Viral Days

My Fax Friends

Preserving a slipping-away past

By Penelope Rowlands | December 19, 2020
Abhisek Sarda (Flickr/reallynuts)
Abhisek Sarda (Flickr/reallynuts)

It started as one of those trivial-seeming domestic projects you come up with when you spend too much time at home. As almost all of us have, since the pandemic began. For the past few years, I’ve been too busy, too often away, to take on certain domestic tasks, ones that called out for attention. Our basement, in particular, was a space I passed through, scarcely stopping to look around. Then, during the lockdown, I saw it for what it was, a place of towering boxes, full of files. They seemed to look at me scoldingly, reminding me of a long-planned project—photocopying a file of faxes, dating back to the first wave of that technology.

When fax machines were first commonly used, in the late 1980s, their messages arrived on diabolically slippery paper. It was thin and shiny, and the words printed on it weren’t legible for long. They might rub off under the weight or a pile of papers, say, or in the humidity of a summer day. (Before too long, standard typing paper was used—a vast improvement.)

I doubted that most of the faxes in the folder were important; saving them might not be worth the effort. Still, I wanted to try, in large part because of a particular friend, an ardent faxer named Alan, a French-American hybrid and a wonderful writer. We weren’t close friends, really, just comrades in the Paris writing trenches back in the 1990s. His faxed missives, full of humor and flattery, cranked loudly out from the early-stage fax machine that I’d lugged over on the plane from the States. (Back then, these machines cost—no kidding—10 times more in France.)

Alan wrote often; his funny messages were a leitmotif all through my years abroad. We’d toss around industry gossip, make each other laugh. We passed on the names of editors, along with tips for ascending magazine mastheads, those coveted niches that keep freelance writers alive. Our correspondence continued after I moved back to the United States. Soon Alan left Paris, too, moving to Scandinavia with his wife and young children. And there, just a year or so later, he died while still in his 40s.

When I passed the stacked boxes of files from those years, I often thought of Alan—and cringed at the idea that his clever, opinionated, inimitable words, so tentatively affixed to slick surfaces, could slide away. Perhaps they had already? As he had, for good.

Doubtless, his weren’t the only faxes in the file. There had to be traces of other friends there, too, along with a gang of editors who—threatening or cajoling, as required—would crash into dinnertime for me and my small son, calling Paris in the evening when it was still afternoon in New York. But Alan’s were the ones I most wanted to salvage.

It was a tiny resolution, the kind that rarely translates into action. Needless to say, it was hard to get excited about a project that involved, um, photocopying. Then came Covid-19 and the isolated, monotonous shutdown life that followed in its wake. Not long ago, the moment arrived. Wearing a mask and clutching a file folder, I walked along colorful, leaf-strewn autumn streets to the local printing shop, anticipating a dreary hour ahead.

Deemed an essential business, the store had been allowed to stay open through the pandemic. Other nearby ones weren’t so lucky. A shoe place that had been in business for 40 years closed down in the pandemic’s early days. A family-owned clothing store, just doors beyond that one, held out for more than seven months; now, though, it was having its final sale after more than half a century in town. On the same side of the street, two beloved cultural icons—an independent bookstore and a two-screen movie theater—prize possessions for any village, were fighting to survive.

A bell rang in the back of the shop as I entered, just as it has for as long as I’ve lived in town. Its tiny staff, people who have worked there forever, was still reassuringly in place. The middle-aged woman who came out front to wait on me wore a mask, as did I; even so, we recognized each other from other photocopy sessions over the years.  She’s pleasant, efficient, perhaps a bit aloof? It occurs to me that I must be, too. For years, we’ve faced each other over the store’s countertop, or conferred together near the copy machines. Yet I’ve never even asked her name.

Photocopiers demand vigilance; copying the pages took time. There were ritual interruptions as I toggled the machine’s settings among paper sizes—letter, legal, and A4—adding paper as necessary. My masked friend stopped by, helpfully, here and there; otherwise it was just me and the machine’s brightly lit scanner, sliding from left to right and back again.

The day was gray, the shop’s interior monochromatic, as such places tend to be. Yet it soon began to brighten, incrementally, and in the most curious way. I would glance at each page before taking it from the file, seeing if it was worth copying at all—some faxes were boring, others had gone entirely blank—before placing it, upside down, upon the dark, reflective surface of the glass. As I looked over each one, its contents came alive.

Soon I was riveted. The faxes, both sent and received, added up to one single, crowded story. I could visualize the friends, editors, and others who peopled my life back then, even hear their voices, as I placed their notes face down. I couldn’t help but recall Alice’s looking glass, and how easily that young Victorian had slipped through it into another world.

Each time I lifted the copier’s lid, that distant time and place—France in the mid-1990s—came back in sharp focus. I recalled shards of experiences I’d shared with my correspondents, some of them cherished. Many were colleagues. I was reminded with each note of the desperate humor that can crackle between editors and writers on deadline. The irreverence! There were notes from fact checkers, caption writers, copy editors—members of an editorial ecostructure that seems ever more precious, since so much of it has been chipped away.

All these years later, my correspondents seemed wonderfully present. And kind. It had been hard at first to find a foothold in the clubby world of foreign journalists, especially in Paris, where so many writers wanted to be. My fax friends seemed to surround me in a circle of support, one that came back to me as the copier—my time machine—sent its scanner back and forth, collapsing years as it moved.

Do faxes lend themselves to effusiveness? It seemed so, reading these. On some pages, caps and exclamation marks ran rampant. “YIGADS!”—that was Alan. Kate, my elegant, Ivy Leagued editor from Vogue, with her huge, looping handwriting, deployed them frequently, too. “PENELOPE, DAHLING!” is how one note began from the lovely, buttoned-up editor-in-chief of an art magazine—not at all the tone he adopted face-to-face. (I’d forgotten how whimsical and dear he could be.) It wasn’t all a love fest, of course. Yet in the looking glass of this shop, even rejections held a certain charm.

My copy store lady was deep in a project in the back of the place. So was her rather slow-moving colleague, a man I’d also known, by sight if not by name, for years. I was glad they couldn’t see me—woozy with nostalgia, slowing down to read—as I leafed through one fax after the next.

Was my deep absorption in this task a Covid phenomenon of some sort? I think so. For months now, many of us have led narrowly circumscribed lives. They’ve shrunken down radically—rather like Alice, actually, after she sipped from the “Drink Me” bottle.  Looking back at a time when we were free, doing things we can’t now even contemplate—traveling, dating, dining out, falling in love, making new friends, going to the opera (or even just a movie!), and more. “Things keep being taken away from us,” a friend pointed out, not long ago. All of us. The past can feel so alive by comparison.

As I moved through the faxes, the years lurched ahead. Soon I was back in America, as a warm invitation (“Margaret and I would love to take you to lunch”) from a California grande dame reminded me. (The Bay Area was our next port of call.) The lady wanted publicity, so many people did, yet she too was kind. San Francisco was another shimmering city, one I’d lived in before. Still, for me it never had the depth of Europe, nowhere near.

Back in California, faxes from Paris whirred into my combined office and bedroom, often in the middle of the night. “MAMMA MIA!!!!!” the exuberant Italian designer Ettore Sottsass wrote, with even more exclamation marks than I’m showing here, thanking me for an article I’d written. Claudia, a single English reporter I’d befriended during a brief stint at Agence France-Presse, wrote from London that she was now paired up. Alan sent funny faxes about meetings with editors we both knew on trips to New York, little suspecting—who could imagine something so grotesque, so purely evil?—that a tumor had taken root in his brain.

The last faxes were full of references to something called e-mail. Some of us took the leap early, signing up for AOL. “As I continue my clumsy course through e-mail,” I faxed a friend in 1996, using the self-deprecatory tone we all seemed to adopt as we navigated this odd new technology. We joked of sending messages into the void.

By the time I left California for the East Coast, faxes were just about obsolete. The world around us had changed. Alan wasn’t the only fax friend of mine to die; others have joined him since. Back in the copy store, I gasped when I came across a bunch of messages—always warm and wondrously professional—from Judy, a beloved American editor in France. She died in Paris the summer before last, after I’d left the city, once again, following a long stay. We’d set a lunch date for the day before I was to leave but, in the end, she was too ill to come and—horribly—so immunocompromised that she couldn’t be visited at home.

Yet even that piercing sadness was tempered by the larger picture conjured up by this pile of papers, and the traces of disparate lives it contained. The scanner’s light, as it zipped ahead, had also illuminated so much quotidian joy. And Alan and Judy were alive again, vividly so, if only for a time, and on slippery paper.

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