Hell-bent for Leatherman.
It’s not easy to break an orange juice, but I did. Unintentionally of course, and I wouldn’t find out about it until much later, when the piece popped out with a G-Flat snap as I tried to slice an apple for snack, and landed in my lap. I’d had it–for ten years it performed flawlessly–and I never thought I’d see the day when it let me down. I planned on dying with it buried alongside me in my pocket in the coffin–or at least its cremated ashes scattered in the unplumbed sea with mine. But I’m getting ahead of myself–and I’ve still got a pulse.
The handwritten, hand-drawn advertisement appeared in a down-and-dirty and quirky magazine called Trips, and it was published by Banana Republic, back when they still sold recycled surplus khaki clothes they bought in Army-Navy stores. As well as authentic belts and bits and kits and gear like ammo pouches and Vietnam jungle boots that smelled faintly of mold and faraway warehouses in third-world supply depots. I actually tore it out of the magazine and pasted it in my inspiration book–I’ve reproduced the “Tool Tales No. 3” below.
It promised old-school adventure in hardscrabble places, and hinted that the unforgiving and unfamiliar machinery of the cantankerous parts of the world, in this particular case, Africa, a place that I had lived in as a child, could be conquered with a simple “go-anywhere, do-anything” jackknife on steroids. The Pocket Survival Tool was probably less than twenty bucks back then, which was around I’d say the death throes of the ‘80s, so I bought one. And they were right: it was “Perfect for travels in Africa, or less exotic continents.” The PST was the ideal pocket survival pal, even though I was living in New York City at the time, which I’ll tell you was a lot more exotic than Zambia. Don’t believe me?
All you had to do was go into any “luggage” shop on 42nd Street, head through the overhanging suitcases at the back, and take a peep into another world of full-frontal, hirsute nudity and delicious sleazedom. I once watched the classic porn movie Behind the Green Door in one of those dank theaters, and also the unofficial debut of I forget the Yugoslavian director’s name’s debut Do you remember Dolly Bell? Spend one angry night at Port Authority, like I did after passing out at the bowling alley on the second floor after a binge of cheese fries and vodka, and gutterballs, and you’ll see what I mean about exotic being relative.
Anyway, I carried my man Friday sheathed on my belt faithfully for years until they came out with the SuperTool, who’s huge boldness blew the multi-tool market out of the water, so-to-speak. I bought two of those capable giants–I felt so powerful I went looking for disasters to fix and catastrophes to master everywhere. Speaking of getting blown out of the water, one or the other of those two monsters was my constant companion up until recently when I capsized my sailboat on Christmas Day and lost everything overboard, including my engine, cellphone, rudder, lifejackets and self-esteem. My beloved SuperTool is now in Davy Jones’s locker, dumb and indifferent, but the memories and confidence that stainless beauty inspired in me live on to this day, baby.
What does this have to do with a broken orange juice? I’ll tell you, but first I also wanted to lament the shuttering of Trips, which lasted just one issue. It had an article about a boy growing up in Wichita, Kansas, that was so emotionally lean and the prose artful and flat and unrhyming enough to still make an impression on me to this day–unlike anything the unbaroque phony Hemingway ever forced or faked. Another article was about this bearded hippie bicycle guy going to Tonga to try to ride with his majesty, King Tupou V, all 350 lbs of him called The King and, well, I. Which he did. There was another article about an American journalist going to the DMZ in North Korea, that chilled and thrilled–and since it straddled the international date line he made a joke about kicking one of the guards on a Sunday afternoon “into next week.”
The Banana Republic of old was an explorer’s dream outfitter, full of eccentricity and use, classic quality, with nary a nod to fashion or trends. Its rugged reliability and humble cool set new standards for back-in-the-bush practicality and worldly desire–the spirit of interesting deprivations met with understated elan and sensible sartorial weatherproofing. Mostly in wonderful waxed cotton and real rubber, before the mass worship of conformity and banal synthetic comfort bowing to the gods of "safety." Sometimes I have to laugh.
Oh, and what happened to the other SuperTool? I was at a motorcycle swap meet in Oley, PA shooting the “Wall of Death” there for a documentary I was making called Indian Summer, and traded it for a vintage WW II M-38 tanker’s helmet from a blue-haired punk-rocker guy on a Harley knucklehead. Or maybe it was a punk-rocker knucklehead on a blue-haired Harley. His name was Joey P-Nuts, and the only reason I remember that is because he had written it in Magic Marker on the inside lining of the helmet.
I wore that helmet out, along with a period-correct pair of M-1944 goggles that I bought at an Army-Navy store on Sunrise Highway in West Babylon, New York a year or so later. I stopped at the ugly dump of a place because there was a British Ferret (light-armored vehicle) sitting oddly-angled in the middle of the parking lot, like there was a war they were going to somewhere and ran out of gas on the way. And, because my wife was taking a nap at the time in the passenger seat. I snapped them onto the helmet, which I kept in the trunk for just such an emergency, and donned the whole Sad-Sack ensemble and headed back into the city. When the boss woke up on the Triborough Bridge and saw me wearing my idiot rig and smiling she was mad as a whip and quipped: “I can’t fall asleep for two minutes without you screwing something up.”
I used to wear that helmet and military-issue protective eyewear when I was lawning the mow on my Kubota tractor in East Perfect, Connecticut, earning the easy disdain of my uptight neighbors and alienating the hell out of my kids who thought I was a weird and selfish loser trying to ruin their lives by intentionally being retarded. No, I’d tell them, I’m not intentionally being retarded– I’m only intentionally acting retarded. What ever happened to irony? But the trying to ruin their lives part is true.
Anyway, since I by then had a huge garage and plenny o’ space to tinker and escape to, I didn’t need to lug my whole workshop around with me anymore. So I bought a Juice S2, a compact and colorful gentleman-farmer’s gem which I carried around in my pocket for the next 10 years, that happy metal lump thudding on my thigh as I stomped alone around the suburbs was sometimes the only reliable physical melody I had to remind me I was alive. Until Peter Friedrichsen dropped it overboard while using the pliers to try and pull a Smack-It Junior out of an uncooperative striper’s mouth off the coast of Cockenoe Island.
I had written “stripper” by mistake, and as a matter of fact there was an incident with one, and the Juice, and me that I’ll tell another time. All I’ll say is that at that low point in my life I was happy in my battered Dodge Dart, full of incisive cynicism, and sporting a Tom Selleck mustache, racing the moon. Her stage name was “Fudgsicle,” and she was a nickel a lick. The Leatherman, I’m happy to say, rose to the occasion.
Just kidding! I bought another S2, this one in gunmetal gray (I just looked it up–it’s called “Storm”), and carried that around faithfully for another ten years, until one of the tension bars flinged off with a tinny ping one it turns out pivotal morning in my life that I didn’t see at the time, coming or going. Which means our meanderings have finally more or less caught up with the backstory to our opening paragraph.
That second Juice S2, and the long line of Leathermans was such a big part of my life, and psyche, a sort of all-in-one gadget salvation in a certain sense, i.e. an intentional and useful beauty that conquered, fixed, and saved the day, and many a day, that I even wrote about my love for it in The Official Old’s Cool Handbook–A Smart Aleck’s Guide to Life.
So I sent a letter to Tim Leatherman–I figured why not start at the top?–and included the Tool Tales ad, my story, the broken Juice, and asked him to please fix it, since it had a lifetime warranty and I wasn’t dead yet. If he couldn’t do the repair, I told him the “Sidekick” was my dream compagnon de voyage, and could he send me that as a replacement?
Several weeks later I received a letter from him, saying he couldn’t fix the Juice, but had dug out one from the archives since they no longer carried it, and sent me that as well as the Sidekick, both of which he had engraved with my name and date, and thanks for being a loyal customer.
I sent him a thank you back, along with a copy of the Handbook and an apology–I loved my Juice, but it wasn’t unconditional.
Here’s what I had written:
“If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one object of desire with me, would I choose this Leatherman Juice, or Christy Turlington?
I may be an idiot, but I’m not a fool. So even though I was going to wax poetic here about romance and beauty, I”ll stick to a different script and talk nuts and bolts. The best tool ever is luckily always at hand: your noodle. Use it.”
He laughed a letter back to me, and said he liked my writing style. We became cross-country pen pals. When the third installment of The Official Old’s Cool Education came out, I sent him that, too, even though I hadn’t mentioned my Leatherman. He wrote back and said that whenever anyone is asked the question who they would most like to have dinner with, some would say Einstein, or Beethoven, or Shakespeare, but that he would pick me.
Flattered and humbled, and, to be honest, scared–how could I ever live up to that level of genius/expectation?–I wrote back and said that I was a member of the same Mutual Admiration Society, and why don’t I fly out to Portland and we’ll have that dinner. He said, yes, let’s. So I called my son Neuman and we met out in Portland last week to introduce ourselves to a new universe of possibilities and fun.
We got in late, slept late, and our first stop was at The New Deal, a local coffee shop on the corner of a simple grid neighborhood of bungalow houses with detached garages on 10,000 square foot lots. What I found strangest about the neighborhood, and come to find out all of Portland, was that most people didn’t bother cutting the grass–front yard hayfields littered with the usual clunky detritus abounded: bikes, mis-matched patio furniture, kiddie pools, green-sheeny birdbaths looking like miniature lagoons, overgrown tomato plants in planters and ancient RVs with flat tires, their white slab sides bedazzled with iridescent mold.
The breakfast was outstanding, and the help was straight out of central casting. The customers too–crunchy morning hikers; a young family with a toddler in a jogging stroller; two old guys having coffee together, probably talking about the war. A Kodachrome snapshot of neighborhood harmony. My immediate and overwhelming thought was R1 zoning killed America.
We then went to Dehen 1920, a local knitting mill that’s been in business since, well, 1920. I had met the CEO, Jim Artaiz, grandson-in-law of the founder, at a marketplace in Boston years ago, and he told me to stop by the next time I was in Portland. This was it, so we did. He gave us a tour of the place–the clickety-clack whirr of ancient metal machinery run by belts made of well-worn leather was a heartwarming symphony of old-school nostalgia. He introduced us to every one of his workers, most of whom had been there for years if not decades. Fascinating–did you know dyed-brown shearling was created when the beaver pelt industry collapsed because the whole supply was just about wiped out by the turn of the century? I mean wiped out by hunters by the turn of the century.
To underscore the point, no pun intended, that the world is indeed small, and round, there was a pile of black cardigans with chenille letter As sewn on the pockets that was about to be shipped out. I don’t know why I noticed them, but I did, and asked Jim about them because they reminded me of the varsity sweaters I saw at USMA. He said they were–West Point had been a customer for years. Fuckin’ A as we used to say–our universal catch phrase for disbelief/wonderment.
Neuman ended up buying one of the varsity jackets in a grey/red/white color way that is heirloom quality, and looks like a million bucks. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel, where Tim Leatherman picked us up at 1. He looked like a typical Uber driver with jeans and a down vest, in the requisite Prius. He took us to his 100,000 square foot factory, all and only there because of him and his vision and persistence.
He started the tour in a long hallway up in the executive offices, where pictures of every model Leatherman ever made were arranged in chronological order, like a fantastic forensic parade of invention and necessity-met, tooling down a beautiful road of one man’s making, with that man tour-guiding in the driver’s seat. It was almost surreal. He showed us the Micra, which was the idea of the now CEO, Benjamin Rivera, back when he was a young engineer working for Tim. Instead of pliers, the Micra sports a pair of scissors, an idea Tim vehemently opposed at the time. It has since become their all-time best seller.
We got to the third or fourth picture, and Tim gave a brief overview and then said there was an interesting twist to it, and did we want to hear it. I looked him straight in the eye and said the only thing we have to do is to catch our flight tomorrow morning. He blushed a little, and the flash I saw in his eyes said he had decided, then and there, to trust us with his story, the whole story.
So the sidebar went like this: a company called Cooper Industries came out with a rival product, called the ToolzAll, at one of the trade shows, and Tim and his team realized that not only was it a Leatherman knock-off, but that they had actually used parts from a Leatherman in their prototype. Tim sued Cooper for trade dress infringement, eventually won, and was awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages, and $4.5 million in punitive damages. Cooper appealed and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which, improbably, took on Cooper v Leatherman.
Their ruling stated that the award violated the 8thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution, which famously prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” but also warns against “excessive fines.” The ruling set a “standard of review” for punitive damages, which is essentially 10 x compensatory damages. They sent the ruling back down to the Federal Court of Appeals, which reduced the punitive damages to $500,000. The case has since become an important precedent in setting punitive damage awards in both criminal and civil cases.
Then Tim added this postscript. "After getting almost nothing in compensatory damages because we quickly stopped Cooper from selling its ToolzAll, the State of Oregon, in its wisdom, had decided that punitive damages were designed to punish the bad guys, rather than reward the plaintiffs, so Oregon took 60% of the remaining punitive damage award for its Crime Victims Assistance fund. And the Supreme Court said we couldn’t have our trademark in the overall appearance of our tool because they said that for a competitor to make a tool that works like our tool, they have to make a tool that looks like our tool. So not much to show for our lawsuit. But at least I have a story to tell.”
Have you ever been on a factory floor? Most, if not almost all Americans who don’t work in manufacturing haven’t. The boom punch grind of heavy machinery, intent on their detailed and specific tasks; the whoosh of sluicy water and lubricant; the dink and donking of stainless steel and effecient effort and ends; the smiling silence of happy workers, almost universally willing to share their experience and pride of product. It was a pure joy to see Tim in his own heavenly kingdom of universal validation and irrevocable proof, excellence and inspiration: spem successes alit–success nourishes hope in us all. And that we all can choose to aspire to greatness, well aware that it’s much harder to start even a small renaissance than any revolution.
If rebirth is what I call a crime of idealism, vs revolution which is based on an enemy and hate–then, Tim, despite all of his rational calculations and dogged, diabolical logic is as romantic as they come, and guilty as charged in this particular case. Seriously, I think he has, in his own quiet way, earthquaked a small renaissance in Portland with a vision of sharply-honed American ingenuity and proud excellence, certainly, and the rest of the country is feeling and benefitting from its tremors and aftershocks, which was beautifully obvious as the current incarnation was being birthed before us in an elegant photogenic machinery ballet.
The Leatherman facility is impressively automated with a platoon of robots, in neat, almost dystopian rows, most of them at least a million dollars a pop. Even so there is a tremendous amount of the work that is still done the old-fashioned way: by careful skilled hands. He introduced us to most of them, telling us that at one time he used to say good morning to every employee, every day, until the workforce got so big he didn’t finish his daily rounds until well into the afternoon.
I’m trying to remember some of the tidbits and thoughts Tim threw out on our winding way through the maze and haze of metal and men (and women) makers. It made me chuckle when he mentioned that the first time he saw a pager on his doctor’s belt back in the ‘80s his reaction was that it was stealing the waist real estate that belonged to Leatherman. I’ve never thought jealousy was a good thing, but in this case I found it charming.
Before I forget I’ll mention that the whole thing came about when he and Chau (pronounced Cho) took a budget trip around Europe in an even then old Fiat 600 that was always breaking down, it goes without saying, and all Tim had was a Boy Scout jack knife to try to keep it running. He wrote down in his diary that one of his goals in life, among many others, was to marry a pair of pliers to a folding knife. So whenever anyone complains about Italian engineering from now on, I’m going to be thankful for their mechanical incompetence. If Tim had been driving a Honda, we more than likely wouldn’t be here today.
The most labor intensive and costly part of every Leatherman is the pliers – the raw parts are specially made at subcontractors’ foundries, and shipped to Leatherman for many rounds of finishing, polishing and assembly. I told Tim that I had read that Gerber, his main rival, was also located in Portland. He told me that he had gone to them way back in the beginning with the prototype and they had rejected it, saying they were a knife company, not a tool company. The irony is that since almost every Leatherman comes with a knife, they have become the (or one of the) largest knife maker in America.
It was now after 5 o’clock and Tim had made a dinner reservation for us, so we stopped by his house, picked up his wife, Chau, and headed to the restaurant 1891 downtown. The drive over the Marquam Bridge is picturesque, and the restaurant is part of the Multnomah Athletic Club, a sprawling complex that overlooks a professional soccer/football stadium and an Olympic-size pool, indoors! Portland is on the banks of the Willamette River, and squeezed hard up against the West Hills (the Tualatin Mountains). It seems to me a much better location for the city would’ve been five miles north, where the Willamette meets the Columbia River, which straddles the border with Washington. I’m sure there’s a reason why it wasn’t, but I don’t know what it is.
After some poking around I found out Portland was essentially at the end of the Oregon Trail, and 1/2 way between the confluence of the two aforementioned rivers, which is where the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver was located, and Oregon City, then the original settlement in the area.
Tim told us about how he and Chau met–she was an exchange student from Vietnam, and he was at her school’s student center because he could use their ping-pong table for free. He took one look at her and thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. And that was that. He ended up going back with her to Vietnam in 1972, and they were able to get her family out in 1975, just before the armed communist revolutionary Viet Cong captured the city of Saigon after the American troops pulled out. It was a dramatic rescue, for sure. And for real.
We drove back to their home, but not before stopping at their first house, where they lived just after they got married, and where Tim tinkered with his tool for eight years before he got it tweaked right, and found a buyer. It’s a more-than-modest ranch in a nondescript neighborhood, but has attached to it, in my mind, one of the great American ingenuity success stories garages, right up there with Edison, the Wright Brothers, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard.
Leathermans have armed the working class, albeit on a smaller demographic and geographical scale, as much as either of those companies ever empowered the world. But since the manual labor force is much less eloquent and connected to shouty mouthpieces and mostly elbow grease-free media outlets, the upheaval has been more muted and subdued, at least as far as headlines go, if not most mighty in impact, and therefore more mainstream and important.
I helped Chau prepare the tea, in a Chinese clay pot, and the apple pie and ice cream while the men conversed in the living room. I choked up a bit watching my son, that hilariously scabied, gap-tooth baby–a tangly, talcumed pigskin in my mind’s eye–now a man asking, probing, hungry, listening intently–interested and interesting. The back and forth was a revelation for both, all three of us, really, and a delight.
The house is modest almost to a fault, with a tasteful selection of Eastern art, Japanese prints, calligraphy, and pottery. There was some kintsugi and a few mizuhiki bamboo wrapped rocks. I think they have the only Japanese-style electronic bidet (smart toilet) I’ve ever seen in States. It’s the best thing ever since indoor plumbing, in my opinion. The view of downtown Portland, that once hard-edged and gritty Oregon trail terminus turned bastion of crunchy, box wine-lady progressivism, neither of which you can see or whiff from this far away in both time and distance, or politics, looked spectacular as the golden (state) sun disembarked on the dark, pirate night.
Tim talked about his growing competition from China–much cheaper, getting better in quality, and his patent running out soon–and the challenges of conquering even more and bigger markets than America. He told us how he was speaking with an Indian friend who said that it would never sell in the sub-continent: the underclass couldn't afford it, and the upperclass wouldn’t use it since they don’t fix anything themselves. I suggested that he could make it an aspirational purchase instead: a gold or silver-plated Micro, diamond encrusted even, for example, could be marketed as a must-have accessory for the supremes, both men and women. The billion plus workers and underlings would see the glints and glimmer and get the hint, and want to buy the Wave or Sidekick themselves, both as Pavlovian slum-dog millionaire mimicry and for the perceived and actual useful beauty.
Speaking of dazzling, the Leatherman Tim carried, was a top-of-the-line TTI. He told us the story of a promotional appearance he made in Paris and how one of the customers, a diamond merchant, asked him to visit his workshop the next day, if Tim had time. He did, and went. The discrete back door, the steep flight of stairs, a locked vault door. Buzzed in. Another locked vault door. Buzzed in again. A final locked vault door. Buzzed in once more, and met by his friend with a friendly welcome handshake.
A tour of the exquisite atelier–untold millions of euros of cut and uncut stones and artistic works of high-end jewelry. At the end an offer to implant a tiny quarter carat round-cut in his Leatherman. Oui, merci. Signed by the jeweler and treasured by Tim to this day. I said I bet it was the only time someone else added any kind of value to his already invaluable products.
We ended up, as men often do, in the basement (where we belong!), among the machines and disheveled but messily shelved, heartwarming, comforting chaos. It smelled of WD-40 and metal shavings, dampish unfinished concrete, and slightly moldy hope. An unadorned, unapologetic man-cave, a miracle of left-alone charm and dingy purpose–it was all of a perfect piece, a snapshot in time. It reminded me of one of his quips, and he was a very dry and funny man, if you paid close enough attention, when I asked him what he told people he did for a living. He said he made metal shavings, piles and piles of fine dust, and tons of scrap steel.
After the factory tour I couldn’t agree more, and the self-deprecation was magnificent: he said they only used about half the steel they bought, because of edge tolerances and maximizing machine-feed speed and efficiency. I think he said that the steel they bought was $1.50 or so a foot and they recycled everything not used back to the supplier for 10¢ a foot. “Not a very good deal… for us.”
The bright red vise that you can see to Tim’s right was the only one he had, as far as I could tell. Pay attention–there’s a joke in there somewhere, boy. The wonderful clutter of stools and buckets, toilet paper and boxes full of strings and things we were surrounded by, and the unmistakably manly machines he had used way back when to make the prototypes–a massive lathe, overhead drill press, and an array of gray grinders standing around like cadets at parade rest–which he bought heavily-used and even in that condition could barely afford at the time–felt like coming home.
He showed us a metal sheer he had made out of a railroad rail and dangerous-looking piece of pipe, like the neighborhood leg-breakers wielded back in Pawtucket. There was an anvil, and a huge mallet-like hammer that Thor could’ve used to defeat the Nazis or ring the bell on a High Striker at the carnival and won the prized stuffed lion or elephant with.
Tim showed us his old cobwebbed welding helmet–all I could think of was Hector and his golden one, which he had rigged with a Caractacus Potts-like contraption that allowed him to flip it up and down with just his chin, way back before auto-darkening technology became the safe but unfun norm. He was going to patent it, but the patent would belong to his employer, not him, and the employer was not interested, so he didn’t. It was simple, effective and ingenious–I was in envious awe. Tim wasn’t necessarily a renaissance man, I thought, but he was a very, very cool, inventive, problem-solving engineer with rare backbone and tenacity who came up with a fabulous solution to a problem he had, and as it turned out, the world had too.
With almost no game or guile, slightly gawky and undernourished, he was, make no mistake about it, an unflinching visionary who, if you really leaned in and listened carefully, took him and yourself seriously, strained to hear the subtle flutter in that elevated dovecote so-to-speak–could seduce you into something like admiration. I caught myself looking at him, lost in astonishment–he stood there in the harsh fluorescent light, improbable, gallant, unreflecting in his unthreatening audacity–sharing with us his modest and clear flame.
I mean he had one of the first mechanical drawings he had ever done of one of the pliers jaws–it was as pristine as a DaVinci, with thirty-three neatly numbered notes and notations in his tiny scrawl that explained the thought and reasoning and clarified each one of the necessary steps needed to go from synapse to paper to manufacturing to assembly. He had the impeccable drawings of every single irreplaceable part, all twenty-six, with similar detailed scholum filling up any white space in circled-numbers order. I’m not kidding, that neat packet of inventiveness put me in mind of the Codex Leicester, which I had seen at the Museum of Natural History in New York, just before Bill Gates bought it and removed that genius’s mind-mapped treasure from the public eye, perhaps forever.
I am reminded now writing this of a passage I read a while ago, which I think is from a collection of essays by the late and great Australian writer and cultural critic Robert Hughes. He was a wry observer of human nature, an unabashed ego-balloon burster, and a wit of the highest caliber. Even though he’s talking about artists, Hughes’s observation I think applies here because Tim’s Leatherman is, in my opinion, an objet d’art that belongs in a museum:
“Any pipsqueak can roar like a lion on paper, because grand words cost little, whereas delicacy–the delicacy of Chopin for example, persevering to the extreme, tense, deliberate–requires effort and character.”
We could’ve continued chatting in that basement all night, but it was getting late and we said our goodbyes. Tim drove Neuman and me back to the hotel, and we parted with a tender bear hug. He drove off, the humble anti-millionaire, like any guy in a Prius, back to work or home.