June 2014

Publisher's View: Pens

Steven J. Moss

ne of my dominant childhood memories is of my father’s constant quest to get something for nothing. He’d pile my three sisters, my mom and me into our station wagon and troll the streets for shopping center and bank openings offering free cookies, balloons, and plastic key chains. I’d eaten hundreds of those flower-shaped shortbread cookies with cherry-flavored jelly in the middle – the kind you only find at low-end receptions or bakery outlet stores – by the time I was ten.

My father’s pursuits have been made possible by the incredible bounty of free things our society spits out. Every minute of every day, somewhere in the United States, someone is giving away a complimentary cup, flashlight, calendar, or food item at a conference, “grand opening,” or street festival.

For a while I followed in my father’s footsteps, compulsively elbowing my way to the table of free snacks at Costco or Trader Joe’s, downing foul tasting samples of new beverages simply because they were gratis. 

At one point I had two shoe boxes packed full of tiny bottles of lotions, shampoos, and conditioners collected from various hotels I’d stayed at. My wife put an end to my inherited hobby, by insisting I unload my boxes of potions and lotions, or at least get them out of the house. I resisted at first, but then decided to distribute my collection during my travels to less-wealthy countries. Whenever someone on the street asked me for money in Peru or India, I handed them a bottle of liquid soap. I’d usually get a smile in exchange, though one Nepalese woman demanded to know what use conditioner would be to her.

Recently I’ve been traveling to Niger, the planet’s poorest country. I asked my father if he could give me some of the pens he’d been collecting to give away, a request he took as a challenge to re-double his efforts to score freebies.

Each afternoon in Niamey, Niger’s capital city, after a late lunch of take-out food eaten in my room, I’d take a stroll around the hotel, carrying a Walgreen’s canvas bag of logoed pens collected by my father over a lifetime – I recognized a pen that I’d seen as a child, carrying the name of a bank that no longer exists – and a few Halloween candies stolen from my daughter Sara’s stash. The pens were soaked up like water in the desert: shop keepers, children, and beggars of all stripes were delighted to receive them. One 20-something woman in a cycle wheel chair, with baby strapped to her back and young girl at her side, chased me half-way down the hotel’s entry-boulevard, only to beam a thousand-watt smile after receiving two plastic pens.

Everyone was happy with the pen distribution; everyone but the street boys. These urchins, who ranged in age from perhaps seven to 10, complained if their pen was too plain, and always aggressively demanded more “bics.”

One afternoon I packed my bag as usual, and headed into the dusty streets. I was quickly approached by one of the more dogged boys, who’d glued himself to my side a few days previously in an attempt to score multiple pens. This time I quickly gave him a pen and a Tootsie Roll; after which I was immediately swarmed by a dozen boys, most dressed in rags, jumping, grabbing, yelling for pens. I tried passing them out, but soon I was overwhelmed, said “enough,” and walked away. 

Followed, of course, by three of the boys, “Can I have a pen? Give me a pen? Can I have a pen? I didn’t get a pen,” the most aggressive pen worshiper chanted. “Just us three need a pen; we didn’t get a pen,” he repeated, even after one of his friends mistakenly flashed two of the pens he’d received a few moments ago. 

“No,” I responded, “it is finished.” I ducked into a pharmacy. They were there when I left. I walked into a crowded street market, hoping they wouldn’t follow me. But they did. 

“Can I have a pen? Give me a pen? Can I have a pen? I didn’t get a pen.”

Finally, I could take it no more. I spotted a man, sitting in an empty market stall, fingering his prayer beads. I motioned him over to me.

“Here,” I said, and emptied the entire contents of the bag into his willing hands – perhaps two dozen pens of various designs, along with an equal number of candies. He looked like he’d just received a handful of gold, and thanked me profusely. I dramatically shook out the bag, indicating it was completely empty, and walked away. The boys did not follow.

I felt liberated, ecstatic, and, guilty all at once. What lesson had I taught them? That they should be polite? That penniless children aren’t worth a few extra pens? And the man with the prayer beads, my own personal marabou, what of him?

I walked back to the hotel, exhausted. I lay down on the flimsy foam mattress. As I closed my eyes I saw them, there, next to my suitcase: more pens, dozens more pens.

This story was first published in the View’s January 2007 issue.

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