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From Issue #26 September 26, 2013

Typecast

Typewriters tie a ribbon between father and son.

By Elliott F. McCloud

In my room, on the blind side of the dresser wedged between wall and door, there are three small cases. One, navy blue and boxy, looks like luggage. Another, baby blue and bisected by a black racing stripe, looks more like a golf bag. The last is a plain tote bag. Each case is designed for one of the three generations of Olivetti typewriters that I own.

The tote bag comes with me to work with one of the machines in it. As a nonprofessional in the medical field — earning less than a janitor at a high school — I have to find ways to make my days more rewarding. That means writing my fingers off during idle time, regularly popping a spring or two in the typewriter. I try to rotate these aging machines as best as my whimsy will allow.

But there are some mornings before work when the mood just hits me, and I want to pull one of my Italian bangers out. If I’m lucky — if there are no dishes to be done, and if my son is off doing little-boy things — then maybe I can get in a few words before I have to leave.

More often, though, before I can insert the last page, my son runs up. “Daddy, can I have a typing lesson?” He grins. Before I can answer one way or another, he is already on my lap, his tiny hands pushing the red tab key.

He is a stubborn boy who does not take no for an answer — at least, not the first time. As such, he has a hard time learning and taking direction. Reading can be a battle. Learning to write is a war. But when one of my Olivettis comes out, his stubbornness melts away, leaving an eager and enthusiastic child ready to learn his native tongue through a foreign machine.

I don’t blame him. I love my Olivettis, too. It’s why we have so many of them. They are small and light but durable. I’m not afraid of ruining one in transit. Despite their size, they are still easy to use, a formula that only a few typewriter companies were able to master.

And they are beautiful. My son cannot articulate the appeal of the simple lines in their design, the pop of chrome and polished steel, the vibrant colors, or the aforementioned red tabulation key. His eyes simply light up and that massive smile shows all of his tiny teeth. “It’s so pretty!”

“Do you want one too, buddy?” I ask. He spins around on my lap, locking me in a neck-crushing hug. “I’d love one! Thank you, Daddy!” Exuberance is something that we share, though mine is tempered with age.

Salvage

It began late in 2010 at the Salvation Army thrift store. Led by my girlfriend at the time, I found my first typewriter on top of a clothing rack. Knowing nothing other than that it was old and dusty and musty, I knew that it had to be mine, and bought it for $50.

At home, I examined it in detail. There was a faded Royal logo painted on the lid and a plastic badge reading “Quiet de Luxe” on the carriage. After trying to type a few words, finding that it was broken and that I lacked even the most basic knowledge to fix it, I did the only thing that a burgeoning enthusiast could: research. Hours of my night were lost on databases dedicated to cataloging these, as one site maintainer calls them, “Machines of Loving Grace,” by brand, age, body style, color; the lists go on.

I am not very self-aware, but I knew what was happening to me. With every click of a hyperlink or photo, I was falling in love with the past. There was a magical time when writers wrote on paper, sitting in smoky rooms, pondering over machines that didn’t bother them about software updates and error reports. In these machines, I found a gilded history. Across databases and digital collections I searched, hungry for what would certainly become number two in my collection. Yes, I was already thinking “collection.”

Meanwhile, in another room of the same apartment, someone else was falling out of love, getting ready to free up that space in my heart.

Brand spanking old

Custody battles can be excruciating. Endless blame games that are seldom won through honest-to-goodness moral fiber, they are instead a practical example of how The Art of War is still a relevant read. Separations, on the other hand, have a paradoxical effect like that of dental surgery: creating great pain almost as if only to help you appreciate the sweet relief that follows.

It was April 2011, and in the middle of the custody battle for my son, I was falling in love again. It was also my birthday. For it, my new girlfriend, knowing my love for typewriters, bought me one. “You deserve anything that will make you write better.”

I tried to protest — and failed. It was hard when the ad reads:

It’s no longer an impossible dream to own a brand-new classic typer! Just arrived, a small supply of a few dozen new in the box all metal Olivetti Lettera 35s.

“Do you want it?” she asked. I saw the price tag. “It’s too much.” She smiled. “I’ll just make it your birthday and Christmas gift this year.”

The seller was Dan Puls, Mr. Typewriter. An old-school kind of guy, you can talk typewriters with him for an hour, even though you had only meant to ask about the cost of a ribbon. At the time, his Web site had no shopping cart and no checkout; he didn’t accept credit or debit cards. He asked for a check sent via the regular mail.

A week later, the letter carrier showed up with a box from Missouri bearing Puls’s return address. My son helped me fight through the layers of packing tape and bubble wrap while my girlfriend watched, pleased to see me smile like a child with a new toy. The steel gray Olivetti took center stage on my desk. As I tested it with a few random words, I felt a kiss on the top of my head and heard, “I love you. Happy birthday.”

That typewriter taught me two important lessons. The first was that Mr. Typewriter doesn’t lie. He’d inspected my machine, oiled it, and cleared out any build-up from a decade-plus in storage. My 35 might as well have been ordered right out of the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog. The second was this: a two-holiday gift is no ordinary present. My first Olivetti was a “You’re an awesome person. Please don’t feel down,” present. And it did its job.

The following year she repeated the same act, this time with my second Olivetti: a Lettera 32. Just like Cormac McCarthy. It wasn’t because I needed a pick-me-up, or because I was disheartened in the custody battle. I had won that fight. This was just because. Or, as she put it, “I like to make sure my boys are happy.”

Springs forward

Though still young, my son is the proud co-owner of a fleet of Olivettis, along with a dozen or so Royals, IBMs, Olympias, and Smith Coronas. But it’s the Olivettis on which we pride ourselves: Letteras 31, 32, 33, and 35 (now hot-rod red).

Together we’ve opened them up and found out how they work — though he doesn’t care as much how they work, so long as he’s allowed to use them. He is, provided he follows the one and only typewriter rule, which he can recite on command: “No typing without paper.”

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that we are both quite young. Neither of us lived during the golden age of typewriter usage. As a boy, my only typewriter experience was witnessing my father attempt to figure out why the spacebar stopped working. The following month, we got a new PC.

Yet here I am, typing this out on my Lettera 35, my son next to me. He even helped me paint this particular machine, choosing the color and aiming the spray can. Similarly, when a 33 arrived DOA and required disassembly, he kept track of the springs and keys, retrieving the ones that went astray.

We don’t get geeked over computers. My laptop confuses him with its protracted booting-up and erratic freezing, and I’m infuriated by its poor quality: a separated shell, an easily broken keyboard. I give it three more years before it dies. Then it will be recycled, along with the memories of college nights spent knocking out papers hours before they were due. All that will be lost when that witness goes to the grave. But typewriters? Machines built to last will be here seemingly forever. And so they remain as a testament to my existence.

My son climbs on my lap and types “Z” with a tiny but strong index finger. With a little help, he goes on to the “A” key. That he never finishes his name doesn’t matter, nor that he becomes lost upon seeing his favorite letter in the alphabet: “X.” For the moment, we’re just a couple of kids, sitting like real writers at a writing machine.

Top photo by the author. Typewriter photo by Vince Palazzolo.

Elliott Fitzgerald McCloud is a writer, poet, lyricist, alchemist, and partner in a timeshare on Hyrule. He earned his BA from Wayne State University in English. Since then he has worked and written in the fast food and medical industries.

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You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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