Paperclips of Gold
You might call it a dubious genetic legacy, but both my grandfather and my father owned office supply stores: the eponymous ‘Biber Brothers’, in Yonkers, was my grandfather’s and the more generic, assimilated, post-war ‘Westchester Office Supply', was my father’s store in nearby New Rochelle. They must have had, and I certainly inherited, a profound love for all the trappings of business; the endless varieties of ledgers, ink, binders, clips and folders that made it possible to actually DO business. You could be IN business, but without a whole pile of what they sold you couldn’t actually DO business. They might not have had the shrewd sense to actually excel in business itself, but just in case, they certainly had all the accessories.
I spent summers, and eventually after-school hours, working for my father in the expansive, former super-market in which he held court, dispensing critical supplies to the front lines of the working community. When, in the 60’s, sales of glassine envelopes skyrocketed, it turned out that he was dispensing goods to more than just the legitimate business community. I never was sure whether he discontinued carrying junkie supplies for moral reasons (he was not especially anti-drug, or anti-anything illegal for that matter) or because he couldn’t stand the idea of someone making a fortune filling his envelopes. I guess it was either discontinue them, or put up a big sign advertising “Heroin Packaging, Aisle 3” and charge a whole lot more.
Bib (no one called him Millard) had a certain standing in town, maybe because he was a Rotarian, or maybe because, like doctors or shoe stores, everyone eventually needed what he sold. Our local shoe store was, in fact, owned by a local celebrity of sorts; Vic Smith, fellow Rotarian and brother of (Buffalo) Bob Smith, host of the Howdy Doody Show. Buffalo Bob, yet another Rotarian, owned a liquor store across the street from Vic’s shoe store (Vic Smith’s Shoes), called, of course, Bob Smith’s Liquors. This was true even after BB had been perhaps the most famous personality in the critical 2-10 year old demographic. His Q rating among the toddler set was simply through the roof. Not that ‘The Store’, as we called my father’s place, didn’t have its share of celebrity customers. Its most celebrated patrons were Ezra Stoller, the dean of American Architectural photography, and Dave Berg, the dean of Mad Magazine’s ‘The Lighter Side of…’. Of the two, only Dave Berg could draw my father into Mad when I was in summer camp, making me, perhaps, the most envied kid in Vermont.
The Store was a suburban design snapshot of the 60’s: if Mies had ever gone into retail, this would be his store. It was wide, tall and column-free with a hundred foot glass façade. A spacious corner of the enormous store was devoted to the repair of typewriters, with a curmudgeon named Bill spraying solvent over an unbelievable variety of machines, practically the entire history of moveable type. There is, sadly, a goat in every dysfunctional group and Bill was it: he wore a tan smock, had eye contact ‘issues’, was really cheap, and was the only person alive, other than his mother, who called my father Millard. My father was an incurable practical joker (don’t get me started). He would drive the pathologically frugal typewriter repairman to the edge of sanity by secretly refilling his car gas tank until Bill was convinced he was getting about 187 miles per gallon. After he had enough of Bill’s manic high he started draining the tank until Bill’s mood, and mileage, crashed into the single digits.
The staff had its own diversions. There was an entire aisle of rubber bands, the largest of which provided the pre-Pilates resistance device in the ‘how long can you hold your arms apart with your thumbs hooked in a #109’ contest among the employees. The answer was ‘not very long’ until with a zen-like 2 minute breakthrough I blew the lid off that game.
Even though my grade-school desk had a spot for an inkwell it was the era of the ballpoint. Bottled ink was still available in several shades from blue to blue-black to black, but my father reminisced about the days he would buy it (and sell it) by the boxcar load. Carbon paper, and its mate ‘onion skin typewriter paper’, actually mattered, ledgers came in every size and style of bookkeeping (the only word I know with three sets of double letters in a row) and ‘duplicator fluid’ (actually just alcohol) flew out the door in our smartly branded gallon cans. One of my proudest moments came during Science class when one of those cans (we sold supplies to the school system), with the store logo right there for all to see, was crushed in the vacuum experiment. As the can deflated so I inflated. For a brief, noisy moment, I was a celebrity in my small world.
Duplicators, (the purple-inked copies schools used) competed with the Mimeograph (the back ink Gestetner-type businesses used) but it was generally a huge wet mess to make copies of anything. Duplicators would make a few, goofy looking purple copies of anything you could draw, and turn anything you could draw into a grade school handout with that fantastic ether-y smell (hence ‘Spirit Duplicator’ is the correct genus of that technology). Mimeographs were more like rotary silkscreen machines that required the impact of the typewriter to cut a stencil. The one thing all these prehistoric methods had in common was how atrocious they were.
Finally, the future arrived, and a huge Xerox 5600 machine graced the front window of The Store. This hulk, about the size and color of a beige Volkswagen was about to transform ‘hanging out at The Store’. With copies selling at about $.50, probably something like nine dollars apiece in today’s money, there were about as many customers as one would think. Instead, the machine’s counter was kept spinning by the staff, by me, and of course by my father, copying everything from money (the illegality of it was thrilling), to every part of our external anatomy (ditto), from dirty cartoons to the more experimental copies of our pet fish and Italian hero sandwiches. This was a time of great technological experimentation, along with quite a bit of waste paper.
If the act of copying was simply laborious, then erasure was its lovable retarded twin. It must have been right around this time that Rauschenberg challenged DeKooning to draw the densest, most stubborn drawing he could lay on paper, for Rauschenberg to erase. The ‘Ersased DeKooning’ may not be the first foray into ‘conceptual office supply art’ but it is, for me, the most memorable. Erasing, and correcting typed and written things in general, was so tedious (think about erasing the original letter plus the two carbon copies) that I am convinced more than one pay raise I got as a young worker was a mistake that was just too difficult to correct.
Erasers came in every configuration, color and texture. There was an art to erasure, as Bob Rauschenberg (and later Oldenberg) surely discovered, that made removal nearly as a much an expertise as typing or painting. Erasers came in the classic big Pink blocks with tapered ends, marking-crayon-like rods with peelable holders, round disks with brushes attached (c.f. Oldenberg), clearish gummy blocks and double ended units in gray and green-gray, not to mention squishy stretchable kneaded erasers. Then there were the eraser accessories; thin steel templates allowing precision erasure and brushes to keep the typewriter debris-free.
The breakthrough in the removal business came when someone, I think it may have been the mother of either Peter Tork or Michael Nesmith from ‘The Monkeys’, invented something to cover up mistakes rather than eradicate them. This particularly Nixonian approach changed the world. ‘White-Out’, an unwittingly appropriate name for a product in a racially turbulent period, allowed us to simply paint over our errors, which, ironically were not only still there but were now more visible than ever. Society’s acceptance of these small mistakes (and feeble cover-ups) as an integral part of nearly every aspect of life, along with somewhat larger errors like, say, the Vietnam War, put the whole world in a different light. Truth now came in layers, with each new ‘correction’ merely masking the previous assertion.
At some point it became important for me to work elsewhere. It was like enlisting in the Army to see the world, so I was to be ‘on loan’ from the demanding world of stationery work, to work for a man named Herb. Herb looked exactly like Mel Cooley, from the Dick Van Dyke Show, and had a small business that sold lists of names. In this case, the names of people about to die, people who might be in need of funeral services. Soon.
Herb used yet another arcane duplicating technology, Diazo, on gigantic fuming Ozalid machines to print the mailing labels. Diazo printing is blueprinting, which uses ammonia to convert a light-sensitive coating on paper to blue. A cumbersome 2-step copying process was used to supply the names of tens of thousands of these doomed folks to Forest Lawn Cemetery in California. I would not only diazo print the lists onto perforated gum-backed, ’33-up’ label sheets, but would have to update the lists in my down time. I did this by comparing the hand-typed onion skin master sheets with the current LA phone books to eliminate those individuals ‘no longer in need’ of Forest Lawn’s services. I am not sure what I learned at Herb’s, but inhaling ammonia fumes for hours each day prevented me from ever getting a cold.
My mother was an old friend of the owner Herb’s wife, Helen. On a visit to their elegant and spacious, 1920’s Scarsdale home, with me in tow, my mother talked Helen into finally making those much-needed changes to the living room. My mother has absolutely no inhibition about going into anyone’s home and rearranging the furniture. I imagine her rearranging on an ‘as needed’ basis wherever she happens to find herself; waiting rooms in doctor’s offices, improving the flow in hotel rooms, just doing her part wherever she could help. This was more about finishes than furniture. When Herb arrived home that evening he found the three of us with hammers happily smashing a huge wall of antique mirror that surrounded the fireplace and covered one end of the mammoth room. This seemed to really upset Herb and he said some things I think he must have regretted later, but one thing was clear: I needed a new job.
Back at The Store I was getting more into the delivery side of things. My father, at that time, liked to hire only firemen to drive the delivery van. Earlier he had employed Richard Roundtree, in his pre-‘Shaft’ days, for that job, but he must have figured that the firemen were less likely to develop successful movie careers and could be counted on to stick around a bit longer than Richard. I remember riding shotgun with Rocco Brindisi, extolling me that firefighting was maybe the best professional career you could get without a high school diploma.
In part to save money and partly because he genuinely enjoyed it, my father would often pick up supplies from wholesalers himself. He was a young divorcee living in NYC and his reverse commute made it easy to stop at what is now a trendy Soho location to pick up various items. On one trip to the Noesting Paper Clip Company in the Bronx I accompanied him to the very home of the modern paper clip.
The building, a cube of filthy, formerly red brick, was one of thousands that filled New York when the city was still a place to make and sell things. Now these buildings are more likely to house a photographer’s studio or an avant-furniture showroom, but when I visited Chez Gem (Gem is a style of paperclip) the only part of the building that was even remotely finished was the corner ‘executive office’.
The office was truly a movie set. Filling a smallish corner of one of the floors of manufacturing, and accessible only through a floor of machines in motion, was a nondescript exterior, concealing an utterly elegant, polished, wood paneled set of rooms. All memory of the factory faded as you entered, except for the incredibly dirty windows and an unerasable sense of age.
The rest of the building, as far as I could see, was filled floor after floor of nearly identical machines, all running at the same time. Not big machines, but endless rows of smallish machines about the size of a man. Each machine was slowly consuming its roll of steel wire and, one by one, was deftly and loudly turning that spool into a steady stream of paper clips. The fully finished clips clinked into a steel pail, filling it slowly but with a kind of mesmerizing rhythm you might expect from a mechanical chain gang. This factory was, in fact, a chain gang of hundreds of robots individually doing what I had imagined (if I bothered to imagine it) one gigantic robot would do. It was a refreshing revelation that the machines were so modest and so numerous. Why not one in our garage just to make our own family’s supply of clips?
The machines had that darkened, well-oiled 19th century look, and though they were electrically powered you could easily imagine them harnessed to overhead belts of leather, driven by a waterfall, or a steam engine somewhere else in the factory. Like the paperclips they were making, these machines were so simple, so well designed and so dependable that I imagined they might have been working 24 hours a days for the last hundred years or so. Paperclips hadn’t changed in that long, why should the machines that make them?
And where, exactly, were all the factory workers? As our host walked us around the various floors of machines I noticed not a single other human on the manufacturing floor. Someone, surely, emptied the buckets but he was nowhere to be seen. All the machines were running, but they seemed to take care of themselves.
On yet another floor there were, I think, tumblers that cleaned the newly configured clips. And maybe another machine that boxed them, and probably a bunch of humans that boxed those boxes, etc.. But what I remember best was upon returning to the corner office with old Mr. Noesting (at that time anything over 45 was really old), and watching him bend down to open a wall safe built in to the wall paneling. With his back to me he reached in, turned to stand in front of me and presented me with the token of my visit I still have today: a small box of gold-plated paper clips. Gold paperclips. I still find the inherent contradiction, or maybe it is really a celebration, or an homage, charming and poignant.
Transforming a simple elemental icon into something precious and revered is a worthy pursuit. It is almost a religion, and might actually be the only religion I have left. In the true ‘Spirit of Duplication’ I have come to believe in the majesty of the simplest, most common things above all else. Not for the sake of possession, or consumption, but the sake of understanding what really connects us. All I need to know about man is our ability to not only make something as beautiful as a paperclip, but then to turn it into gold. That, and maybe our need to turn erasure into an art form.