Main Contents

#47 :: Saab front wheel bearings

March 24, 2004

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 …)

Filed under: Part | Comments Off on #47 :: Saab front wheel bearings

#46 :: Pachinko balls

March 23, 2004

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.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #46 :: Pachinko balls

#45 :: Kapok pods

March 22, 2004

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.

Filed under: Jetsam | Comments Off on #45 :: Kapok pods

#44 :: Winding spring

March 21, 2004

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.

Filed under: Part | Comments Off on #44 :: Winding spring

#43 :: Semiautomatic Clasp Knife

March 20, 2004

Gerber makes wickedly sharp blades. The serrated one, mounted in a teflon-hinged block of sculpted steel, is among the keenest tools I have ever laid hands on (pocketknife #1 – current, collection since age 6). I became addicted to clasps just a week after lugging around a then-new Kershaw and pointedly *not* losing it out of my pocket on a massively busy trip in and around the Black Rock Desert in mid- –Burning Man. A good knife is for carving grilled meat, cleaning battery terminals and picking teeth.

Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #43 :: Semiautomatic Clasp Knife

#42 :: Iridescent fuzzball

March 19, 2004

I can’t say for sure where this came from. A household with two young children in daycare sucks in playthings, gifts, books, hand-me-down clothing, Happy Meal toys, popsicle sticks and arts-and-crafts detritus with the gravitic pull of a dwarf star. This appeared somewhere among the flotsam and jetsam one day, glinting up from the back seat of the car amidst books, cast-off clothing, sippy cups, used wipes and apple cores. It is a non-biodegradable red plush ball less than half an inch thick, flocked with fine hairs of holographic diffraction film – the sort of thing one can probably buy by the scoopful from huge bins at Michael’s. It is instantly disposable, yet will probably be around in one form or another long after this server is shut down and these words erased upon the demise of their author. It is a kitsch cockroach, with the manufactured power to outlast the collected cultural works of humankind.

Or maybe it’s just a fuzzball.

Filed under: Jetsam | Comments Off on #42 :: Iridescent fuzzball

#41 :: Maoist hologram

March 18, 2004

His visage bright, his jaw grimly set, the Chairman gazes toward the West with a stony wisdom and strength, against the sunburst iconography of a Communist flag. This was bought at Mao Zhedong’s tomb in Tienanmen Square just three years after the murderous defeat of the student uprisings. With prim efficiency, uniformed guards ushered lines of tourists through the tomb, past the suspiciously lifelike corpse (or effigy) of the Great Leader and out into the gift shop, just as they had done for the years since his death. It is laser-etched glass rimmed with cheap goldtoned pot-metal on a flimsy chain, the sort of trinket a younger teenager might wear to look modern yet correct. Dozens more hung beside it, glittering.

Filed under: Adornment | Comments Off on #41 :: Maoist hologram

#40 :: Oil drill tie bar

March 17, 2004

At some point, some oil company magnate (whose name has been lost to the fog of time) decided what the fellas really needed was a trinket, a memento of their work on the rigs. He had some machine shop run off a few hundred of these tiny oil drill bit models in brass, had ’em soldered via swivels to cheap chrome-plated tie bars, and given out. This is a tiny, mechanically meticulous object smaller than the tip of my pinky, made by a machinist with deep affection for detail. The three toothed, conical bit components spin independently, and in unison when the whole thing is rotated as it would be when screwed into the hollow end of a drill and shoved into the ground or sea bed. The tie bar itself is cheap, almost an insult to the craft and care that went into the bit, which glitters and whirs when you twirl it.

Filed under: Adornment | Comments Off on #40 :: Oil drill tie bar

#39 :: Robot drawings

March 16, 2004

My 4½-year-old son is completely obsessed with robots. It may have started with the elaborate robot costume I made for his birthday two Halloweens ago, perhaps it’s the huge volume of vintage science fiction illustrations I leafed through with him countless times when he was 2 and just getting into looking at pictures. But he wants to watch robots, control robots, build robots, be a robot. He just started putting shapes together as drawings about six months ago, and lately he’s been drawing lots and lots of robots. Most are fairly elaborate, with multiple wheels, claw-like arms and oscilloscope faceplates, all jangly energy. These three are about an inch and a half high each, scrawled on scrap paper given to him at school. There’s a wonderfully simple primitivism to them. Cave drawings of a digital boy.

Filed under: Art | Comments Off on #39 :: Robot drawings

#38 :: Nickel-plated pocket watch

March 15, 2004

I wish I knew more about this object, which came with the chain it was probably sold with close to 80 or 90 years ago. The font for the numbers, the filigreed bezel, the fluted face all speak of a time that won’t be seen again, a time when going out to a nightclub meant dressing to the nines – from bleached spats to silk top hats. This was probably an aspiring, young, single man’s dress watch – nickel, not silver, with a little rectangle on the back un-etched and free of pretensions of insignia or declarations of passion. It runs beautifully, if a little fast when not kept tuned.

Filed under: Instrument | Comments Off on #38 :: Nickel-plated pocket watch

#37 :: Trilobite

March 14, 2004

It’s the size of my fingertip, the weight of a nickel and it was created millions of years ago when a tiny ocean-crawling invertebrate settled irretrievably into the mud. I seem to recall this was a gift – or it might have been something I plucked from those huge baskets of similar fossils on a road trip through Moab or Flagstaff or Albuquerque, a token of forays into the desert and a reminder of my own fragility. Unless I destroy it with a hammer, this fossil will be around for aons longer, suspended in the inexorable act of existence, a stinging rebuke to all our vanities of alleged immortality. We’ll die in a few decades, you and I. These words, and all who can understand them, let alone those who can read them, will be gone again and the stone creature will remain.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #37 :: Trilobite

#36 :: Pirate treasure

March 13, 2004

Miranda turned 2 last August, and we had a pirate birthday party – little eyepatches, telescopes and riches for all. The stuff is flashy, shiny gold pieces, cast-molded and plated with the same mirror-bright stuff they put on lowrider hardware. The inscription is beyond cryptic: AVAG CO BEPSIG CHINA a declaration of fealty to the hollow-eyed, corkscrew-maned ur-Grecian god thereon. These things are all over the house now.

Filed under: Toy | Comments (1)

#35 :: Telescope glasses

March 12, 2004

These have the feel of a Hammacher-Schlemmacher wannabe – a must-have gadget for the avid sports fan or optics freak. You can picture him sitting there with a pair of ’em on at Dodger Stadium, replaying the braying marketing boilerplate in his mind between innings – “Hundreds of uses! For birdwatching, auto racing – and at any sporting event, enjoy the sensation fo being right on the field!” He reaches up to fiddle with the diopters, swiveling the well-greased objectives to bring the pop fly into sharp focus in the precision-ground glass lenses. Congratulating himself on his savvy purchase, he turns to his buddy – Hey, did you see (extreme blurry closeup of nosehair) GAAAAHHH!” They came in a hand-stitched leather case lined with red felt.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (1)

#34 :: Handmade crucifix

March 11, 2004

My father made this for – I think – my first communion at age 7. He found slabs of ebony, hand-joined and -finished them, and sliced a little block of ivory from one of the elephant tusks that he had come by in the antiques market on London’s Portobello Road. Upon this, he painted the Alpha and the Omega – symbols of the unending holiness of Christ, and to the top he affixed a little brass picture-ring so it could be hung. It stayed over my bed for many years, and remains among the most achingly beautiful pieces of art that I own.

Filed under: Art | Comments Off on #34 :: Handmade crucifix

#33 :: 3-inch carpenter’s square

March 10, 2004

Mystery takes peculiar forms. Sometimes it’s the center of war or religious zealotry. Sometimes it’s an upperclass strange-o in a deerstalker hat and houndstooth cape poncing about with a magnifying glass. And sometimes mystery glints from your palm as an almost impracticably small, yet completely functional tool. This might have been a manufacturer’s sample, or it might have been exceptionally useful in a shop specializing in building miniature balsa-wood architectural models. It is exquisitely machined, with a drop-forged, hand-finished body and a cast-nickel set screw that controls the sharp steel ruler’s ability to slide. And it sings – of dado, miter, rabbet, dovetail and joints that might have been.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (3)

#32 :: Nuclear bomb test souvenir

March 9, 2004

The U.S. military detonated at least nine nuclear bombs on little Eniwetok Atoll in the 1950s. They ranged in size from the world’s first hydrogen bombs – the 10.4-megaton twins, Mike 1 and Mike 2 on Halloween, 1952 – down to the smallish 8.5-kiloton Blackfoot bomb, set off on June 11, 1956. These were just a handful of the 1,125 test shots set off by the U.S. over the years. Somewhere along the line, someone must have figured the work at Eniwetok would be worth remembering with a solid little keepsake in the fine tradition of gold retirement watches and Chinese-laquered executive desk sets. Being mostly practical, calculating military men working in the ultra-remote, often storm-swept Marshall Islands, they opted for a windproof cigarette lighter. This particular one surfaced at a swap meet, its rich cloisonné badge all but glowing amid the crap-smeared Vietnam Zippos and Mack gimmes in the vendor’s case. The badge commemorates the member departments in Joint Task Force Seven – Army, Navy, Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission. And the back shows a mushroom cloud rising over a little palm-tree-shaded map, naming the places that were wiped off of it. Bogallua. Engebi. Rujiyoru. Piiai. Japtan. West T-Spit. Libiron. Igurin. And Eniwetok. All are carved in the faux-steel finish, bitten through to the brass case beneath. The embossed base proclaims it to be “HIGH QUALITY LIGHTER” – a Penguin brand Zippo knockoff made in Japan, No. 19531. I can’t say whether that’s its model number, or the issue number out of untold thousands made. But it has served me faithfully, igniting camp fires in Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks, cigars and clove cigarettes, etc. at Burning Man and on board the Straylight, the doughty little Hobie Cat I sailed for many years. It is a good, reliable tool, its history throbbing from within as you hold it and flick the wheel. Please do click the pictures. I made them extra-large for this one.

Filed under: Artifact | Comments (1)

#31 :: Rock’em Sock’em Robot

March 8, 2004

He is Russian, I think. Sure, he’s a Mattellian icon made (at least until recently) right here in the USA. But he’s got that Dostoyevskian brow, those sledgehammer fists, and he glows with a fiery red when the morning sun hits my office window. He’s a 6-inch Burger King knockoff with a thumb-lever for a spine. The original Rock’em Sock’em Robots were about 10 inches high, and connected to sets of dual thumb-powered triggers via sleds slotted into a bright yellow thermoplastic boxing ring. When I was 8 or 9, I desperately needed a set in my life, so that I could yell like the boy in the TV commercials, “Hey, you knocked my block off!!!” and then push the spring-loaded, ratchet-mounted skull of cubist plastic back onto those burly shoulders and go at it again. No, my folks replied coldly – as they did with Creepy Crawlers, Lite-Brite, Monster Magnet and just about every other disposable must-have toy – “It’s a piece of junk.” And so it was, according to this review.

Filed under: Toy | Comments Off on #31 :: Rock’em Sock’em Robot

#30 :: Machinists’/Jewelers’ loupe

March 7, 2004

Certain props scream “mad scientist” or “post-apocalyptic economy of scavengers”:

  • Spark plugs either jutting from your neck or dangling around it.
  • Raw voltage crackling from jerry-built machinery on the verge of spinning out of control.
  • Racks and clusters of mechanical-looking jeweler’s loupes clinging to three or four pairs of sandblasted, Coke-bottle glasses.

    Blade Runner. The Road Warrior. SpaceHunter 3D – Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. A tiny rubber-lined steel clamp holds two convex lenses in place, their distance from your pupil and each other adjusted by ittybitty knurled steel setscrews. Flick one into place, beetles become dragons. Flick the second one over the first and you can look a dragon right in the eyestalks. $1.95 from the resellers of bulk Chinese-made tools and instruments at the Pasadena Swap Meet.

    Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #30 :: Machinists’/Jewelers’ loupe

  • #29 :: Human silhouette

    March 6, 2004

    This is a new iteration of a very, very old design aid. Draftspeople always seemed (when I was a kid) to use the neatest tools – flexible curves, Staedtler pens, compasses, rulers – that spoke of a level of arcane understanding of the universe that mathematically ignorant people like me would never reach, the music of calculation, the figuring of art. The silhouette is about 3 inches long when crouched, 6 in full flight. Button-rivet joints let you imagine the pose of your subject as acrobat, bum, president, celebrant, victim, ballerina or slave – the last the most likely, you realize, as you bend its translucent green limbs into horrible positions to picture human suffering – before guilt or empathy makes you feel its discomfort and return it to a more peaceful state of repose.

    Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #29 :: Human silhouette

    #28 :: Pipe cutter

    March 5, 2004

    This is a magnificently simple machine. A hardened steel blade rides in a little carriage, opposite two rollers in the chassis. You put it onto a piece of pipe up to an inch thick, tighten the carriage by means of a big knurled thumbscrew until the blade bites into the pipe. then you spin the pipe inside its grip, tightening the carriage every few spins, until the blade cuts through the pipe. It is palm sized, no more than 2x1x.75″, and heavy, heavy. The brand name, embossed on its flank in a thick, Aryan font, is “R I G I D.”

    Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #28 :: Pipe cutter

    #27 :: Ganesha finger puppet

    March 4, 2004

    Ganesha is not a little rubber guy you can put your finger in to perform counterpane dramas. He’s the “lord of and destroyer of obstacles” according to the above link. But we found him in a carved wooden bowl along with about 38 more like him, in an import curio shop on the two blocks of San Francisco that we revisit just about every time we go to the city. A few doors down is the venerable City Lights Bookstore and the unstoppable Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food. But there, one night, were 39 Ganeshas and about 23 Vishnus. We bought one of each. Buying gods seems now like a frivolous activity. I’m Catholic by upbringing, but I’ll probably park Ganesha on my desk at work for the next few weeks while I try to claw raw design ideas out of blank white Photoshop windows. Inspiration often rests in the tiniest things.

    Filed under: Artifact | Comments Off on #27 :: Ganesha finger puppet

    #26 :: Hohner Little Lady

    March 3, 2004

    This may or may not be the world’s smallest harmonica. At less than an inch long, it plays a full chromatic scale. The tongue and lip work is demanding, but you can actually play ittybitty tunes on it, then either clip it to a keyring or stick it back in its little fitted box. I fell in love with this at about age 10 (this is a replacement for one lost long ago) when I visited the United Nations and spotted one in the gift shop. Magpie eyes noticed the brand stamped in the tin cover, and I asked the man at the counter to “show me the Little Lady, please.” Whereupon he pulled out a matruschka doll next to it, thus completely embarrassing me. It took all the guts I could muster to correct him, then plunk down four and a half bucks – all the money in the world to me then. I rode home in the car, turning it over and over in my hands, occasionally blowing into it carefully to make only soft, peeping notes so as not to disturb my dad while he was driving.

    Filed under: Instrument | Comments Off on #26 :: Hohner Little Lady

    #25 :: Digital counter

    March 2, 2004

    This little clockwork device is very, very old, judging by the wear. There are no maker’s marks anywhere on it. The back of its potmetal chassis is worn away where a metal thumb ring once rode, eroding the surface. Its stamped tin face bears the dents and scars of a thousand infinitesimal blows – a phenomenon about which William Gibson wrote beautifully in Neuromancer. Knobs on its back let you reset each of the dials inside, which spin smoothly and then click over – each moving the next one up by a power of 10 with every 10 pushes of the stamped-steel thumb button. Did it count baseball fans? Inmates at bed check? Pallets of cabbage thudding onto a flatbed, box after hard-picked box? It’s not saying.

    Filed under: Instrument | Comments (2)

    #24 :: Space pod

    March 1, 2004

    “Lost in Space” debuted in 1965, at the height of the Space Race. I was 5, and when my mom sat me down in front of the TV and I saw that flying saucer blast off into the blackness, I was locked in the hold with Will Robinson, doomed to wander the cosmos with the evil Dr. Smith and smart-mouthed robot B-19. The Space Pod was a little miracle – suspended against pinpricked black-velvet on monofilament, its tiny nuclear propeller whirring beneath – an uncanny reflection of the Lunar Excursion Module yet to come.

    Filed under: Toy | Comments (3)

    #23 :: Third-hand workstand

    February 29, 2004

    Alligator clips, ball joints, set-screws and a bigass magnifying glass all clamped to a cast-iron base. In the hand, it feels like a torture device. On the windowsill it looks like an orrery of mechanics, its arms and clips perched in frozen orbit around the empty spaces of the work it should be holding for your eyes – the tying of flies, the soldering of tiny circuits, the painting of trolls’ eyebrows with a single-hair brush.

    Filed under: Tool | Comments Off on #23 :: Third-hand workstand