Originally published in New York Newsday (May 1995)
The oddly pleasant smell of ink fills the air. Discarded staples litter the dusty linoleum floor. A tattered sign in the window read “Business Cards in One Hour.” Despite these less than elegant surroundings, there is an urgent sense of purpose here at my neighborhood copy shop.
A flash of pale green light illuminates an employee’s impassive face as the machine grinds out copies of the next great novel, a stack of resumes, or take-out menus for the new Mexican restaurant next door. The creators of these documents wait behind the counter, eagerly anticipating their finished product. The neighborhood copy shop is where entrepreneurs, job hunters, frazzled freelancers and impassioned authors congregate to make their marks on the world. For those with low-tech home offices, or no offices at all, the copy shop allows New Yorkers to re-invent themselves hundreds of times over in a matter of minutes.
A fresh ream of warm copies gives me a great sense of accomplishment, reminiscent of my college days when a term paper was completed. There can be no further changes, additions or corrections once copies are made. This is the last stop on the road to fame and recognition.
I also always loved the way a copy looks – official, unimpeachable and final. What was once a flimsy white piece of paper becomes an “Ivory Linen” curriculum vitae. A scrawled note describing an unwanted sofa turns into a mass advertising campaign.
Copy shops have drawbacks, however. There’s no privacy, for one thing. As I proofed my resume one last time before handing it off for reproduction, I sense that someone is looking over my shoulder. Indeed, while he waits for his job to be done, the bicycle messenger behind me seems eager to find out what my grade point average was in 1985. (He’s advertising “hip-hop” lessons for $16.95 per hour, not that I was looking!)
When I arrived at my copy shop the other day, half a dozen people were leaning against the linoleum countertop like cowboys at a bar. No one is in a suit and tie, but everyone looks like they’ve got an important task to tackle. A man in his early twenties drums his tattooed fingers impatiently as he slides an elaborate drawing of a skull from his neon-colored folder. A plump woman in a raincoat shows off a bound treatise called “Mercury in Your Mouth” about the dangers of dental fillings. An old woman spreads her medical bills on the counter and asks about enlargements. Even among the mundane, however, interesting things can happen here.
My brush with fame at a copy shop occurred about a year ago, and I am still embarrassed when I think about it. As I was waiting in line, I spied a fortyish man in running shoes and sweats gently stacking a dozen copies of a screenplay.
“Do you want to be a screenwriter?” I asked in a burst of social energy.
“I am a screenwriter” was his curt reply.
Not getting the message, I persisted.
“Well, you’ve certainly done a professional-looking job,” I said referring to his neatly typed packets. “I’m sure that someday you’ll be a success.”
“I am a screenwriter,” he repeated, now a little annoyed. “This is going to get produced.”
“I’m sure it will. Keep trying.” Although it was unintentional, I must have sounded terribly patronizing. As a typical, skeptical New Yorker, I found it hard to hide my utter lack of confidence in his statements. Sensing this and losing his patience with me, my fellow customer ticked off his list of screenwriting credits, which included “The Karate Kid.” Was he telling the truth? After a 15-minute conversation, it appeared that he was.
After this encounter, I humbly learned my lesson. Great things can happen in copy shops and there’s no doubt, they will over and over and over again.