Joe to his friends—would have turned 90 this coming Saturday. An incorrigible chain smoker, he died of an aneurysm in 1996, and there’s hardly been a day since when I haven’t thought about him. Whenever I travel, which is fairly often, I find myself talking to my dad to tell him, “Tatay, I wish you’d seen this, and this, and that.” He was a simple man whose feet never left his country nor, pretty much, his home; his joys were in the kitchen and in the garden, and his favorite pastime was doing crossword puzzles.

Indeed, in his own way, he was a man of words, a gifted writer who—like I would do, myself—ghost-wrote speeches for far more powerful but much less articulate men. As modest as our circumstances were, there were always books and magazines at home, and even before I could read or write, my father fired up my imagination by reading stories to me at bedtime. In brief, I would not have become a writer had it not been for him.

Nor, speaking of my quaint obsessions, a fountain pen collector. In his last days my father wrote with a cheap plastic Bic ballpen—the kind you can now buy by the box and forget or throw away after a few uses—but in his prime he had some Sheaffers and Parkers that he would load up with blue-black ink, whose ability to bloom into a dark-hearted rainbow on a wet napkin brought me endless fascination. Regretfully none of his fountain pens have survived—which is probably why, as with most enterprises driven by some deep longing, I keep amassing pens, as if they would somehow bring my father back.

Now, begging your indulgence, here’s where this memory detours into the story of a pen and of a box.

A few weeks ago, after months of eager questing, I acquired what collectors call a “grail” pen—an object of acute desire, usually for reasons of great beauty, scarcity, or some sentimental connection. In this case, it was purely a matter of esthetics and collectability: the Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial would simply be a big, black, overpriced pen to most sensible people, but to me it was the noblest of the modern Duofolds, a reincarnation of a classic 1920s line that established the Parker name for the rest of the century. Made specifically to commemorate the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England—which Beng and I visited around the time the pen was made in 1999—the pen was a special edition with a limited run, and had become rather hard to find.

When I found one on eBay at a price I could afford, I was ecstatic, filling my posts about the find with smileys and dancing bunnies. It was near-mint, the chevrons incised into its black cap and barrel deep and lustrous, its gold fittings rich and warm. Its regal nib was a joy to write with. I couldn’t have asked for more—or perhaps I could, as it came to me without its presentation box. Pens of this caliber always came in pretty wooden boxes in themselves worthy of collection, and indeed, in one discussion of the Greenwich in a forum I frequented, another collector had reported seeing “a small but fancy box with what appeared to be a European cityscape picture on the inside of the box cover.” I wasn’t sure why, but that description sounded oddly familiar to me then.

When the pen arrived from the US I put it to happy use, doodling away, writing loopy notes to no one. The Greenwich was truly an impressive pen and it sat haughtily in my pocket, but now and then I would be besieged by the collector’s constant fear of losing or dropping a valuable pen, and I would begin wishing that I had its box to put it to bed in, before I scored the exquisite chasing on the pen or, worse, let it slide out of my attention in one of my poker binges. But then of course, I didn’t have its box, and I couldn’t bear to stick it in anything beneath its stature.

And then, a few nights ago, something strange happened. As I was idly surfing away to more pleasant distractions (meaning, more pen-related Websites) in the middle of finishing the draft of another commissioned piece, I stumbled on a picture of the Greenwich in its original wooden box. And at that instant, the familiarity of the box and of its pictured scene overcame me, as I realized that, of course, I’d had that box somewhere in the house, somewhere in the very room I was in. Years ago, I had found the varnished receptacle in a thrift store in America, and had been taken by its plaintive beauty—plaintive because it was clearly a box for some majestic Parker pen (the Parker name was proudly emblazoned on it), but it was empty, and I had no idea then what model its proper occupant might have been.

I bought the box for a couple of dollars, and brought it home with me to the Philippines, where I decided that it would house the most precious pen in my collection—my dad’s battered Bic ballpen, the last thing he wrote with before he died. So I was certain I had it somewhere, and I began ransacking my den, pawing through shelves of empty pen and ink boxes (you can imagine what a collector’s nest looks like). Sure enough, there it lay behind a stack of ink bottles, the box that opened to a “European scene”—a cluster of neoclassical buildings foregrounded by a sailboat on the water. (I would later discover that it was a depiction of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, seen from the north bank of the Thames.)

It was the box that had been designed for—and only for—the rarefied Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, and by some stroke of what the poets called serendipity, I had found the box years before I found the pen. I took my father’s crystal Bic in my hand and smiled, thinking, “Tatay, what strings did you pull to make this happen?”

So I put the Parker where it was meant to rest, and now I had to find new and no less suitable quarters for the Bic. Fortunately, on the same shelf was an old Japanese box, gleaming in black lacquer, that I had found in another discount store on Avenida Rizal, and which would originally have carried chopsticks. I didn’t think Tatay would have minded the switch, being an excellent cook.

And finally, I resolved that, in honor of Jose Quinton Dalisay, Sr., the Greenwich pen would henceforth use nothing but blue-black ink, a choice its golden nib seems perfectly content with. My other pens can gorge on Diamine Oxblood and other fancier concoctions, but I had been soundly persuaded that some things are just meant to be. (And here’s to a happy 90th, Tatay!)

Penman No. 28: Traveling with Pens


Penman for Monday, January 7, 2012 

IT’S THE day before New Year, and I’m on my way to Kuala Lumpur with Beng for the last jaunt of the old year and the first of the new one. In my shirt pocket is a 1999 Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, a big black pen I’ve had for just a few days and which I’m putting through its paces; in my bag is a leather two-cigar case that’s transporting not Cohibas but two more Parkers—another Duofold, an orange International from around 2008, and a Vacumatic Oversize that goes all the way back to 1938.

I don’t even know why I travel with fountain pens. Lord knows how many valuable ones I’ve lost on the bus or in some stranger’s car, where it’s probably moldering under the back seat alongside an ossified wad of gum. (Probably the most valuable pen I lost, I didn’t even see. Twenty years ago, my grad-school friend Joe mailed me a pen in a box along with a book—I grabbed the book and threw away the box. “How was the pen?” asked Joe when I thanked him for the book. “What pen?” I asked. “The silver-filigree vintage Waterman that I tucked away in a corner of the box. It was meant to be a surprise,” Joe said. This was a couple of days after the box had gone to the dumpster in Milwaukee.)

It’s not like I write novels on the road, or write anything substantial, period, with my fountain pens. I have a thick pad of gorgeously creamy Clairefontaine paper at home, and all I ever write on it is “This is a Parker Duofold from 1931” or “This is a Bexley with a broad nib that I stubbed” or “This Waterman 52 flexes oh so nicely” and pages and pages of figure 8s. If I ever become truly famous, I suppose that pad of doodles and scribbles will be worth something to someone, but they’ll be disappointed if they’re expecting to find the first line of a new novel or some deep dark secret in it.

I keep that pad on my desk for whenever I get a new pen—maybe two or three times a month—for its ritual initiation: I’d write “This is a Pelikan M600 in tortoise” and see how the nib performs. I like my nibs broad, wet, and stubby, and if they aren’t any of these three (I do keep a few fines and mediums unmodified), I work on them with very fine 2500-grit sandpaper, finishing off the job with an 85-peso nail buffer from a Korean cosmetics shop (it always raises eyebrows when I walk into one of these mall shops and get three nail buffers all at once).

It takes care and patience, but there’s a lot you can do to improve the flow of ink in new pens, whose nibs will sometimes be “hard” writers requiring just a bit of tweaking to perform optimally. Beyond the flow, modifying the nibs themselves requires special knowledge and more than a dash of daring; I can stub or flatten nibs and make them write more smoothly, but it takes the skills and workbench of someone like my friend JP Reinoso to turn them into crisp cursive italics. For even more difficult jobs like straightening bent tines or adding iridium or tipping material to old nibs, we go to the best of the world’s so-called “nibmeisters”—people like John Mottishaw, Greg Minuskin, Mike Masuyama, and the now-retired Richard Binder.

But where was I? Oh, traveling with fountain pens. As I was saying, it’s something no one really needs to do these days. In fact, I also bring along a ballpoint or a rollerball pen for the inevitable task of filling out immigration and customs forms, especially those that require duplicate copies. (It was the necessity of the carbon copy, back in the ‘40s, that would eventually spell the death of the age of soft-nibbed fountain pens and the start of the world’s love affair with the ballpen or the “biro” as it was first called, after its inventor Laszlo Biro.)

A vintage fountain pen in your pocket might even spell fashion disaster inflight. Today’s air cabins are properly pressurized, and I should say that I’ve yet to have a pen burp on me airside and cause an inky bloom on my shirtfront, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that not all pens or filling systems may be so well behaved. Conventional pen wisdom says that you fly with your pen either completely empty or completely filled.

Being a gambler, I travel with fully loaded pens. I might write a line or two with them on the road in my Moleskine notebook, but again it’s not the writing I carry them with me for—for that menial task, I have the trusty MacBook Air that I’m typing this piece on, in seat 7-D of our AirAsia flight. So what is it that I need to bring three pens for to an exotic destination like KL—where, ironically, I’m going to be picking up five more pens for friends from PenGallery (www.pengallery.com), one of Asia’s and the world’s best pen shops?

I suppose my pens are like the kids or pets I never had—and I know, I know, sometimes kids are better left at home, but you still want to know that they’re safe and that they’re where they’re supposed to be, and what better place can they be but right with you? I can’t possibly bring all of my dozens of pens along—I keep about nine or ten of them in the daily rotation—so I choose favorites for the week, and perhaps go for a mix of old and new, of ink colors (my staples being blue-black, which reminds me of my father’s writing, and oxblood, which lives up to its sanguinary promise), and of nib sizes (a fine or a medium for note-taking, a broad stub for signatures). A pen’s pleasures are both visual and tactile—the smooth curl of a line or a letter on the page, the feel of a precisely tuned instrument at your fingertips. Knowing that these pleasures are literally within reach, wherever I may be, gives comfort.

I like my modern Duofolds (a reprise of a classic design from the 1920s) because of their heft and balance, but I’ve taken the burgundy 1938 Vacumatic out of its 18-year storage and put it in my cup of daily writers after convincing myself that if I had a pen this precious but never used it, then I would have foregone one of life’s rarest privileges. (Yes, this is the very pen I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and which provoked the writing of the short story “Penmanship,” a desperate attempt to justify the impulse buy of the pen and to recover its cost.)

As you can see, I’m something of a Parker partisan, although I like and collect all kinds of pens, including the relatively inexpensive but ever-reliable TWSBI and Lamy. I have nothing against Montblancs—I have quite a few of them and treasure one of my 149s for its ability to write a sharp wet line even after weeks of being left unattended—but I remind my corporate and lawyer friends that there are other fine pens out there without a white star on the cap, such as Pelikans and Sheaffers, and they don’t all come with five-figure price tags. (Try Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood Mall and the pen counters at National Book Store for more options, or join our pen club at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fpn-p/ for more information and great company.)

Speaking of vintage pens, I found a couple of noteworthy ones just before Christmas in an antiques shop in Quezon City. I had taken Beng out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant and right beside it was Siglo, which we hadn’t visited in ages. There under glass were two pens that had been waiting all that time for me: a 1920s Waterman safety pen inscribed “Conchita”, and a 1947 Parker 51 once owned by a “Julian T. Navarro.” Some pen collectors don’t like these personalizations, but I’ve never minded them, taking them as provenance and proof that these once were more than objects for someone’s collection.

Vintage pens

Like I told another collector-friend, I see myself much less as an owner than a caretaker of things that will pass on and give delight to someone else, and hopefully revive some tender memory of me. I have no way of knowing who “Conchita” was, but thanks to the wonders of Google, I was able to locate the obituary of Julian T. Navarro, who was born in the Philippines in 1907 and who died in California in 2003. He had been a war veteran, and then a contractor, and would have been 40 when he got the Parker in 1947—a man just approaching his peak at the end of a devastating war. I can just imagine him writing with that Parker, its now heavily tarnished gold cap gleaming in his hand. What hope and optimism would have flowed out of that pen.

I suppose that’s why I bring these babies home, and carry them around with me wherever I go.

KRIP YUSON already wrote the literary tributes I would’ve offered for the late Emy Arcellana and Jerry Araos, so let me just add my fervent sympathies to the families of these dear departed friends. Their lives enriched and brightened ours, and they will be much missed. Beng had visited Jerry just a week or two before the end, and he had told her, “I want to go home.” And so he did.