Don’t Count on It

After almost 30 years, you learn that one of your most trusted friends has been misleading you.

That stings.

We were making the final cut on business cards that we’d printed, and Shop Boy could see that Mary was getting really upset about something. “Why are you doing this to me?” she cried. “It doesn’t make sense!”

She held a card to the light, the nook of her favorite pica pole — a metal ruler or, as many call it, a pica stick (inches on one side, picas and points on the other) — to the top of the card and her eyes not believing what she was seeing at the card’s bottom.

“Why is this not two inches? The paper cutter setting says two inches, but no matter how many test cuts I do, it doesn’t measure two inches when I take it out.”

She stared at the card, stared at the pica pole and let out an exasperated “This is ridiculous!” Then she went back to the cutter for another test.

Now, to a printer — and to former newspaper folks of a certain age, like Mary and Shop Boy — the pica pole might as well be a totem pole: a worshiped symbol of work done to exacting standards by our revered predecessors; a reminder of a craftsmanship that we vow never to let be forgotten.

Newspaper columns are still set to pica widths, and until about 1990, we’d use the pica pole and a percentage wheel to increase or decrease the size of pictures to fit the layout. The camera room — how quaint — would blow up or shrink the art based on our calculations. Mess up the measurement and there’d be screaming and yelling. Set your type column widths wrong and, yes, there’d be screaming and yelling. It’s a wonder we’re not deaf.

I’m not kidding. Printers in the backshop of the Baltimore Sun, in fact, used to bid farewell to retiring comrades by ceremonially “banging them out” — drumming their pica poles in salute against any metal surface they could find as the printer walked proudly toward the door. Very moving, but what a racket!

Anyway, as Mary and Shop Boy have moved around, the trusty sticks have come with us.

But now the old pica pole was at the other end of the Typecast Press studio, so Mary picked up a new, longer metal ruler she’d purchased just for the Chandler & Price cutter and used that to measure a freshly cut card. Two inches, on the button.

“What? No way,” Mary said as she stomped across the studio. She picked up the old pica pole, laid it against the new one and gasped. “Oh, my god. It’s wrong!

Shop Boy: “Which one? Was the new one made in China or something?”

Mary: “No! The old one! I don’t believe it! I’ve used it for everything! For years! And it’s all been wrong!

Shop Boy: “Well, consistency is good, right?”

Mary about rapped my knuckles as she slammed the pica pole onto the counter. She laid yet another rule against it and, yep, it was still inaccurate. “Ugh! Mark this stupid pica pole so we know that it’s only to be used for a straight edge from now on,” she hissed.

Shop Boy gave the offending pica pole a disapproving look and pulled out the white tape. I measured out two inches, stuck it at about the two-inch marking on the ruler and made a little note with black marker:

“I LIE!”

That should teach it.

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