MY FIRST REALLY NICE FOUNTAIN PEN
It’s the summer of ’57. America has never been more prosperous–or more paranoid. The serpent of Communism lurks in our post war Eden, threatening to tempt us, corrupt us, brainwash us, conquer us by force or subversion. Thousands have been fired, blacklisted, even imprisoned on the mere suspicion of Communist association. John Wayne rules the Box Office battling Commie spies. Sci Fi movies warn about aliens who take over our bodies, post-nuclear insects that enslave humans–invaders from outer space whom we appease at our peril–all metaphors for the Commies plotting against us.
My woodshop teacher claims that the Panama Canal was built to allow Communist invaders easy access to the US. Once a week an air raid siren sounds and we have to take cover under our desks. When we giggle and horse around our Home Room teacher screams: “Wait until the Chinese are bayonetting babies on Coney Island Avenue. You won’t be laughing then!”
Our biggest shock is yet to come in October when the Soviets launch sputnik. Now we will live in fear of Hydrogen Bombs raining down on us from outer space.
And to top it all off the Dodgers have left Brooklyn…
I am fourteen and a half years old and ready for my first real summer job. But because I’m a minor I need the approval of the State of New York. Getting my “Working Papers” trumps Confirmation and compulsive masturbation as the true rite of passage to manhood. I feel very grown up as I buy a NY Post at the subway station. I try to mimic the same bored, weary expression I see on the other passengers.
The State Department of Labor is in a hulking gray stone office building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. I am buffeted in the swarming lobby by people who know where they’re going. A Post Office cop slaps his billy club into his palm at my approach. I ask where I can get my working papers. He gestures toward the elevators.
“Go get your physical on the tenth floor.”
I walk down a dimly lit, film noir corridor, past offices with smoked glass windows, until I come to a door with a sign reading State Dept. of Labor. Typewriters are clattering in a large office. A man gets up from a desk with a surly “Can I help you?”
“I’m here for the physical for my working papers,” I say.
He’s fat red-headed guy with bloodshot blue eyes, his tie askew, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.
“Let’s go to the examining room,” he says.
He walks me into a smaller office where three men look up from their desks.
“Kid’s here for his physical,” he says. He pulls me toward a table. “Sit there…” Stubs out his cigarette. “Open your mouth.” Pulls my jaw down. “Wider…” Looks down my throat. “Say Ahhh…Do you get tonsillitis?”
“I had my tonsils out when I was a little kid,” I say.
He turns to the men in the office. “It’s okay, he had his tonsils out when he was a little kid..Good.,” he says to me. “That could have been a problem.”
Next, he pries my eyes open. “Wear glasses? Suffer from pink eye or wall eye…?”
Before I can answer he twists my head and pulls my ear down. “You’ve got serious wax deposits , son. Do you wash your ears?”
“Every day,” I lie.
A man rushes out of the office, head down, coughing and sputtering.
“You oughta take care of that asthma, Doctor Mulrain,” the red-headed guy calls after him. ” We may have to have you come back with clean ears so we can check on your auditory canal,” he says to me.
My mother had told me to take a shower the night before. I’m thinking of what lie to tell when I come home empty-handed.
” Stand up and face the wall,” he barks.
I obey numbly, still worrying about my mother.
” Bend over and drop your pants,” he says.
My mother had told me to change my underwear. I didn’t and now I’m hoping the stains don’t show.
“Underwear, too,” the guy says.
“You want your working papers or what?”
I pull my jockeys down.
“Okay,” the guy says. “Now spread the cheeks of your ass…C’mon spread ‘em, this isn’t a fashion show.”
I’m fourteen and a half. Nobody has ever seen my ass before. I’m mortified. The red-headed guy walks up and down.
“Okay, pull ‘em up..” He turns to the men in the office. “Okay?”
“Okay,” they say.
He takes me outside to his desk. “You pass,” he says. Scribbles a note and hands the folded paper to me. “Give this to the nurse across the hall.”
This door has a sign that reads New York City Board of Health. The office looks more like a doctor’s waiting room. A chill of suspicion spreads through me. A nurse at a desk is putting on lipstick, puckering into a compact mirror.
“I just took the physical for my working papers,” I say, and give her the note.
She reads it, shaking her head. “Fat red-headed guy across the hall give this to you?”
“Did he examine you?”
“Yes,” I say and realize from her look that something is horribly wrong.
“Wait here,” she says, and walks into an inner office.
I dive for the note. It says: “Lunch? Blarney Castle?“
A minute later the nurse comes out with an elderly man with a droopy gray mustache. “You’re not in mama’s kitchen now, sonny,” he says in a thick Yiddish accent. “You have to know where you’re going, who you’re supposed to see and what you’re talking about. ” He takes a gold pocket watch out of his vest pocket. “I’m going to lunch.”
“Those guys played a mean, stupid trick on you,” the nurse says.
“But the guard downstairs told me I needed a physical.”
“He was wrong,” she says. ” All we need is an adult’s consent.” She hands me a form. “Fill this out and have your parent or guardian sign it. Then bring it back or send it in…” She sees my stricken look. “Those guys are big jokers. Workman’s Comp claims, they have nothing to do all day long…They’re jerks. Forget it.”
Humiliation is felt sharply by the very young. I go out into the hall, sick with the memory of what just happened. I want to get out of that building and never come back. But in 1957 Brooklyn is still under the Napoleonic Code. Honor must be defended, insults avenged. I barge back into the fat redhead’s office to have it out with him.
The office is empty, phones ringing, cigarettes still smoldering in ashtrays, like everybody ran out in a panic. Just a typical lunch time in the Civil Service.
I go to the guy’s desk bent on retributive damage. A typewriter–I could bend the keys. A stack of forms–I could tear them up. I open a drawer. There is a fountain pen case. On a red plush bed is a Parker Pen. It’s the new 61 model, gold cap, red body, “self-filling by capillary action,” the advertisement says. It’s the coolest pen brand in the world. William Holden, the epitome of suave, is its official spokesman. This guy obviously loves the pen. He keeps it in its case on its red plush bed.
I pocket he pen and snap the case shut. The corridor is empty. The lobby is teeming, but I know exactly where I’m going. Outside, I pass the Blarney Castle on the way to the subway. The redheaded guy is laughing it up with his buddies at the bar.
I used that pen for twenty years. Every time I wrote a note or signed a check I thought of that redheaded guy trying to figure out who had stolen his precious Parker 61. When its capillaries couldn’t suck up ink anymore I put it out to pasture in my desk drawer as a reward for services rendered.