Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ode to a chair

This is my chair. It is a very important chair.

It doesn't look like much, does it? Under that heavy layer of cast-off clothes (including a Captain America baseball shirt that is far too big for me, and was even more too big when I bought it at age 15) is a chair that you probably wouldn't pull out of a Dumpster. The upholstery is cracked, the springs have never been replaced, God knows what's living in the seat cushion, it weighs nearly half as much as I do, and when I roll it around it sounds like a crippled Dalek. If you saw this chair by the side of the road, you wouldn't stop to pick it up. And if you did, you'd throw out your back trying to load it into the car. I'm fairly sure that the frame is all steel. This is the Sherman tank of office chairs.

When I moved into my current home, there was no talk of disassembling the chair. As far as anyone knows, it can't be taken apart without specialized tools. We carried it bodily out of one house and into another, grunting and swearing and trying not to bash holes in the walls. This chair doesn't like to travel unless it's by rolling. And it's not too keen on rolling.

If there's a way to adjust the seat height, it stopped working before I was born. The arms are welded to the frame and cannot be moved. This is a take-it-or-leave it chair. Either it fits you, or it doesn't.

And yet ... and yet ...

I've never known anyone to sit in this chair and not immediately feel at ease. Most people tilt it back a few degrees--it does tilt, without taking its wheels off the ground, though I'm damned if I know how--and try to put their feet up on something. If you close your eyes, you lose the sense that you're sitting in a cracked and battered office chair from the dawn of office chairs, half-covered in old clothes so you don't snag the cracked upholstery. Instead, you're sitting behind Perry White's desk at the Daily Planet, or maybe getting ready to yell at Carl Kolchak for turning in these cockamamie stories about monsters. If you grew up on old radio shows, like me, you're Randy Stone, waxing poetic on your old Royal typewriter before you pick up the phone and call for the copyboy. This chair knows you're here to work. It molds itself to you and tells you that you are, by God, the equal of any writer who's sat in it before you.

The chair's a bit of a funny story, really. My paternal grandmother was a writer for most of her life--a stringer for local papers, an occasional columnist, a would-be screenwriter and novelist. She was my first writing mentor, and I guarantee you've never heard of her (although an old colleague of hers, now working at the Los Angeles Times, once recognized my last name and asked 1) whether I was related and 2) how the hell she had scooped him on such a regular basis). And according to family lore, she got this chair by, er, liberating it from the U.S. Army. Or possibly buying it surplus. There was a lot of that going on, both at the end of World War II and in the early 1960s, when my grandfather left the service after 20 years. I suspect she bought it; she was an honest soul at heart.

But however you look at it, I spent a lot of my working time sitting in a World War II-era office chair, resisting the urge to put my feet up on a matching steel wastebasket. I inherited both items from my grandmother when she died, along with a desk of much more recent vintage. The irony appealed to me (well, the irony of the wastebasket did), and in any case my own desk chair was falling apart at the time. This one had survived a world war; it could probably handle the occasional fight scene.

If anything ever goes wrong, there likely isn't a repairman alive who can fix the darned thing. I've thought about getting it reupholstered, but I'm not sure that would work, either. Besides, there's a certain nobility to its rugged battleship-gray vinyl. It's literally been through the wars. Maybe that's what gives it its air of calm competence. I've seen worse than this, it seems to say. Try me.

I do need to get a proper footstool, though. It doesn't tilt quite far enough back to let me put my feet on the desk, and there's something ominous about putting them up on the wastebasket ...

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