for 9 May 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.


Da Pens

Some say that you could tell most
everything about a man from his
watch and his shoes. And while
that has some faint ring of
truth, who today can really tell
whether that guy is really
wearing white Jack Purcells and
an old Timex - or is just on his way
to a James Dean theme party? For
those smart enough to judge a book
by its cover, we suggest instead of
looking down, looking them straight
in the eye - and asking to borrow
a pen.
Forget handwriting analysis.
The pen speaks reams about your
self-image. It's not enough to say
that pen choice conveys
personality. Sometimes, your pen
is your personality. It's
well-documented that Ball Pointers
only play tic-tac-toe with other
Ball Pointers. And Bics will
practice their signature on just
about any paper that slips into
their hands.
Faced with so many choices of
tools, a field guide may be in
order. Now, if you're half as
absent-minded as Yours Truly, you
probably lose pens moments after
uncapping them. And speaking of
caps, it should be admitted that the
following Writing Utensil reviews
reflect an embarrassing
orally-fixated agenda. (The ink
merchants of America have yet to
market the Blow Pop Pen, but it's
a thought.) Keeping these two
considerations (affordability, and
chewability) in mind, this survey
covers only pens costing about $3
or less.
Note that all pens were tested in
their black ink-arnations for
uniformity of analysis.
The original ballpoints were
designed for high-altitude pilots,
whose pens either burst or wouldn't
write in flight. One trendy option:
use the affordable inserts for much
fancier ball-point pens, and pretend
that you're a master engraver using a
steel etching needle. Downside: tiny
grip may cramp your hand if you
normally grasp your pens like a
carving knife.
Basic Bic: An indisputably
all-American choice. Clear, beveled,
simple. Extraordinarily sticky ink, in
the event that you should manage to
crack its hard plastic body over your
knee. Chewers beware: both the gummy
cap and the flathead end stopper are
pretty irresistable, the latter often
leading to a trail of saliva into the
Bic Round Stick: Standard
issue in many offices, but one of the
least desirable ballpoints due to an
erratic, sketchy ink flow and
bargain-basement construction.
Slippery. Hideously ugly. Known as
"The Dentist's Friend" and "The
Jawbreaker" for its tooth-cracking
Erasables: If you're really into
pencils, why hide in the erasable
closet? No sense bearding yourself
with one of these kludgy half-breeds.
Also out of the question for lefties,
due to chronic smudging - you might
as well just draw on the side of
your hand.
Splurge Option: Some fancy
stationers and high-end men's
stores (such as Paul Smith) carry
a version of the Bic cast in silver,
cap and all. For the man who has
every pen.
Some roller balls encourage sloppy
writing, others spur you on to
new heights of penmanship:
Pentel Rolling Writer: Try to
put the Rrrrrrrolling Wrrriter
commercials of yore out of your
mind: this is a terrific pen for
those who make a fetish of heavy
flow. Highly responsive yet excitingly
unpredictable line with often ragged
edges. A compulsive doodler's dream.
Uniball Vision, Fine:
A current favorite, for its clean,
dark line, its pleasingly rubbery
grip, and its fast-but-not-too-fast
skating action - but mostly for the
glassy fish eye which sits atop its
cap. ("Vision," get it?) The only
roller ball we've found that makes
waterproof and fadeproof claims for
its ink.
Inoxcrom Roller and Eberhard
Faber Uniball Micro:
Virtually indistinguishable
designs, but the Inoxcrom is the better
choice, due to its infinitesimally
thicker barrel, steadier line, and
all-plastic construction. Inveterate
chewers will have bad memories of
the Uniball cap's tempting vents,
allowing the recessed stopper to be
popped out with a deft chomp. Leads
invariably either to the Heimlich
maneuver or a biting-on-tinfoil shudder
induced by a canine scraping on the
metal clip.
Short Cut: Cheaters do prosper, at
least with the Itoya Paperskater.
Tucked into the handkerchief pocket
of a sports coat, the Paperskater's
elegantly irregular ovoid clip looks
expensive. But the handsome
enamel-coated casing and initial
insert costs usually run a bit over
$5, with refills running at about $2.
Top Pick!
Felt Tips
Just as office managers keep a
suspcious eye on co-workers who dot
their i's with open circles,
flowers, or hearts, it's often the
felt pen freaks who snitch all the
blank heavy white bond paper from
the storeroom. They bear watching.
Though this reviewer takes a dim
view of those who are Soft On Felt,
here are a few grudging comments:
Pentel Sign Pen: Felt tips
tend to fall into two categories,
being either broader and genuinely
squishy, or else small, hard, and
breakable. The Sign Pen is the king
of the former type, capable of both
lusciously bold strokes, or more
delicate brushwork under a lighter
touch. Gushes with ink. Bargain
Papermate Flair: Another
office staple. A firm, slightly blotted
line if you write slowly and carefully,
but degenerates into dry effects when
writing with any speed. Disappointing.
Marvy "Le Pen" Felt: If you
smoke Virginia Slims, you probably
own a purple Le Pen. 'Nuff said.
Specialty Tips
4-Color Lab Pen: Back in the
70s, these red-blue-green-black
doozies were a favorite stocking
stuffer. Designed for clearer,
multi-dimensional notetaking in
scientific settings, Organic
Chemistry students can't live
without them. "When a professor
starts graphing," says one
doctor-to-be, "the lecture hall
erupts with people frantically
clicking for different colors."
Fisher Eversharp Silver:
Robopen! Gosh knows what you need
one of these for, but the
all-metallic casing and extra length
is somehow irresistable. If you have
this weapon, you will use it
Pilot Varsity: The Varsity
disposable fountain pen flows like a
butterfly, and prints like a dream.
Having one around is proven to
actually make you a Better Person.
When the ink finally runs out, you
run crying to the stationery store,
and beg for more.
Faced with such an overwhelming
array of cheap tools, some may choose
a write-less-taken, in the hope that
your selection will lead you down the
path to writeousness. You could opt
for a Waterman - noted for its
remarkably low rate of straying into
the pockets of strangers, but only
because it fosters a sense of
paranoid possessiveness within its
owners. Or you could opt for a baker's
dozen of perfectly-sharp #2 pencils
organized in your desk drawer from
longest to shortest - perhaps the
best way to subtly communicate to
your coworkers that you, and not they,
"get the point." Or grip a crayon
in a grubby fist, hoping the faux-naif,
Childlike Innocence schtick plays as well
for you in the home office as it does
for Tracy Bonham.
Or simply choose not to choose,
and focus on shoes and watches instead.

courtesy of