For the past seven months I’ve been biding my Saturdays as an operator of Angels Flight, the historic and beloved funicular that operates downtown atop the ghost of Bunker Hill. It is truly a pleasure and privilege to be associated with such an amazing landmark.
Since working on the anniversary of its first day of service (way back on December 31, 1901), I’ve embraced representing that bygone era with various accoutrements — a bow tie, a straw boater hat, and soundtrack/playlists of various early 20th-century hits/genres.
This past shift on April 22, 2023, I up’d my accessory game of that era to include a throwback-style waistcoat along with a couple long-dormant items in my possession in the form of a pocket watch and a fountain pen. The watch doesn’t have a tale to be told (other than it was one in a series of unexpected gifts from my mother), but the pen does because on the night before when I retrieved it from the desk drawer where it has sat unused for years), it took some doing to clean out the dried-up ink that was clogging up its reservoir and nib. In the course of doing so, the only replacement ink I had onhand was an old bottle of brown ink, also with a tale, somewhat tragic in scope, behind it.
Let’s start with the fountain pen. It’s a Montblanc. Pretty dang fancy. Officially, it’s a Model No. 146 aka Le Grand Meisterstück. 14K-gold nib and trim. When I bought it and a bottle of ink in September of 1990 it set me back a whopping $318.06 (I still have the receipt). Why I bought it is bit more complicated, having a lot to do with my situation at the time: roughly nine months separated from my first wife and fa-lat broke, I was a step a way from being homeless if not for Dennis my boss at Sparkletts Drinking Water at the time who bless him let me crash for a few months at an apartment he wasn’t using (he later orchestrated my termination because I voted to unionize in an unsuccessful effort by the Teamsters, but that’s another story).
The only existing credit I had to my name was a Brooks Brothers charge card with a sub-$1000 limit that somehow miraculously did not get canceled when by my bankruptcy was finalized about a year earlier.
So I bought Brooks Bros. shit with it; a varsity-style jacket, a white silk sport coat and various other clothings, a leather toiletry bag, and lastly this pen. All of which I was meticulous in paying off even if doing so meant I’d go without other stuff like beer, so as to not raise any flags that might lead Brooks to say whoa. Ironically, when BB’s shed its credit card services in a sale to MBNA a few years down the road when I was less broke, fully divorced and better re-established with a FICO score that wasn’t negative, they wasted not a moment in killing my card — even after I wrote requesting they don’t based on my stellar payment history. They wrote back inviting me to reapply. Fuck MBNA.
I can count the number of times that I actually used the pen on one hand — and by “use” I mean taking out of its case and scribbling something in my wretched hybridized handwriting style as so well evidenced in the included photo before putting it back. But that wasn’t the point. I didn’t spend a fortune on such a glorious writing implement for it to be used to sign checks or other such mundanes. I bought it to have something special at a desperate lonely time in my life when I felt decidedly less than special.
The ink on the other hand was strictly utilitarian, kept but not used after an 8th grade history assignment at Le Conte Junior High from my most-despised-teacher-ever Mr. Failla, whose name itself is very telling since it has the word “fail” in it — and yeah, that’s the sumbitch’s photo from my yearbook.
You know that scene in the Barry Levinson classic movie “Diner” where one of the characters is leaving a movie theater when he suddenly hauls off and clocks some guy he sees in the line who turns out to be an enemy from back in his high school days? I probably wouldn’t punch Mr. Failla if I chanced to see him out there in the real world, but I’d stop and give the bastard the piece of my mind I wasn’t able to as a young punk way back in Nineteen Hunnert and Seventy Eight.
See, the class he taught was something akin to an honors class, and I can’t tell you how, but somehow I wound up enrolled in it without meeting the qualifications — a fact he held against me and made sure of which I was painfully aware.
The particulars of the assignment I cannot recall, but from it I decided to write and craft a journal of a young man documenting his family’s pioneering journey in the 1840s from Alabama to St. Louis and then to California, but make it as authentic as possible by writing it with a fountain pen on parchment paper that with the help of my mom I then “aged” by spraying it with water and baking it in the oven before binding the whole thing between two covers bound by leather straps. My mother came through in purchasing a basic fountain pen and the above-mentioned bottle of “Coffee Brown” ink, a choice of color we made to give it a an aged, faded look.
It was a pretty ambitious undertaking and one I researched, charting the trip along various pioneer routes including the Natchez Trace, Oregon and California trails. I think all in it involved some 40 different entries, in which I incorporated the illness and death of a sibling, attacks from native peoples and a rescue by soldiers, encounters with other pioneers, along with descriptions of the animals, plants, weather events and landscapes, with the family slowly rolling along in their Prairie Schooner and barely beating winter through — you guessed it: Donner Pass.
Holding the finished project in my hands it felt like an achievement. I had seldom been so proud of myself for what I accomplished — and I say that understanding that as an 8th grader it was far from literature. In fact, parts of it may have outright sucked. But taken as a whole, the effort deserved praise, not condemnation in the form of the discouraging grade Mr. Failla saw fit to award me: a C-.
What sort of prick suckerpunches a student like that besides a vindictive spiteful one with an axe to grind? I wish I could tell you any explanation he gave for such a rejection. I remember there were words he had written below the grade, but the moment I saw it, I slammed the journal shut and sat in silent shock throughout the remainder of the class, at the end of which I walked out stonily to a trash can in the hallway, stood there glaring back at him until he looked over at me through the doorway from his desk and then slamdunked the damn thing as hard as I could before running away so that he wouldn’t see me crying.
I wish I could tell you the next class Mr. Failla called me over with the journal he’d recovered and that he gave it back to me with a revised grade and a good long talk that resolved everything culminating in his apology for being such a turdbag, but that would involve him being a decent human being who could recognize his pettiness and he was not a decent human being so the journal stayed in the can, and I’ve stayed angry all these years.
He never made any attempt to address what he witnessed, I think because it was a pained reaction he sought. That’s entirely subjective, of course. Other than his unfair grades and the multiple statements that I was “lucky” to be in his class, I have no factual basis for any grudge or disdain he held. On the flip I don’t have any evidence to dispute his mistreatment of me.
The pen I used for the project was no Montblanc. It stayed in my possession unused for a number of years but barring it hiding in some box or cabinet, I’m pretty sure I pitched it long ago.
That the ink remained with me all this time — some 45 years — was quite the surprise when I found it in the back of a drawer yesterday with the dried-up bottle of Montblanc ink I’d purchased in 1990 with the pen from Brooks Bros.
After successfully unclogging its reservoir and nib, I refilled the pen with the “coffee brown” ink within, with which I then used to write the sentence in the photograph at the top of this post, and then this sentiment in this snap:
Ink — along with 8th grade grudges — dies hard.