The last time I owned a typewriter was 1998. My job required attending a conference in Orlando, something that gave me the quite justified gut feeling that the cultural hothouse of Disneyfied everything would get to me. I needed a typewriter so I could write in my spare time. Even though my own office and nearly every other office I visited on a regular basis had a typewriter, I was still greeted with incredulous looks and variations of "You want a what?" at nearly every electronics store in northeast Nashville. Clerks attempted to push PDAs, bulky "portable" word processors, one person even suggested pens and a notebook if I really wanted to be that low-tech.
Service Merchandise ended up getting my money for a Brother AX26 word processing typewriter. It did what it was supposed to do. Sort of. It printed what I typed, or really keyed. In spite of its small size and the fact that it ran on both batteries and DC, it just wasn't a very good instrument for writing. Instead of the satisfying clack of keys as the words appeared on the page, it had a small LED window that displayed what was being typed and whirred softly as the heat transfer ribbon printed the line on the page as soon as I hit "enter". It was like the typewriter analog of every bland and bad screen adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story.
By the end of day two of being trapped in a place where the only television available was piped-in Disney and ABC programming and -sweet mother of Ganesh- no news, no ESPN, nothing to disturb our pretty heads with matters outside of having fun, fun, fun at the Magic Kingdom, the demure, purring response of the Brother was damned depressing. All I wanted was the loud clack of an Olivetti, the divine imperfection of something cooked in Memphis and served on Chinette with a cheap, jagged, poorly perforated paper towel for damage control, and music that howled at the existential horror of what it was like to live a Stealers Wheel lyric. This was the sort of thing that would have driven me to drink except I hate the taste of most alcohol and might have sent me into the night to do impolite things with amiable strangers if my default reaction to humanity wasn't a melange of scientific curiosity and abject horror.
I called the agency back in Nashville and the receptionist, a sweet, cheery young woman who was finishing her degree in Niceness at Belmont, answered the phone. I told her I was losing my will to live. She told me our boss wanted to buy me a ticket to Disneyworld. I declined. We all knew about me and costumed characters. The overly friendly freak in the Mr. Peanut suit in the Arcade was bad enough. I could not deal with an amusement park full of Those People.
At the heart of it all was this hateful little machine that was supposed to help me hammer out my words, Instead, It responded to every synaptic spark with a polite digital wave. I wanted to drop it off of something high onto something hard.
Fast forward seventeen years. I am happier, so zen that I'm almost mellow. Maybe part of that is due to almost two decades of composing and writing on a computer. As a dyslexic person, I know it's supposed to be much better for me, and yet there is the nagging want for paper and physical correction and the flinty conviction of clap-clacked letter. By now they are mostly viewed as a prohibitively expensive conceit for mannered throwbacks. I put the desire for a typewriter out of my mind and create in virtual space with moveable type that would have Johannes Gutenberg throwing holy water all over the place.
Well, that was the case until last Thursday. While walking through a thrift store, I noticed what looked like pieces of a typewriter sitting on the bottom shelf of half-price last chance type items. I almost kept walking, but decided that, at $2.50, it was worth a look. I took it to the electronics table to get a better look and test it out. The covers fit neatly back in place. It purred to life and the keys clacked nicely against the piece of notebook paper I'd rolled into the carriage. Unfortunately, the ribbon was shot, so there was no way to see -only feel- what I was typing.
Where ever this typewriter had been before, the retail display stickers had never been removed. Along with information about what the typewriter could do were instructions for running it in demo mode. I powered it down, pressed the code button, and turned it on. The machine seemed to whirr to life and began to clack away, hitting return as it smacked out line after line of text.
An older gentleman walked up to me.
"What's that noise?" he asked.
"A typewriter." I answered.
He stared at it and listened.
"I don't think I've heard one of those in twenty years. You gonna get it?"
I told him I was and I did. Even if I couldn't find the ribbons or if they were horribly expensive, the sound of that typewriter was something I wanted to experience every day. It was enough to be able to turn it on and hear the keys hitting the roller. Every time I told anyone about the typewriter, they asked the same thing: "Can I hear it?"
The two minutes of rapid-fire clacking brings back memories. For some it is of work-study positions or first jobs. For others, it is the memory of church volunteers and school secretaries who typed away while providing a sympathetic ear. It's the ghost of job descriptions that changed as soon as cathode ray terminals gave way to the ease of PS2 plug and play and a program named Windows that made IBM clones mimic the comparatively free wheeling hippy-dippy toy environment of Apple products.
Everyone wants to hear it work and they want to talk about it and that's fine with me. I love hearing what that noise evokes for different people.
My typewriter showed up in my life at just the right time. I was well into writing a play, the first I had written in almost twenty-five years. When the ribbon I ordered arrives, the rest of the play will be hammered out with a daisy wheel on a roller. That soul-soothing clacking will serve as an accompaniment for whatever stories my characters are bursting to tell.
copyright 2015 Jas Faulkner/Zen Dixie