2018 Theme Issue: Keepsakes
In 1964, my uncle Bob, the sweetest of my three uncles, gave me a Smith Corona Galaxie II manual typewriter for my 19th birthday. I kept it for 30 good years, until, finally, it collapsed and died of old age. It had gone through many operations, transplants, bypasses and shunts until it just couldn’t hold up any more. I hardly recognized it at that point, it had so many additions from so many other machines—terminally ill typewriters that had selflessly donated their parts so that other typewriters might live. Still, it was a dark day when, with sadness and solemnity, I let it go. It had been the most loyal, most steadfast of companions through my years of struggling to write. Always there, no matter what time of day—pre-dawn, midday, early afternoon, late night—it was, ready, willing and able. I would open the clunky metal case, and those white keys were poised, at strict attention, as if to say, “Come on! Let’s go! What adventure are we going on today? Go ahead, just pound my keys! That’s what I’m made for!”
Pound those keys I did. I’m not an accomplished typist. I type with two fingers, but when I get going, I’m a dervish. I type with a vengeance. I type hard. I come down on those keys. It’s almost as if I were furious at them. I love typing like that, with gusto, and I think that’s the way typewriters are made to be used. That kind of behavior doesn’t work with a computer. It sounds unnatural to type with great force on a computer. In fact, the softer the clicks you make when you “type” on a computer, the more accomplished it seems you are. No, they’re different worlds, the typewriter and the computer, different galaxies. The simple fact that a computer has a keyboard is virtually meaningless when comparing the two. When you strike a computer key, the result goes into inner space, into thin air. When you strike a typewriter key, though, the result reverberates on and on. It’s very Gutenberg-esque. The key you strike in turns activates a slim metal arm, the head of which slaps hard against the page. It makes an impression of a single letter, a dark inky impression, an impression from type. That’s because at the head of that slim arm is a letter carved out of metal, one of the wonderful twenty-six of our alphabet. (It occurs to me that many people under the age of thirty-five have never even seen a manual typewriter.) Each is distinct and reusable, just like the ancient typesetter’s box of moveable type. So, when I type, I’m actually printing. I’m not only thinking of the words as I write, I’m fashioning them on the page as well. I have an emotional, artistic and physical stake in the page.
A manual typewriter makes noise. It’s a good noise. It’s a noise like a hammer striking a nail, like an ax cleaving into wood, like a shovel thrust into the earth. It’s a good, healthy sound, like the sounds much manual labor makes. For that’s what typing is, in its way—manual labor. The impressions the letters leave on the page, after striking through the slim ink-infused tape that winds its way from side to side and raises itself just as the key bears down, have personality, character and body. They even bleed; they’re inky blossoms. Every make of typewriter, like every species, has identifiable characteristics, the most prominent of which are the keys. It used to be that in detective stories and movies, letters written by criminals on typewriters often provided clues. The first, of course, was the make of the typewriter. The type on the letter identified it. That could lead the investigators down a narrower road: in what part of the country was this model of typewriter sold? Was it sold exclusively in certain shops? And so on. That little plot device is gone, of course, because typewriters are themselves gone for the most part, but you can still see it played out in old black-and-white movies. What individuality is there in computer fonts? Times New Roman looks the same on a Dell as it does on an HP as it does on a Toshiba as it does….and so forth. The type on my Smith Galaxie II produced impressions that were like no other—except other Galaxie II’s. A typewriter aficionado, experienced in these matters and passionate, can identify the type of a Remington, an Olivetti, a Royal. I can see in my mind’s eye the elegant, petite type of an Olivetti.
It gives me heart to learn that the writer Larry McMurtry always has about twelve manual typewriters on hand when he works. He never has, and never will, use a computer to write his books. When he accepted the Golden Globe Award in 2007 for best screenplay (Brokeback Mountain), he said, “Most heartfelt, I thank my typewriter. My typewriter is a Hermes 3000, surely one of the noblest instruments of European genius.” It may be hard for a computer user to think of McMurtry as serious, but, oh, I know he was.
It was also lovely to read that Cormac McCarthy sold his Lettera 32 Olivetti manual typewriter at auction for $254,500 in 2009—all proceeds going to the Santa Fe Institute where McCarthy often stays and works. Rare book dealer Glenn Horowitz, who handled the auction, told the New York Times, “When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.” McCarthy bought the Olivetti in a pawnshop fifty years earlier for $50.
I typed I don’t know how many thousands of pages on my Smith Corona Galaxie II typewriter through the years. I typed the manuscript of my first book. I remember holding the typescript lovingly before I sent it off to my agent. It was just 100 pages at the time, eventually grew to be 203, but it was all typed, every single letter, every word, slapped on the page by me and my Galaxie II. I typed essays and poems—a poem looks so good typed! I typed stories and laments and so many bad pieces of writing. But even bad writing has a kind of basic dignity to it on the typewriter. Letters, I typed, as well. When I think of the places I hauled this heavy thing in its case—in countless cars, trains, airplanes and ships—I marvel. At the time, it seemed perfectly natural—and necessary.
Then, as I say, as the years went by, my beautiful machine began to have troubles, as even the best-wrought machines will. A key faltered, one of the heads of a letter weakened and fell off; a little plastic piece that moved the roller disappeared. Each time, I took my Smith Corona to a repair shop. Some shops, like doctors, were better than others. Sometimes the machine came out the better for the surgery, sometimes worse. Then there came a time, after 30 years of loyal service, when nothing could help it any more. It was too weakened. When that day came to say goodbye, I was inconsolable. Still, it was time. It was a shell of itself. I kept it for a year or so, in some closet, but one day when I was moving, I threw it away—an ignominious end. But what could I do? Bury it with a marker? Perhaps I should have.
After my period of mourning was over, I thought about getting a new typewriter. I was living in New York. But now it was almost 2010. Everything had changed since that day long ago in 1964 when I received the great gift from my uncle. I was like Austin Powers, awakening from decades of sleep, to find my habits, my yearnings, out of place in this brave new world. It was impossible to find a new manual typewriter for sale at a store. No one made them any more. Yes, you could buy a typewriter in a store in this age of computers, but they were all electric, and even that selection was small. I didn’t want an electric typewriter. I’d tried them occasionally and didn’t like their hair-trigger sensibility. If you just as much as looked at the keys, they would fly off. They took control, not you.
I went on eBay and Craigslist. On eBay, I saw three or four used Smith Corona Galaxie II’s and took heart. I ordered one. It was cheap, not more than $20. It came, and it wasn’t right. The print on the page was faint. I got a new ribbon. (Yes, you can still buy typewriter ribbons in a store.) The print was still faint. The same thing happened with the next three Galaxie II’s I ordered from eBay. What was this, an epidemic—a kind of mechanical Spanish influenza sweeping through the typewriter world, or at least the world of used Smith Corona Galaxie II’s? Only later, did I learn the reason why. It was the roller. A roller does more than just move the paper forward. It’s infused with something—I couldn’t find out what—that helps the key leave a good, sure impression on the paper. If it dries out—and it eventually will—the print will be faint. I became discouraged. I began to think of giving up my dream of finding a Galaxie II to replace my late, lamented companion.
Then I got very lucky. A friend of mine let it drop that she had bought a used manual typewriter from someone, and she was very happy with it.
“Where? When? How? What? Who?” I sounded like Journalism 101.
A place on lower Fifth Avenue, she said. Please, I said, may I have the address and phone number? She gave it to me. I called.
“What exactly are you looking for?” the male voice at the other end of the line asked.
“Well, I used to have a Smith Corona Galaxie II for years, and I’m looking for something like that.”
He paused. “Wait…a minute.” I could hear him shuffling about. “I just happen to have one on my shelf right now.”
“Yes. Very good condition, too.”
“I’ll be right down.”
He did. It was.
He let me take it for a test drive. My fingers, so long absent from the keys of a typewriter, were maladroit at first. Then, like the classic bicycle analogy, it all came back. I started typing as of old. I felt as if I were behind the wheel of a powerful automobile. A familiar powerful automobile. I typed with abandon. I felt that old exhilaration, that pure, loud collaboration.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
He put the typewriter in its case. I paid. I took the heavy dark case in hand, felt the heft of this machine, and I left. I left with my new Smith Corona Galaxie II.
Hello, old friend. I’ve missed you.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kolby