Late yesterday afternoon, close to dusk and my cocktail hour, I reluctantly helped Renato complete a form requesting many paintings from a quaint Italian town in the Apulian region of Italy. The town’s jewel is a museum where a wealthy widow donated Italian masterpieces from the impressionist period. Renato needs some of the paintings for a show he is orchestrating in Washington. Other than the museum, the town has enchanting streets and a delightfully whimsical atmosphere. It's a place from another time.
The museum director emailed us a link to a requisition form that Renato must submit to gain approval to ship the paintings to Washington. As a corporate lawyer, I’ve grown accustomed to online forms that are fillable in PDF. You complete the form online, sign it online, and submit it online. It's a very simple process. Not so with the Apulian museum. The link they sent us opened to a bad photocopy of a typed form. It is not fillable. You must print the form on your own, complete the requested information by hand, and return the form to the museum by mail. It all felt quaint but archaic. The worst part is that the museum's form is a copy of a photocopy of a photocopy, barely legible.
I complained. “Renato, this is prehistoric. That effing museum needs to get their shite together.” Renato reminded me that I am over six decades old, and not in a position to cast stones on other relics of history. “Be merciful,” he said in his annoying European chalantness . “Not all of us have joined the American IT revolution .”
I hate to say Renato is right. Compared to my younger colleagues, I'm an IT fossil. I’m not bad with a computer, but contrasted to young attorneys I'm an old shoe. I'm left in awe when my younger colleagues whip up charts, design graphics, create comparison tables, and provide analytics in a matter of seconds by using their well-honed computer skills. “How did you do that?” I ask them, as they rush off to their next meeting.
When I was a young attorney in my twenties, starting out at a law firm in New York, I didn't have any computer skills. There were no office computers back then. I knew how to type on an electric typewriter, but attorneys were not allowed to use typewriters in the office. Instead, we had to rely on the administrative assistants in the typing pool to get our work typed up. I’m embarrassed to say I’m that old; old enough to remember the typing pools.
I learned a lot from the talented men and women that worked in the typing pools. In the New York law firms, many of them were actors, dancers, singers, and artists who worked as typists to supplement their income. They were bright and energetic, and as a young naïve attorney, I gravitated towards them. I had taken my father's advice to heart when he told me to always befriend the office support staff. They can make or break your career. The way the typing pool worked, an attorney would put their handwritten memo in a basket at the end of the day and hope it would be picked up by a typist and typed overnight. I would usually stay in the office until the typing was completed so that I could proof it that night, send it back in for corrections, and then have it ready for my boss in the morning. This process took hours. Heading my father’s advice, I befriended the head of the typing pool, Ivette, who was in her forties and always pleasant to me. I would bribe her with hard candies and small talk. Other attorneys treated her like she was invisible. I treated her as my friend. As a result, my work was given priority by Ivette.
From Ivette, I learned the “cut and paste” process by which documents typed on a typewriter would be corrected after proofing. If I found a mistake or needed to correct a typed document, Ivette would not retype the entire document. Instead, she would type on a separate piece of paper the paragraph that needed to be corrected, then cut it with a pair of scissors and paste it with transparent scotch tape on top of the previously typed document like a patch. Ivette would then photocopy the patched-up document so that you couldn't tell where the old paragraph had been replaced with new text. “There’s only so many times you can cut and paste a document and photocopy it again,” warned Yvette. “Eventually, if you make too many patches and photocopies of a document, the print becomes blurry. It’s just not the same as the original.”
It's funny that the old “cut and paste” from the typing pool days, has become the “cut and paste” function on Windows (Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V) by which text is moved from one place to another with the stroke of a keyboard. I relish telling junior attorneys where the term originated from. I sometimes embellish the story by letting them know of the all-nighters I spent waiting for the typing pool to finish my documents; waiting past midnight for my document to be corrected with my edits, neatly cut and pasted to perfection, and photocopied for a beautifully polished product. Most of the attorneys look at me cross-eyed when I tell them this. They don’t care. They are too busy making charts, graphs, and loops and circles around me with their computer skills. I envy them.
Another office guru that I continue to hold on a pedestal is the former corporate secretary of the aerospace company I worked at for fifteen years. Mary was an organizational genius. The company had been established in 1924, and in the ensuing years the company had bought and sold hundreds of other companies, signed thousands of contracts, and kept corporate records that spanned from handwritten stock ledgers, corporate minutes typed on a manual typewriter, contracts produced on a vintage Brother-EP20 word processer, and glossy reports generated by type-set at a printing house. It was my job to prepare annual reports and comply with other reporting requirements for the company and, inevitably, I would need to refer to old documents and long-ago contracts. Mary kept a detailed ledger of every important piece of paper the company had ever produced, and kept the originals in sturdy file cabinets in a file room with no windows. Only Mary had the key to the file room and the file cabinets, and only she knew how to find documents in her ledger. I called her ledger the “Corporate Bible” and the file room the “Corporate Temple”.
“Mary, I need a copy of the contract we entered into in 1975 for the sale of XYZ company. Do you think you can find me a copy?” Without blinking, Mary would locate the document in the Corporate Bible, escort me to the Corporate Temple, and effortlessly pull the original from one of the file cabinets. Mary would admonish me: “Now, this is the original document. Notice the wet signature. You may not take a copy out of this room. Make yourself a photocopy with the copier that’s in the corner behind the door, and then give me back the original. I’ll wait for you to make the copy.”
Mary had risen through the ranks of typing pools, and she knew that you never release an original document. If you keep a flimsy photocopy rather than the original wet-ink version, you will never have a clear enough image to photocopy again.
A stranger invaded Mary’s file room sanctuary one day. I had to hire a temp attorney to assist me on a large discovery project. We had no spare offices in the building, so I sat the temp attorney in Mary’s file room. There was a table and a photocopier in that room and the temp had to make copies of documents. Mary was not happy with me. How dare I interrupt the sanctity of her Corporate Temple? Uncharacteristically, Mary, who had previously shared herbal tea, cookies and gossip with me in the middle of the day, ignored me for a week.
“Can we make peace, Mary?” I asked her one day. “The temp will be gone soon, and your room will be returned to you unspoiled.”
"She drinks," said Mary. "She sits in that file room all day long in the dark and does nothing. I don't believe she is sober. You need to let her go, Ernesto.”
I don’t think the temp drank, but Mary (like many of us) liked to embellish a story to make a point. Mary was right that the temp was not doing her work, and for that reason, we let the temp go. The temp packed her things, and Mary was given full reign of her domain again. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she concluded.
I don’t blame Mary for embellishing. I’ve been accused of the same, if not worse. It’s a habit I learned from my maternal grandmother, Lotita. She was born and raised in Buenos Aires, but her father, Balder Moën, came from Denmark and established a bookstore in the 1800's on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. Lotita learned many stories from her father’s youth in Copenhagen, and she would share these with me often. My favorite story was how little Balder Moën used a sled to travel through the woods and the snow to get to school. We had neither snow nor sleds in Buenos Aires, but when Lotita told me this tale, I could imagine the young Balder with his red mittens and runny nose, sledding through blizzards to get to the one-room schoolhouse. “You see,” said Lotita, “compared to Balder, your bus trip to school is not so bad after all.”
I am grateful that, at my age of sixty-plus years, I can still fondly remember Lotita’s stories. Not just stories about Balder, but stories of her own youth, mixed in with elaborate Grimm fairy tales, and funny stories told in an exaggerated manner for emphasis. Lotita learned these stories from Balder when she was a child and retold them to me in her old age when I was a pipsqueak. I retold the same stories to my children when they were toddlers, using the same exaggerated mannerisms that my grandmother used, with a few peculiar additions of my own. I wonder how many variations and edits have been made in the retelling of Balder’s stories, and how close the retold version is to the original.
Lotita also spoke to me of her father’s famous bookstore. She told me that in its heyday the bookstore had been renowned, elegant, and marvelous. “Era hermosísima,” she would say (“it was beautiful”). "La más bella de la bellas." She would then proceed to tell me a bloody Grimm story about kings deflowering maidens and stepmothers eating children. She would cackle and make funny voices when she told me the Grimm tales, designed to entertain and scare me at the same time.
Later, thanks to the Internet, I found out more about the Moën bookstore. It was established in 1885 in Buenos Aires by Balder Moën and his brother, Arnaldo. The brothers were preceded in Buenos Aires by their uncle, Luis Jacobsen. Jacobsen was a Danish intellectual who lived in Paris and set out from the port of Le Havre in 1867, bound for Africa for illusory projects. For unexplained reasons, the ship changed route midcourse and ended up on the shores of the Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires) instead of Africa. Jacobsen packed a crate of French books on the ship, which he used to establish the “European Book Shop” (La Librería Europea) in Buenos Aires, on Calle Florida. The bookstore quickly gained recognition and prestige thanks to Jacobsen’s cultured nature and a remarkable network of European agents that provided his shop with books in many languages and newspapers from Europe. Historians note that the European Book Shop was “the most important of its time on the streets of Buenos Aires until the arrival of the Moën Brothers in 1883.”
My great grandfather, Balder Moën, and his brother Arnaldo were Jacobsen’s nephews. They arrived in Buenos Aires from Denmark in 1883 and competed with Jacobsen by establishing a publishing firm and bookstore in 1885 on Calle Florida. Writers have indicated that the Moën bookstore was the most well-known bookshop of the time. For example, Roberto Giusti wrote the following regarding the bookstore:
“When a poet or a novelist said, ‘Moën is presenting my book on his storefront,’ we looked at him with the same envious admiration with which we would have looked at someone who said to us ‘Emperor William invited me to his yacht,’ or ‘I was on a foxhunt with King Edward VII.’ ” (See, José Luis de Diego, Editores Alemanes en Argentina, published 2011) (De Diego, German Editors in Argentina, 2011).
I’ve told the story of Luis Jacobsen and the Moën brothers to my children, but they look at me cross-eyed when I delve into such matters, the same way young attorneys look at me when I tell them about the origins of “cut and paste.” Perhaps I embellished too much in retelling the story, and lost credibility. I think it's in my blood, because Moën and Jacobsen seemed to have orchestrated some embellishments of their own. For example, I’m not convinced that a French ship bound for Africa arrived in Buenos Aires instead, with a crate full of French books that gave rise to the most important bookstore in Buenos Aires of the day. That’s what the Argentine history books tell us, but what role did my ancestors have in packaging and retelling this story?
My kids are not interested in hearing or retelling the Moën story. Instead, they seem to enjoy repeating family lore of how I taught them to drive and made them miserable in the process. They insist I scared them to death by warning them in full throttle voice each time they were driving too close to the curb, or too close to oncoming traffic, or 15 feet away from a pedestrian on the sidewalk. “You would scream at the top of your lungs,” insists Charlotte, “telling us to mind the pedestrian, don’t run them over!” Arturo says I gave him nightmares by telling him that pedestrians have a nasty habit of jumping from sidewalks, purposely, and landing under the hood of innocent oncoming cars. “Well,” I say to them, “it’s been known to happen.”
They rehash incidents from my driving lessons, or memories of how I once made them watch Night of the Living Dead when they were barely five. They also retell the Grimm stories that I told them, the ones that I learned from Lotita and she learned from Balder. With each retelling, they improve the tale in some parts and leave out important details in others. They focus on what appeals to them in each story and relish with laughter at the funny voices I used to make. The same voices Lotita had used with me. Probably the same voices that Balder had used with her.
When my kids tell these family tales, I see myself in them. I see a copy of me in my daughter and another copy in my son. Each copy differs from the other and is similar, but different from me. They are derivatives of derivatives. Maybe I also see Balder in them, and Lotita, and my mother, and a lot of other ancestors. They are imperfect duplicates of all that preceded them, photocopies of photocopies that are brighter and more vibrant than the original version. Hail to the copy of a photocopy.
All the same, I wish the Apulian museum would learn to post PDF fillable forms.
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
Links to the Collages Used in this Blog (Double Click on the Picture):
Please leave one of your amazing comments! See the comment box at the footer of this page.