Read Old Man Scanlon

Printer's Devil

13 March 2010

Multiplicity has always fascinated me. Show me hundreds or thousands of an item, and I'm mesmerized: a jar of jelly beans, a bin of six-penny nails in the hardware store, a glass-fronted beehive. When I snap out of it, there's the faint lingering sense of order and structure, of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. So it's no surprise that, at a young age, the craft of printing—the technology to make multiple exact clones of an original, albeit paper, object—seized my mind. Today, any damn fool can write and publish ephemeral crap on the internet, and spew out butt-ugly pages at will on ink jet machines with the click of a mouse. But forty years ago, before cheap offset printing fast began crowding out infinitely more manly letterpress work, printing was an art.

A letterpress page was a thing of beauty, regardless of its typographical competence, printed the way God and Gutenberg intended, on paper temporarily sandwiched between inked type and a hard place. Paper is essentially two-dimensional, unless you're prone to carrying a micrometer, and it gained its rightful third dimension by dint of the impression made by metal type. The metal just kissed the paper—otherwise the type would fast wear out—but the paper was altered in its essence, gaining maybe half a thousandth of an inch in thickness, and a whole new robustness. Embossed words magically became tangible—incarnate—alive; you could see—and feel—the difference in the paper.

By the time I was ten or so, I desired, with a startling intensity I'd soon recognize as lust, to have the power to print. In grade school I sent away for a cereal-box hectograph, which I probably used to produce right-wing screeds. Then, as a sixth-grade trusty, I was allowed to run the spirit duplicator, which we mistakenly called the Mimeograph. I cranked it and it spit out pastel not-found-in-nature purple worksheets—it was heaven to sniff the alcohol-dampened paper. Later on during junior high and high school I became interested in photography—though showing no extraordinary talent for it—and indulged book-learning about lithography, etching, engraving, silk screening, and other visual crafts.

As a boy not yet twenty who'd just finished coasting through my freshman year at WPI, full of piss and vinegar, I was hardly past days when the acme of sophisticated wit was to sneer "Nice play, Shakespeare" at the committer of some teen-age faux pas. The world was, in fact, my oyster: possibilities were endless, there was unlimited time, and the concept of lifespan was utterly alien.

It's a heady year, 1969. There's an American on the moon, I drink my first illegal beer, and I have a summer job at the Foxboro Company print shop. At last I'm going to be a printer, or at least a printer's devil.

The Foxboro Company, a good-sized manufacturer of process control instrumentation, had then been a New York Stock Exchange-listed public corporation for only about ten years. It was still family-run, with a long heritage of benign paternalism. The company was a good neighbor to the town of Foxboro, providing employment and allowing the town to make use of the physical plant when it would do some good (this was before the return-on-asset-driven bean-counters got into the picture). One of its public services was summer jobs for children of employees, and in that summer of 1969 I landed one.

It was a welcome balance to a whole school year of unremitting life of the mind, a chance to do physical work, learn manual skills, and produce something palpable. There were rooms full of seductive machines that you could really get your hands on, and it was gratifying to learn how to cooperate with them, gradually persuading them to bend to your will. I coaxed clean copies out of a Multilith press, even though it's just plain wrong to rely on the immiscibility of oil and water as a basis for printing. I prepared negatives for offset plate-making by retouching pinholes with opaque, and I cranked up our small hand-fed letterpress as fast as it'd go to keep me awake after long nights of pondering the workings of the universe with my friends.

And of course there was plenty of new, esoteric vocabulary to drink in. Imagine my Beavis-and-Butthead delight to learn that Agnes, who taught me retouching, was an "offset stripper." The print shop actually was located on Wall Street in Foxboro, so I'm still able to say with a straight face, in a hoary gem of small talk that's served me for decades, that I used to work on Wall Street with a stripper named Agnes.

Consider a mutant typewriter on steroids, orders of magnitude more complex than Rube Goldberg's worst nightmare, and think of a sort of self-organizing spidery intelligence emerging from the seeming chaos of hot lead slugs falling into a galley, surrounded by a myriad of large-postage-stamp-sized brass matrices marching ant-like up and down the machine. There is no way a Linotype could possibly work, but it did. I cast type-metal ingots to feed its maw, but I was never allowed to touch the keyboard. I don't think Twilight Zone writers had to stretch far to come up with the episode in which a Linotype under the mephistophelian fingers of Burgess Meredith composed stories which, printed in a struggling local newspaper, came true, resulting in massive sales increases. Of course there was a soul at stake, but I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out what happened. Our print shop Linotype, true to character, also had a diabolical bent—it would squirt molten lead at the operator if he weren't eternally vigilant. I could have watched that machine for hours.

Unfortunately, the machines did not run themselves; people were involved. I had to deal with a group of people who, unlike my parents and teachers, were not necessarily devoted heart and soul to my welfare. But I was open to the experience, and, outlandish costume and grooming notwithstanding (even with an acrid whiff of communist academe about me) I apparently did not present much of a threat to the print shop tribe. At least none of the adult males killed and ate me, and I think several were capable of it.

Dave ran the big Miehle four-color offset press. He was crew-cut and greying, powerfully built, active in Boy Scouts and bicycling, and stuttered. We called each other "fascist" and "hippie," just to make sure we understood each other, embracing the epithets for the clarity they brought. We had good talks.

Lawne ran a Multilith, and spent his spare time taking ballroom dancing lessons to meet women. This model for meeting women has always seemed broken to me; it should be talk, then touch; conversation, then the vertical expression of horizontal thoughts. My own dancing lessons, taken under compulsion in eighth grade and in the waning days of my first marriage, only reinforced this notion.

Gus asked me what I was studying at school, and, when I told him I was a math major, admitted that fractions had always stumped him. He was a simple man, given to expressions of lechery when female pulchritude appeared, as blatant and obvious as a cartoon character with eyeballs bugging out. It was comical to watch, downright creepy if you were on the receiving end—ask my sister, who worked at the print shop a couple years later.

Tommy was an older Irishman, indoor-pale, with a shy smile, reputed to be drunk twenty-four/seven. He worked in the bindery, where the massive shears had a safety interlock you had to physically span with both arms spread wide. This prevented inadvertent hand-chopping, but I suspect a determined suicide might have been able to behead himself.

Danny was soft-spoken and friendly, though often he seemed to be speaking to backward children. This was, no doubt, a side-effect of bearing the burden of coaching the worst team in the Foxboro Company softball league. Other teams seemed composed exclusively of fit young men who'd spurned semi-pro contracts just so they could play for the Foxboro Company. Our team had a couple of those, but Tommy and I more than neutralized them. Yes, I played, though athletically incompetent and uninterested in sports: Danny cajoled me into it. He was so desperate for enough warm bodies to field a team that it wasn't even a question of "trying out." Now there was a man who really loved to play ball.

John was a Linotype operator. Linotype operators, like their machines, are a breed apart. He smoked Parodis at the keyboard, had a wide-ranging curiosity, was independent possibly to a fault, and a mean conversationalist. He'd draw me out on any number of topics, and then draw me in, green young whippersnapper with no experience of life whatsoever, until I was irretrievably far out on a limb. Every few years I bump into him around town, and it's still a pleasure to converse.

The print shop turned out to be a useful laboratory for engaging in the proper study of mankind, and it was high time I started to learn how to be a rudimentary social human. The print shop was also, much more obviously, a lab in which to study work, another cornerstone of our humanness. Even in my short tenure as a novice printer I could discern a hierarchy of skills. The shop was certainly no Dilbertian dystopia: management was not overtly evil, and everyone seemed matched with a job that more or less suited his ability. Those I knew were ready, willing, and able to put in a competent, honest day's work, though no one would pass up a sanctioned break. Some people showed infectious pride of workmanship, a certain joy in craftsmanship. Many had a keen sense of what was fair; you could almost sense the constant mental calculus. Admittedly, at least a couple had an eager-to-take-umbrage trade-unionist attitude. Though we were not a union shop, they did only exactly what was required by some secret or imaginary contract, and constantly felt screwed.

Even if you weren't inclined to spring bright-eyed out of bed every morning, itching to print a few thousand Foxboro Company instruction sheets or parts lists, and even discounting what I likely missed due to naïveté and obliviousness and sheer lack of understanding, the print shop was not a bad place to work. Yet, to a man, when we talked about my studies—it was common knowledge that I was on summer vacation from college—my colleagues told me, in all seriousness and in so many words, work hard, do well in school, don't get trapped in a place like this, you can do better. Trapped? I didn't see it. They weren't printing hand-set limited edition poetry books on hand-made paper, but they had plenty of room to exercise technical competence, and I still harbored romantic notions of a life of honorable artisanship. They couldn't envision desktop publishing, the internet, or that their dwindling printing jobs would be offshored to China, but after enduring years of work they had glimpsed the limits of their world, and I had not.