Today's upscale yuppie insists on the write stuff

Mike Royko

December 21, 1990|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THE YOUNG LAWYER took out a fountain pen to make notes on what we were talking about. It was a lovely pen, made of some sort of hard shell, covered with delicate lacquer and trimmed in gold.

As he unscrewed the cap, I said: "Beautiful pen. Is it an antique?"

"No," he said. "I got it a few weeks ago."

"What kind is it?"

He told me the brand, but since it sounded French, I have no idea how it is spelled.

"It must have cost you a pretty penny," I said.

He shrugged. "Quality doesn't come cheap."

He began to write but made nothing but scratch marks on his note pad.

"Ah," he said in disgust and embarrassment, "out of ink."

I reached into my jacket pocket and handed him my pen, the plastic Bic ball point that is transparent so you can see if there's any ink inside.

"Try this," I said. "Very reliable. And I think they go for about 90 cents."

He looked at it with disdain, so I reached into my pocket again and took out a Paper Mate felt tip. "Maybe you'll like this better. A softer feel. I don't know what they cost. I get them at the office by the box."

He opted for the felt tip and seemed to write legibly with it.

When he finished, I asked: "I'm curious. Why are you using a fountain pen?"

He said: "Because the writing looks better."

I resisted the urge to sneer or snicker. And to say that he drives an expensive BMW because he admires the keen German engineering and wears an expensive Rolex watch because if he happens to get the urge to jump into Lake Michigan and swim 300 feet to the bottom, the Rolex won't spring a leak.

So I just asked: "When you went to grammar school, did they have ink wells?"

"Have what?"

"Ink wells. In the desks. You know, for dipping your pen in when you wrote."

He shook his head. "No. We used ball points or pencils."

Of course he did. He is an aging baby boomer and by the time they started writing in school, nobody was dipping scratchy pens in ink wells. And hardly anyone was buying fountain pens.

But now they are the latest fad luxury item for those who have not yet shed the "when you got it, flaunt it" personality of the 1980s.

Twenty years ago, you could hardly buy a fountain pen. Only a few old-time custom pen-makers dealt in them. Now there are designer models costing as much as $5,000.

Five big ones. Just to jot a note: "Lunch next Tue. Call for reserv."

It's amazing how too much spare cash or too many credit cards will addle the brain.

As part of the last generation to grow up with ink-well pens and fountain pens, I thought the ball point pen was the greatest invention since the sugar cone.

No more running out of ink. Or having to slop around with an ink bottle to fill the pen. Or looking at the inside of a suit jacket and seeing a big dark stain where the pen leaked. Or dropping it and seeing the nib (that's the tip) bent out of shape.

And now they are one of the hottest status items in yuppiedom.

One of the city's biggest pen dealers says: "Yes, baby boomers are the biggest buyers. The 30- to 45-year-old range. This season we've sold, well, it's in the thousands."

Actually, that's good news for the industries beyond pen-making. It means there is the potential for thousands of ink-splotched shirt pockets and ink-splotched jacket linings, which could stimulate clothing sales.

The pen dealer said: "It harkens back to a simpler, more romantic time. At least in the modern person's mind.

"I hate to use the word yuppie, but you've heard that they're trying to return to quality. This is just another example of that. They want an easy way to show how far they've gone and how fast they've made it. Symbols are part of that.

"When you get beyond the symbols, though, it's just a real pleasure to write with a fountain pen. The end result is something you can look at and see and touch. Because you have to slow down and write carefully, they're easier to read. The only downside is they require a bit of maintenance in terms of keeping the nib clean and filling it with ink."

Actually, I have to admire the marketing skills that can persuade tens of thousands of status-seeking yups that they are better off with a high-priced scribbling tool that must be filled, maintained and might leak, to something that will do the job just as well for about 98 cents.

I wish I could think of something that would make me instantly rich. And maybe I have.

I'm going to stop by a few poultry shops and see what kind of deal I can make for their leftover goose feathers.

We can call it the Genuine Designer Writing Quill by La Goof.

Don't laugh. If it was good enough for old Billy Shakespeare, how can a yuppie resist?

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