Some people pick up refrigerator magnets or shot glasses or HPV during their travels. I collect pencils of the world.
I used to have a lot more, but I’ve thinned the ranks. The collection is housed in a large cylindrical glass vase I keep on my desk, and I’d like to avoid expanding to a second receptacle.
I began acquiring souvenir pencils in my early 20s. I also accept them from friends and relatives. In fact, I probably have more pencils that were given to me by others than bought by me in person.
That’s why many items in the collection hail from places I’ve never been—enchanting, far-flung locales such as Thailand, Costa Rica, and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.
Sometimes, however, a person will hand me a pencil that has, like, “Courtyard by Marriott” inscribed on it, and I wanna say, “I don’t think you understood the assignment.”
Designwise, I like the pencils that keep it simple—the big red one with white stars and crescent moons in a repeating motif that recalls the Turkish flag, for instance, or the Prince Edward Island one that has illustrations of the Green Gables house on a white background like something you’d come across in an elegant edition of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels.
I also like the pencils that have decorative plastic doodads at the eraser end—a rubbery gator for Florida, a grinning Buckingham Palace guard for London (though aren’t the real guards famously forbidden from smiling?), Lady Liberty for New York City, and so on.
The ugliest pencils in the collection, if you ask me, are the ones printed with little stock photos of noteworthy sites in whatever location is being featured. Invariably, the pictures are too small and they get all smeary and distorted as they wrap around the shaft. Sometimes it’s difficult to make out what you’re even supposed to be looking at. On the Austria pencil, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna looks like a toilet brush.
Yes, I’m aware that complaining about things not wrapping around shafts properly is funny.
I don’t remember why I decided to make pencils my cheap souvenir of choice. Maybe I felt obliged to go with something writerly.
Of course, I don’t use the Pencils of the World for writing. Or any other kind of pencil. I prefer ballpoint pens for note-scribbling, card-signing, text-underlining, and even crossword-attempting.
I don’t like how quickly graphite fades on paper or how you have to keep sharpening the pencil’s tip. Plus, as a lefty, I drag my hand across the words already set down on the page when I write—I’m the kind of southpaw who hooks the wrist upward while writing so that the hand seems to scurry across a desk kind of like Thing in the movie version of The Addams Family.
Consequently, pencil markings leave a big dark smudge along the edge of my hand. Some types of pens (those with felt tips or gel ink, for instance) cause the same issue, but I avoid them, too.
During grade school, when my teachers banned the use of pens because ink can’t be erased and I guess these educators expected their pupils to be wrong a lot, the grayish strip running along the outer edge of my hand below my left pinkie was a permanent feature.
At home, though, I did have at least one ink pen I can remember—and it so happens that it was also a souvenir. Made of shiny white plastic and decorated with Mickey Mouse and friends, it was a fat, capped little number obtained during a family trip to Walt Disney World.
I thought the pen was a beautiful object but I never wrote with it because I didn’t want to use up the ink.
So, you see, I’ve been commemorating vacations by gathering writing utensils to not write with for quite a while now.