There’s really no perfect time to do a deep-dive desk cleanup, especially if we’re talking about a rolltop model.
It should be launched before all sorts of flotsam and jetsam ranging from stuck-together sticky notes to three sets of tape dispensers, one packet of hex wrenches, an earth-tone pottery mezuzah, and pens and pencils of all sizes conspire to prevent the rolltop from closing or clog the pigeonholes, slots, and drawers to the bursting point.
Human nature being what it is, the inclination to delay, dodge, or completely evade this chore usually wins out in the belief that some essential paper, document, or keepsake nestled among the piles might inadvertently get tossed or shredded during the tidying up.
Desk triage doesn’t intrude on my awareness as sharply as do, let’s say, dates on the Jewish calendar, decreeing whether it’s an early Pesach or a late Rosh Hashanah and preparing accordingly. On a more secular basis, it lacks the nagging regularity of a spring cleaning, or the advisability of an oil change every 5,000 miles.
No, the impulse to neaten up the congeries on a desk descends on one much like a bad cold rather than a blueprint or a to-do list. Desk cleaning lacks metaphysical or spiritual weight and usually boils down to something as elemental as: “Drat, the drawer with blank checks is jammed.”
When desk decorum does pop into mind, I inevitably think of the classic Norman Rockwell illustration “The Doctor and the Doll” (well, not classic in the sense of a Vermeer or a Chagall, but certainly a legitimate piece of Americana) where the wise old physician sits with his back to a slant-top desk, pressing his stethoscope against a doll’s chest held by a little girl wearing a beret and a worried expression.
The desk, likely constructed from the timber of a once-mighty old-growth oak or a majestic maple, features dowel joinery and brass pulls. Atop it, two candleholders stand as sentinels in front of a series of well-worn books, probably formularies, pharmacopoeias, and medical texts, which, in turn, partially obscure a diploma balanced against the wall. Framed photos at each side are too faint to speculate on the images, but the doctor most assuredly is an upstanding family man and pillar of the community.
His desk proper appears extremely neat, without papers cluttering the blotter or bulging from the drawers or perched on the edges. Obviously, the good physician prized order, especially in the area where he wrote prescriptions or private correspondence. And I tend to think that he rarely, if ever, propped his feet on this piece of furniture.
My desk, by contrast, exists in a nearly perpetual state of apple-pie disorder, a condition (and mindset) that undoubtedly lingers from the newsrooms where I labored for more than 40 years. The unleashed energy of reporters and editors battling the crush of deadlines left copy paper littering desks and strewn on the floor, with gluepots, spindles, wire baskets, and waxy editing pencils scattered wherever they landed. (Occasionally after being thrown in frustration.)
The arrival of computers calmed the situation somewhat by substituting the subdued clicks of the keyboard for the staccato and bells of typewriters and teletypes, and also by eliminating foolscap and carbons. But rather than tame the inherent sloppiness of the staff, computers, ironically, only seemed to create more room at desks for stacking papers and periodicals. Cleaning crews on the lobster (overnight) shift barely kept ahead of the disarray. and tall wastebaskets still overflowed. Messiness equated with feelings of comfort and reassurance amid the tumult and, I thought, were necessary to produce robust journalism. Naturally, I brought the habit into the home, but confined it to my rolltop; otherwise, I remained a neatnik.
Even though I regard the desk as my domain, I should stop referring to it so possessively. The wooden wonder actually arrived at our house when Gail and I married in 1981. She and her first husband had successfully bid on the behemoth during a bankruptcy auction at a Pennsylvania factory. They also acquired the magnificent pendulum punch-in/punch-out clock that now graces our living room wall.
The desk reflects the precision millwork and joinery of the Macey Company and speaks to the level of craftsmanship at its massive brick headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How do I know? Because Macey’s brass keyhole medallion is proudly mounted front and center on the rolltop, making googling easy. The firm enjoyed renown as part of the Grand Rapids furniture hub from 1896 to 1940, and Fred Macey boasted that he fabricated the finest oak rolltop in the country that sold for $25 via mail order. Today, the model we own — my best estimate is that it dates from the early 1900s — routinely goes for $5,000 at estate sales.
Gail and I grant the rolltop pride of place in our home. Its presence is felt immediately by guests as they enter the rec room and see its imposing bulk, serving as both a divider and anchor, while suggesting the possibility of important transactions taking place under our roof. Equally intriguing is the pendulum time clock whose crisp, metronomic tick-tock can be heard coming up the stairs to the living room.
The gold leaf on its glass door spells out “International” and the clockface contains the legend “International Time Recording Company of Endicott, N.Y.” This piece most certainly was manufactured by the grandaddy of IBM, and its provenance is enhanced by a timecard in the slot showing the hours of an unnamed employee. The clockworks lose about five minutes a week, but the piece itself is timeless in all other respects.
I realize this is beginning to sound like an episode of “Antiques Road Show,” but let me briefly brag on the rich oak patina of both pieces. To keep up appearances, I liberally apply lemon oil twice a year to the surfaces, and unlike other furniture I’ve worked on, remain respectful enough to keep my hands (and tools, sandpaper, and varnish) off the finishes. I’ve made no attempt to “improve” their appearance. I’m not a woodworker in Noah’s league. Each blemish and imperfection, each wrinkle in the graining and crack in the finish — collectively having the look and texture of elephant hide — add authenticity and layers of interest, as the experts say. Like the doctor’s mantra, I do no harm.
But it’s time to begin the cleanup, I set my sights on the trove of business cards accumulated over the years and stashed in a top slot. They tumble out with numbing regularity and need to be culled considerably. But first, I have to move the new refrigerator filter I’ve stored in front of them while waiting for the old one to expire. Next, I navigate past a partitioned plastic catch-all container filled with everything from single-edge razor blades to Velcro wall hangers to an expired epi pen. Only one more impediment remains, a small box containing the hearing aids I ordered weeks ago and haven’t tested yet. I brush it aside and finally reach the cards.
The challenge is to coax a few out at a time while not allowing dozens to cascade at once. And it’s quite a selection. A sampling reveals the contractors Gail and I dealt with, the doctors of all specialties who’ve treated us, her educational colleagues and my journalism pals, insurance advisers, investment counselors, attorneys, my stepsons’ business affiliations, the lawn mower repair shop, restaurants, the marble supplier for our countertops — I am weary already. It’s been a full life.
You know where I’m going. I’ve managed to dispose of maybe five cards through all the winnowing and winkling out. I’m ready to pack it in. It’s tough to part with them. The rest can wait a bit longer, as will the other contents of my old Macey; medical records; the Hallmarks from loved ones for all sorts of celebrations; keys that don’t fit; locks that won’t open; bank records, both active and extinct; ditto for credit cards, batteries of varied sizes, and a stack of Jewish Standards/NJJNs (all read, of course).
While there’s nothing inherently or overtly Jewish about all this, I would remind readers of the historic displacements of our tribe and seizure of our possessions, possessions signifying stability, family, and community. The desk and the clock may be merely possessions, but they decorate a home with bedrock Jewish values.
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former editor of The Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard/NJJN. A resident of West Orange, he lives in a town that celebrates Thomas Edison because of his laboratory, factory, and residence there. More relatably, Edison took frequent naps in his rolltop desk.