The Pures

WILLIAM J. J. GORDON is a lecturer in the Engineering Department of Applied Physics at Harvard. He is also President of Synectics, Inc., a consulting firm primarily concerned with augmenting the creative output of industrial research organizations. The following story is clearly the outgrowth of his own immediate experience.

A MYOPIC in a back-room lab hollers “Eureka” and stumbles out with some new hooligan of an alloy. Cheaper than mud and tougher than diamonds. Right away I’m supposed to have free samples for my clients. They figure I’m the sharpest metal-fatigue man in the business, so nothing new in metals should happen anywhere without me plugging right in. No kidding. Samples! There’s only one way to plug into the latest technical poop. I take in every scientific symposium in my line. What a bind. Three days folded into one of those wooden camp chairs.

Not only that, but I have to watch myself every second or I’ll get sucked into the running fight between the pures and the applieds. For instance, last week I was in South Station buying a magazine for the trip out to the Third Metallurgical Congress in Chicago when up comes Professor Keel.

“Hi, Fairley,” he said.

Professor Keel is leader of the applieds. No formal election or anything. He’s just the appliedest. He patted a small wrapped package.

“You’ll need more than Time magazine to sweat out a train trip with the ‘good guys.’ ” He laughed. I hat’s what the applieds call the pures. They refer to themselves as the “bad guys.” Keel thought the pure-applied battle was a riot. He’s a nifty dresser — he gets those big consultant fees. And he has a manicure every Saturday. No bull! He marches in there and holds out his hands so some bimbo can work on them. You can see him right through the window.

He patted his package again. “Look into the pewter pot, and see the world as the world is not,” he said. He raised up his eyes like a priest. “Give me strength to endure the pures, for they know not what they do,”he prayed and walked away humming.

I went back to picking out a magazine. You’ve got to be careful what you read on a train full of academic people. With Fortune, the pures call you a fascist. With the Saturday Review, the applieds figure you’ve gone high-hat. I was reaching for something with a bimbo on the cover when I heard a whisper in my ear like a combination special agent and pimp.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Fairley,” It was Professor Sanborn, boss of pures. Also no election. Just the purest. Dresses like a refugee. No big consultant fees, so he’s a snob. “I see you’re arming yourself for the trip with the -gadgeteers.’ ” That’s what the pures call the applieds, “gadgeteers.” It’s the worst thing they can imagine saying, and they don’t think it’s funny. This trip was shaping up into a real knock-down, drag-out. “See you on board,” Professor Sanborn hissed, and took off. I hung around fingering the magazines till train time and got on at the last minute. In fact, I thought of taking a plane.

Guess what I had for a Pullman. One of those pre-war babies with uppers and lowers and a big can at each end. I swung up on the platform, and a bald guy with a box in his hand asked me for my name. I told him, and he began hunting around in his little box. Finally he pulled out a big red lapel button. On it was printed, “Dr. A. Morrison Fairley, Consultant,” and on the bottom, “Call me SONNY.” I gave the bald guy a look. He got the message.

“I thought I’d try to add a little informal dynamics,” he said. “Last summer we had the same trouble at Camp Highlife. The way I ligure —” “Did you get all the Metallurgical Congress members to put on the buttons?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” the bald guy said. “I had a little mix-up with Professor Sanborn. Had to help him pin it on. I got the feeling he was fighting it.” This trip was going to be a beaut. I went into the car, and sure enough, everyone was wearing his badge. But you could tell the pures from the applieds. The pures had scratched out the nicknames on theirs. I dropped my bag and began to make my way up the car, talking science with pures and yukking it up with applieds.

The applieds went in for a lot of handshaking and backslapping and calling back and forth, like a bunch of alumni. The pures greeted each other quietly—“Nobody here but us pures.” In five minutes, by the time we got to Back Bay Station, all the pures were correcting exams or writing technical papers.

THERE was one man in the car who was a stranger to me. He was scribbling in a notebook, so I figured him for a pure, even though I couldn’t see if his nickname was scratched out. When I sat down beside Professor Sanborn, I asked about the scribbler. Sanborn pushed his lips right up against my left ear, his eyes rolling all over his head on the lookout for spies. He doesn’t do top-secret work or anything, but he wants people to think he’s in on something red hot.

“That’s my new man,” Sanborn hissed. “Brilliant — mathematical wizard — pure mathematics, that is. From Cambridge University. They have a certain style of science over there you know. Name’s Professor Black.”

“How lucky you are to have him,” I whispered.

Sanborn nodded his head to show how lucky he was, and I got up and went down the aisle. From the others I learned that Professor Black was indeed a valuable piece of scientific merchandise. All had read his paper, “The Erosion of Metals and the Ballistics of the Upper Atmosphere.” Black was, as Sanborn had promised, pure as the driven snow. Even Keel, leader of the applieds, respected him.

“It was a lucky day for Frank Sanborn when the university dug up the dough to buy Black away from the Cavendish,” Keel told me. “Sanborn’s department hasn’t turned out anything significant for ten years, but Black will change all that. I hardly know the man, you understand. Sanborn keeps him under lock and key like a goddamn virgin.”

Professor Black stayed in his seat, still scribbling in his notebook. He was a very small, round man, about thirty, cherubic face, pink and white, leathery blond hair. Every once in a while he would raise his face from his work to look out the window. His lips kept moving in some technological litany. Of course, being new, he hadn’t any friends aboard, and his busy-busy attitude made it hard to strike up a conversation with him, or else I would have. What the hell? Everybody likes me.

The trip went along nicely. After supper the applieds pushed into the club car for highballs, the whole bunch of them. The pures were so damn churchy that it made the applieds extra noisy and gay. About eleven thirty I packed my traps and sloped for bed. When I entered the men’s washroom I found Professor Black stripping lengths of toilet paper off a roll. Very carefully he was covering the floor with toilet-paper stepping-stones, His underwear hung on a hook. He had five of those little Pullman towels knotted together and tied around his baby-fat waist. He smiled at me and went back to work. I said, “Hi,” and began Addling with my toilet kit. If some nut wants to lay down a bum-wad mosaic in a Pullman men’s room, that’s okay with me. He unrolled a path of toilet paper ahead of himself into the w.c. and shut the door.

Professor Black had just closed the door behind him when Professor Keel came in holding a pint of bourbon. He waved the bottle at me. I guess I didn’t look too full of beans.

“It couldn’t hurt you,” he said. He poured a drink into one of those conical paper cups you find in trains. Then lie made a drink for himself.

1 sat down next to him on the long black leather settee those old sleeper toilets have. What a room! The heavy faded green curtain blocking the entrance, the stained leather settee, the three metal washbasins lined up in a row; and at the far end was the door to the w.c. Even the cuspidor was there, squatting down under the empty metal matchbox container. I was taking my first sip of bourbon when Professor Sanborn slippered in. He was decked out in a woolen bathrobe with a Sears, Roebuck design on it. He went right up to a little basin, squeezed out a two-inch toothpaste worm, and began to brush his teeth.

“Hou about a little snort, Frank?” said Keel. He winked at Professor Sanborn, who worked up so much lather in his mouth that I thought he ‘d strangle. With his back to the door of the w.c., Sanborn didn’t see Professor Black skip out in his Pullman-towel skirt. Black bumped into Sanborn.

“Oops!” said Black. “Sorry.” Sanborn’s mouth was too full of toothpaste for him to talk. He bobbed his head and stood aside for his bright young man.

“Drink?" said Keel to Black.

Black thought a moment.

“I’d be grateful to you.” he said. Sanborn gave both of them a dirty look.

Keel pulled out another of those conical paper cups and filled it. Black took it in his infant fist and drank it in one gulp.

“Mmmm —just the job,” he said. “Queer, you know. I never developed a taste for Scotch, but I always loved bourbon, and I’m a Scotsman.”

Keel refilled Black’s paper cup. By this time the cup was so soggy that Black gripped it by the bottom vertex so as not to force out the booze. All the while he was turning on faucets in the three little shaving bowls. With one hand he pinched the paper cup, and with the other he tested the water in the washbowls and added hot water or cold, according to his taste. Filling the bowls was quite a project — noisy, too. Sanborn watched Black with visible anxiety, Keel with delight, none of us with comprehension. I was afraid Keel was feeling his oats, and sure enough, he opened up the can of peas.

“Tell me, Professor Black,” said Keel. “Where do you stand on the subject of pure as opposed to applied science?”

“Let me see.” The little guy had filled three washbasins according to his recipe. He threw his Pullman-towel skirt on a hook and leaned against a basin, completely naked. He was real cute and relaxed. He sipped the bourbon that was forced ter the top of the cup as it collapsed. He was thinking about his answer to Keel, working hard to understand how he actually felt.

“As a pure man yourself,” Keel went on, “you must have some conviction, some constructive bias.” That was the ball game, right there!

“Keel.” Professor Sanborn interrupted, “I’m afraid it’s impossible for your kind to understand how we function. Pure scientific investigation must have no purpose. It is research for its own sake. Furthermore, since Professor Black is a stranger in our country, it is an imposition to lure him into a private fight.” Sanborn’s knobbly bathrobe made me think of a down-South campmeeting preacher on his way to the outhouse. As he talked, bits of forgotten toothpaste foam flicked out.

“Frank,” said Keel to Sanborn. “I purposely directed my question to Professor Black hoping to get a new point of view. You see —”

“Could someone give me a leg up?” asked Black. The little guy was standing next to the middle washbasin, one hand on it and one hand holding his paper cup. He lifted one foot off the floor, and I leaned over and cupped my hands around his foot as if I were helping someone up on a horse.

“ Thank you,” said Black. “A wee bit more.”

I gave a little hoist, and up he went into the three basins, fat little feet in one, round ass in the middle basin, head in the third. It seemed impossible that Black would fit into the three basins, let alone be grunting contentedly. He held his head way back in the last basin and sipped at his paper cup of bourbon by continuing to pinch the conical bottom in one hand. In his other hand was one of those tiny pieces of soap they give you in Pullmans. Finally Keel found his voice again. “I feel sure that Professor Black does have a new point of view,” said Keel.

Black lost the piece of soap. He groped around in all the basins tilt he found it. Then he washed his feet with great difficulty. Finally, he lathered his behind and lay back again.

“Pure science,” Black mused, “pure science. Let’s work from analogy. With some people, if a mountain’s there, (hey have to climb it. With me, if a typewriter’s there, I have to start thumping. I love to slap the keys on the roll, particularly if I have nothing to say, which is the usual case. Pure typing, that’s what! Typing for typing’s sake!”

He paused a moment to pinch a little bourbon into his puckered mouth. In the interim, Professor Keel said that he was very interested and Professor Sanborn appeared to be in shock. I didn’t know what to do or say. This pure versus applied business was something I had always avoided, and I wasn’t going to get pulled in now. But Black looked like dynamite, and I figured there’d be fireworks.

“Pure typing is like pure art or pure science.” Black picked up where he had left off. “Applied art is for advertisements — billboards, calendars. Applied science is for gadgets. Applied typing is too commercial for me, in like manner. Pure typing is sans the commercial blight of purpose. It docs not soil its soul for gold. Its eyes are raised to the high a priori road of absolute essence. It’s a kind of Zen within Zen.”

He stopped a moment to hold out his limp paper cup to Keel. Like a zombie. Keel rose and filled it. By this time all the wet strength of the paper cup was gone. The bourbon began to leak out of the bottom in little tears. Black concentrated on this phenomenon as though it were a great discovery, then tucked the conical bottom into his mouth and sucked.

“Trouble with Joyce was he dropped his sights too low; next thing you know three professors made him coherent. As a pure typist he was all washed up. Personally” — Black raised his head a bit to tell us this in a confidential manner; he almost mimicked Professor Sanborn’s pimp delivery — “personally, I believe that Joyce had the talent to be a great pure typist, perhaps the greatest. He simply couldn’t tolerate the rarefied atmosphere of intensely concentrated ambiguity. The professors hammered a wedge into him by interpreting his reference to the Greek myths, and then the balloon went up, the flap was on. After that, the professors made sense out of everything. Joyce was a beaten man, applied and beaten.”

All this while Black had been soaping himself with that midget piece of soap. He kept losing the soap and feeling around for it. By squirming into a sequence of contortions he managed somehow to lather his whole body. Then he picked his head out of its basin and his feet out of their basin. He left his bottom in the middle basin and swung down his legs. They were short and hairless, like an infant’s. Professor Sanborn’s skinny blue hands fidgeted in his toilet kit. Keel got up and filled Black’s leaking cup, put some more booze in mine, and absentmindedly poured a cup for Sanborn.

SANBORN automatically tossed off his drink in one swallow. For a moment his old eyeballs glazed over like candied apples. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there and stared at Black’s plump feet. Keel, too, seemed to be hypnotized by the plump pinkness. He sipped at his drink and kept his eyes on the feet dangling below the Pullman basin.

“Next time I have my hands done,” Keel said quietly, “I think I’ll have my feet done too.”

Suddenly Sanborn snapped out of his trance and rose to go out. Immediately, Black jumped off his perch, hopped across the room on his bumwad stepping-stones, and blocked the exit. There he was, the little cherubic bastard, standing stark naked against the green drape, soapy lather drying on his body in bubbles; smiling, not tough, kind of pleading.

“Professor Sanborn,” he said, “I beg you to stay till I’ve finished my wee treatise.”

Sanborn tried to duck under Black’s outthrust arms, but Black crouched down and blocked him.

”It wouldn’t be fair not to hear me out, now would it, sir?”

That drink of bourbon Sanborn had tossed off must have given him some bezazz. He tucked his toilet kit under his arm and looked Black right in the eye. Then he put his lips to Black’s right ear.

“You are correct, sir,” hissed Sanborn in his top-secret style. ”It would not be fair. But it’s after midnight. I am growing tired. I would appreciate your coining to the point of what you call your ‘treatise.’ ” And he went back and sat down next to Keel.

Keel and Sanborn were being drawn closer through sharing this guy Black’s performance. They huddled together on that black leather men’sroom settee like a couple of kids watching Draeula.

“If I understand you, Professor Black" Keel was trying to plug in — “you’re saying that applied science is a lower order of activity than pure science.”

Keel is a good guy —jokes, drinks, and no question about competence in his field. But he’s trade school, no real intellectual. I at least had heard of Joyce, a crazy writer. But I bet Keel didn’t have a clue. That narrow-gauge mind of his was glued to the pures-applieds battle. If he could swing Black over to the applieds, it would mean a lot of prestige to his position. Black had drained the three basins and was putting in fresh water.

“Don’t know where I stand. That’s why I didn’t want Professor Sanborn to leave. If I can talk for a few more minutes, I think I’ll get somewhere !”

With that, Black waved a foot at me, and I boosted him into the three basins again. Only tins time, after lying down, he splashed water all over himself, rinsing off the soap. The soap had dried, and he had a hell of a time.

“Always have a wash before going to bed every night — never miss — sleep belter.”

He ducked his head backward into the basin and thrashed around till I thought he’d bust something. Finally he lifted out his head and rested his cheek on the side of the bowl.

“ lake Da Vinci. What kind of pure typist would he have made? Mediocre, Too much control. Gertrude Stein? She talked a good game of typing — ‘Pigeons on the grass, alas’ — but when it came right down to it, she tightened up. The unanalyzed music of the spheres, that’s the symbol of your best kind of pure typist. How about this? Jazz typing — hot typing, cool typing, or whatever you Americans call it. A cocktail-bar combo of organ, cornet, and IBM electric! Now there’s pure typing for you! No words, no poems, pure percussion. Wouldn’t be half bad.”

“Professor Black,” Sanborn interrupted, “if you carry out your excellent logic to a systematic limit, you are forced to admit that even your quaintly conceived notion of pure typing breaks down in your last example.”

“Which example, sir?” asked Black.

“In your musical example,” said Sanborn, “which I enjoyed very much.”

You have to hand it to Sanborn. He’s sharp. He’d been following Black all the while. I’d thought he was scared stiff.

“Pursuing your train of thought a moment: you invented a form of typing so pure that its only use would be as part of some kind of jazz band. Right?”

“Combo — yes, sir.”

“Fine. As you say, ‘combo.’ Very well. The fallacy in your logic derives from the fact that the purest typing you could invent has a use — namely , in a jazz combo.”

Sanborn had been leaning forward to deliver his critique. Now he relaxed back on the settee. Keel shook the last drink out of his bottle, sighted over the spittoon like a bombardier, and let go! Crash!

Black skidded out of his three bowls and stood dripping in front of Sanborn. He danced around, sending little drops of water all over Sanborn and Keel. He was so excited he forgot to use his toiletpaper stepping-stones.

“You’re right,” he cried. “By George, you’re right!”

He grabbed for his string of knotted Pullman towels and began rubbing himself down with them. He stopped.

“But what is the final implication, sir, would you say?”

Sanborn closed his eyes in thought. “I would hold that the systematic resultant of your dissertation is that jazz typing is not pure typing. There’s your fallacy, right there.”

“I would query that point, sir,” said Black. “I would say that my argument implies that the difference between pure and applied has been overemphasized

Keel finally plugged in, at least to the fact that the old battle was on. “I say something different from both of you,” Keel said. “Professor Black has shown that nothing is truly pure, that nothing exists until it is applied.”

“Professor Keel,” said Sanborn, “that’s a typical biased resultant, worthy of your usual intellectual conduct.”

Black had by this time put on his underwear. Without saying good night Sanborn pushed his way out through the green curtain. Keel followed, arguing, and Black and I were left alone.

“Maybe only one thing is pure,” Black said to me. “Spontaneous war!”

“Professor Black,” I asked, “was that bath really satisfying?”

“Oh, my, yes,” said Black. “But even war is not perfectly pure; it’s such an ends-and-means mix-up. Over in Moscow they’ve got a huge cigar pointed toward New York. In New York there’s a great thing pointed toward Moscow. Each missile is filled with special instruments to get on target. And all that fuel — very inefficient, very gadgety, not pure at all.”

“It didn’t look very comfortable,” I said, “with your knees bent up and all.”

“But it could be made pure,” Black went on. “Let’s say the two missiles, in Moscow and New York, were directed straight up and just had a tiny bit of fuel, or no fuel at all, just a great big spring, no complicated gadgets that might go wrong.”

“I might try a tub like yours myself,” I said. I began to take off my pajamas. “Trains always make me feel dirty.”

“At a given signal Moscow and New York could blow themselves up with an elegance and certainty unattainable under present gross gadgetry conditions. Each missile would go straight up for a few feet, then down! And bang! Here, let me show you. If your feet aren’t placed just so in that last basin, it throws off the whole wash.”