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#50 :: Pencil sharpener

March 27, 2004

check try ‘popup’,’width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>I am an inveterate disassembler. After building a veritable fleet’s worth of Revell car and plane model kits in my younger childhood, I learned in adolescence that taking things apart could be just as rewarding. Simple machines were the most fun – overwound alarm clocks, dead transistor radios, balky Hot Wheels cars – you could do most of ’em with a screwdriver and nail clipper. This steel spring came out of an I.D. card reel – a little retractable cord that lets you whip a magnetic card across the access plate at a secure building and then return it to ride close to your belt. There is doubtless an elegant fractal mathematic equation to explain the gentle tightening of its curve from edge to center.
look ‘popup’, this ‘width=500, approved height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Finding these rooted me fast, stabbing a map of the gargantuan Darwinian cosmos with a tiny pushpin labeled “you are here.” The kapok tree spends its life growing these only to release them to the earth, where they dry, twist, crack and split, releasing flossy seeds to the winds. Ergo, more kapok trees, and more kapok – the principal flotation agent in lifejackets. I found this on the front lawn of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum just before seeing the intoxicating and brilliant multimedia exhibit L.A.: light / motion / dreams. Seed tufts littered the grass there, an L.A. species declaring its turf.
medical ‘popup’, salve ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>There is something narcotic about playing pachinko. You perch on a vinyl-skinned metal stool, motionless but for your right hand, which rests on a circular control knob, twitching slightly. A stream of tiny steel balls shoots across the vertical table. Its angle changes as your hand moves. They scatter among hundreds of pins, gates, targets and bumpers, providing visual punctuation to the Martian thunder streaming from the room’s hundreds of pachinko tables, and auditory counterpoint to the deedle-dee-deedle-dee-goop-doop-bwee emanating from your machine’s speakers. You sigh, a bit, every now and then. Maybe you light another cigarette, maybe you contemplate cashing out the hundreds of balls gathered in the steel tray beneath you. Nah, a few more yen, you decide, and you keep playing. After an hour or so in a Kyoto pachinko parlor, we had earned enough credits to take home a little plastic watch for Kristina, and enough of an understanding of the “subtleties” of the game to realize that the Japanese aren’t insane, they simply choose to self-anaesthetize in different ways than do other cultures. I keep these in a test tube. Some bear kanji markings, others – inexplicably – the letters USA.
rx ‘popup’,’width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false” href=””>My very good friend, Steve Marquez, a sharp, funny, intensely humane reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, died in 1987 of AIDS. (Read a bit more about him here.)

He was an early casualty, before drug cocktails, before it was acceptable to even be HIV-positive. Very much closeted, he gutted it out for more than a year under the guise of a “rare blood disease” – a lie close enough to the truth for him to live with, but far enough to keep his friends close. Homeopathic treatment didn’t do a damn thing, and he died a long, ugly, painful death.

When I was called to his death bed, he had already left his body, which was still warm and breathing on machines that simply had not been turned off yet. A few days earlier, he had asked me to take his car, a 1975 Toyota Celica ST, metalflake brown in color, with 4 on the floor, a car in which we had rolled with a happy buzz on to many clubs and concerts in St. Petersburg Florida during the ’80s – to get it washed so it would be ready for him when he got out of the hospital. (Read on …)

That was as close as he got to a will.

He died intestate, leaving some unpaid bills, a house full of books and music, a bereft and shattered girlfriend, a newsroom full of stunned colleagues and an answering machine message that said, “Steve is gone right now. The ghost is in the machine. Tell it who you are and it will call you back when he returns.”

So he left me this car – I had ditched my decrepit ’70 Volvo (into which I had foolishly poured $6,000 worth of renovations and repairs – but that’s another story) – and I made it my mission to keep it on the road for as long as I could, and drive it into the ground.

The odometer – hovering somewhere around 90,000 when I got it, quit at 174,000 or so. A short while later, the engine quit, so I had another one put in (a rebuild of a Japanese-market Celica engine) and kept on going.

I did most of my own repairs other than that – brakes, bearing seals, clutch hydraulics, and so on. I had it painted electric blue at one point. I bottomed out in Philadelphia’s rutted cobblestone side streets, almost tearing the front-end crossmember and oil pan off the bottom of the car. I paid a lot to get it fixed. It kept running.

It rode out to California in 1990 with my furniture, in a moving van hired by the L.A. Times, which had just hired me. I kept driving.

Kristina, the Celica and me. Probably circa 1991.

Brush fires, floods, countless city council meetings. It kept rolling to beaches, deserts, Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego. I had it painted “Plum crazy purple” – a wicked metalflake variation favored for the 1974 Dodge Challenger and Swinger – upholstered in cream leather, and replaced the wheel with one of solid mahogany and machined aluminum.

The Northridge earthquake, more fires and countless trips up and down twisty roads in the Santa Monica Mountains, a particularly vicious bout of the Santa Ana winds that ripped the door from my hands and flung it open, crumpling the trailing edge of the front quarter panel.

It ran and ran and ran. At some point, I replaced the front wheel bearings, which were howling kind of noisily. And not long thereafter – exactly seven years to the week after he died, the electrical system crapped out in the parking lot of an Oxnard mall while I was on assignment.

That was the signal.

I had it fixed, thanked Steve for giving me seven years of spiritually rewarding, safe and happy driving, and donated it to an auto mechanics program at Pierce College.

My very educated guess is that it had somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 miles on it. I moved on to a brand-new Saab 900 (another wonderful car, for purely mechanical reasons) and I replaced the wheel bearings in that one, after a good 140,000 miles.

These are the Saab’s dead bearings. They put me in mind of Steve and the Celica, both of whom I miss terribly.
malady ‘popup’, help ‘width=500, drugs height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>If I may be allowed a generalization, every serious collector is slightly mentally ill. People stuff their entire apartments with Beanie Babies, their warehouses with exotic $1-million sportscars, their desktops with frogs of every shape, size, material and expression. The collector is someone who is compelled to gather like objects together, to prove their collective worth is far and away greater than their individual value in – if nothing else – happiness. The serious collector seeks out pieces to fill in the gaps, variations on themes to make the whole collection richer, the happiness more complete – at least for the time it takes to carry out the transaction. The casual collector looks at objects almost at random and says, “Whoa, cool. How much is it?” at the moment some nerve is triggered deep in the lizard brain. Pon-tiki is one of those things. I found it at Giant Robot on Sawtelle, stared and sweated at the three varieties for something like 15 minutes, and then happily shelled out six bucks for what is basically the bastard son of the Memphis design school and Mr. Potatohead. It’s a capsule 1½ inches long filled with about 10 or a dozen little shapes on white stalks. You plug the stalks into the holes and make … whatever. It sits on your desk. I’m thinking of getting another so this one can have someone to talk to, so I can swap parts, or add more parts, making this one more meaningful. Whatever.
ampoule ‘popup’, page ‘width=500, page height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Joe Reed crafted this, to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Yale University‘s Elizabethan Club. It began life as a series of sketches, likely done in heavy graphite pencil, then inked for clarity of line. He then fashioned plaster-of-paris maquettes about 10 inches in diameter, carving them with Exacto blades and surplus dentist’s tools. The maquettes were then translated into molds, and the medal was cast in solid bronze. It’s different from the usual crisp, oversized-penny-styled medals usually bestowed at memorable occasions. Rough, almost brutish in its deeply gouged bas-relief features (QE I on the front, a phoenix rising on the reverse), it has a deeply rugged beauty. It is astonishingly heavy for its size (almost a pound at less than four inches in diameter), the sort of thing that, wrapped in a sock, could prove equally handy for dispatching a burglar or crushing ice. The artist takes commissions, and can be reached here.
rx ‘popup’, approved ‘width=500, buy height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Feisty. Steadfast. Small. Kitschy. Voracious. Cast in brown-toned potmetal, a dimestore pencil sharpener embedded in his belly, this triceratops is one of those elegantly simple tools that delights in efficiency and feel. Shove a pencil in his mouth, spin it, pull it out – it’s sharper. He continues his silent roar whether I leave him on the desk or stick him back in his drawer. Craftsman wrenches have a cold efficiency – they don’t try to be fun. They’re just tools. This is a mass-produced wonder, which – had it been crafted 200 years ago as a one-of-a-kind demonstration of a toolmaker’s creativity and craft – might have been presented to royalty.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. SB March 28, 2004 @ 4:28 am

    This is so cool!

    I want one.