Pencils Make the Day

The Blackwing Pencil

My pencils are getting shorter. Don’t laugh.

So many years between when we all used pencils and today. Years and years and years since we dreaded pushing those yellow number twos across standardized tests, required equipment for the sole purpose of blackening those little circles.

“Make sure that you mark your answers clearly,” the monitor at the front of the room would remind us. “You have three hours.”

Saturday mornings in a cafeteria, heart in my throat, certain of failure, again. Good college? Not a chance.

A few years ago Mary and I rediscovered pencils. Not just any pencil, but Blackwing pencils. The pencil itself didn’t grab my attention as much as the eraser. Because let’s face it, isn’t a pencil a pencil? I’m here to tell you, “No!”

Brookline Booksmith sells a lot more than books, and has successfully remained open through the pandemic. Mary and I frequent this Coolidge Corner institution for gifts, for cards, for socks and t-shirts, for journals, for chocolate bars, and now for pencils. There’s a table dedicated to a vast assortment of writing utensils, so much so that one is easily overwhelmed. Still, I find myself standing in front of that table quite often, looking at all the choices — pens, pencils, markers — wondering which one might glide the most smoothly.

Writing longhand holds a place in my heart, having learned the skill by fountain pen while living in Paris, all of us painstakingly gripping our pens, ink everywhere but on the page, an average of one shirt a week ruined. Even though I write these essays on a computer, I write notes by hand. Old school. The best way I know to commit something to memory is to write it down. Turn sixty and this takes on a whole new level of importance, our collective pencils getting shorter by the year. Take note.

“I love those,” the owner of the Booksmith says to me when bring a dozen of them to the register. “I have a hard time keeping them in stock.”

The Blackwing pencil, it turns out, has a distinguished history. The 602 originally selling for 50¢, now sells for $2.75, which I fork over willingly. Founded in 1934, the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company and 602 changed hands a few times before finally discontinuing the manufacture of said tool in 1998. But the pencil, whose motto ‘half the pressure, twice the speed’ kept selling on e-bay, sometimes for $40 apiece until demand re-emerged and manufacturing restarted. It now enjoys a devoted following of people like me and the Booksmith. Locals supporting locals.

“How many of these do I need?” I think each time I add one to a purchase. “I don’t have this one,” I convince myself, thinking each must have a different personality. Yes, pencils with personality, like pets!?!

These pencils feature a bigger than normal eraser, clearly designed for people who make a lot of mistakes, or like to draw and redraw images on blank pages. I learn that E.B. White and John Steinbeck used them, as well as Sondheim and Bernstein. Wikipedia fails to list a single famous woman as fan. Are pencils only a guy thing? Don’t answer that.

Lives drawn and redrawn. The notes of our days laid out for review. To do lists and calendar appointments jotted down and easily erased, that the rhythm of pandemic weeks, rolling over one another, with little to differentiate them. These erasers can be re-positioned and replaced. I just love that. Remember when your eraser used to rip through your work?

“Don’t worry, you can just redraw it,” your Mom might say. The bane of childhood.

“No I can’t. It will never be the same!”

The accompanying sharpener another distinguishing element to the whole Blackwing experience, a two-step piece of engineering not at all like the crank boxes our teachers affixed to desks at the front of the room. No, these new sharpeners feature two holes, one to trim the wood leaving a thick nub of precious graphite. A second hole dedicated to filing down only the point to perfect finish. The act of sharpening a Blackwing with one of these little pieces of engineering something I have come to appreciate as much as making the perfect omelet. Cooked just so, and then I flip it with the flick of a wrist.

Pandemic life featuring shorter and shorter pencils. Maybe my time on this earth will be measured not by accomplishment, but by how many more of these I buy, the length of each pencil predetermined, how long they last not. They now come in boxes of a dozen. A volume they call them. I’m reveling in the taking of notes, the smooth passing of the mark across smooth white paper. Looking forward to having to sharpen each one. Living for those moments when one needs a little twist, the sound of wood shaving off at the end now music to my ears, like the sound of a stylus dropping on vinyl. The smell of cedar chips taking me back to those minutes at the beginning of those standardized tests.

“You can open your Blue Books now, and write your essay,” the monitor would say when commencing the written part of the test. “Take your time, and write neatly. There are sharpeners in the front of the room.”

Such good advice for today. Take your time. write neatly. Enjoy the day because our pencils are getting shorter.



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