Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Childhood Memory: Pencils

Even though I do most of my writing on the computer, including notes to myself and grocery lists as well as my essays, the number 2 pencil is still an important part of my life and memories.

Sitting next to me now as I write this is a white ceramic mug, emblazoned with the words “PENCILS 5¢” and filled with Dixon unfinished wood wrapped lead pencils. Each pencil is sharpened and attractively fanned out in the mug. I rarely use them, but none the less they are important to me!

The smell of a box of one dozen fresh, new pencils was part of the September’s going back to school protocol. It made, with the smell of a new box of 48 Crayolas and the taste from a jar of white library paste, the ending of summer and the beginning of the school year almost bearable.

A sharp, plastic, usually red pencil sharpener would create long, thin, winding shavings of pencil that if done carefully could hang almost to the trash basket as your pencil renewed its black, shinny point.

The more industrial pencil sharpener, attached to the wall of my classroom, gripped the pencil unmercifully with its alligator like mechanism and slowly fed the pencil into itself while you wound the handle. If you were not careful, the machine could eat your entire pencil without producing the sharpened point you were after.

If you were lucky, the teacher would select you to be the Pencil Sharpener Monitor of the month with the task of emptying the pencil shavings container daily. For some reason, the shavings in this invention were more a collection of crumbs than the windings of your personal pencil sharpener. I never did understand that.

With the invention of the “automatic pencil” with its replaceable leads and erasers which were housed in an attractively colored, expensive plastic cylinder to be twisted anew and used over and over again; the role of the pencil diminished.

With the invention of the “throw away” cheap plastic pencil, with its one “use it or loose it” eraser and the automatically self feeding lead; the wooden pencil again lost its place of honor.

I hung on however, and while I admit that I had to have several of these new inventions in my pencil case, I secretly continued to enjoy the old fashioned wooden pencil.

I used to enjoy chewing my erasers, so was grateful when they invented the eraser cap - a tent or pyramid shaped eraser replacement that would be slipped over the end of the pencil. They came in many colors and my pencil case usually contained one of each color. That made me happy.

My Grandma Lillian, who seemed old beyond her years to a very young me, was what in those days they called Manic/Depressive. It was an emotional condition meaning that sometimes she was overly sad, withdrawn, and depressed and at other times exuberantly happy, outgoing, and manic to the point of sometimes doing damage to herself and to her surroundings.

When she was in her depressive stage she lived at home with us and did fairly well as experienced at least by those around her. When she was in her manic state she would live in a Mental Institution and while she was difficult to deal with and a danger to herself, she probably enjoyed herself the most when she was in that state.

During the beginning of these manic stages she would smoke “like a chimney,” eat black pitted olives by the can, and write letters to government officials complaining about whatever was on her mind and bothering her. She would send me, as a little boy, to buy her cigarettes, olives, and pencils.

I would go to the neighborhood “mom and pop” convenience store (much like today’s 7-11 but owned by individuals not corporations.) The shop in our neighborhood, just under the “L” viaduct, was called ‘Goldstein’s’ because it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein.

Mrs. Goldstein was always happy to see me and called me “Dark Eyes” because of my piercing brown eyes that sported long, long black lashes. I would hand her the note from Grandma that gave me permission to buy cigarettes and while she got them, I would get a can of olives off the shelf and two or three pencils from the box on the check out counter. Mrs. Goldstein would always give me a piece of candy.

Pencils have been part of my life for quite a while now and in the telling of this story I realize that I am now as old as Grandma Lillian was then. Despite the changes in type and functioning of pencils, to this day the old fashioned wooden ones still exist and will probably continue to exist long after I have ceased to do so.

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