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Typewriter Tributes

Machine, Quest, Ghost, River


B.J. Best

I guess it's all Chuck's fault.

Five men, some of whom I knew well, and some of whom I didn't know at all (including Chuck), decided to congregate in a northern-Wisconsin lakeside cabin in late February to philosophize and write--a pretentious idea to begin with. But within half an hour of our arrival, while the rest of us were still dithering and becoming acclimated, Chuck stacked up three cases from the copious quantities of beer we had brought. He produced a slate-green box about a foot square, took off the lid, and set his Hermes Baby atop this makeshift typewriter stand, dashing off several poems in rapid succession. Rather ostentatious, I thought, and too anachronistically hip. The typewriter itself even seemed painfully cool, with a above the 5 where the % should be, and one key devoted solely to the fractions of 5/8 and 7/8 --surely handy in everyday poetic applications. But after his initial warmup Chuck rejoined us in the philosophizing, returning to type as the mood struck. He never explained why he used his typewriter, but it his was sole writing device that weekend.

A year later, four of the five of us met in a different Wisconsin lakeside cabin with the same goals in mind. Cramped around a small dinner table and illuminated only by a dim hanging light and two red pillar candles in the middle, we pounded on our four typewriters with a frenetic jazzy staccato until two in the morning.

* * *

Even prior to meeting Chuck, I had a vague notion that since I had graduate degree informing me I was a Poet, I was required to own at least one typewriter. In fact, in some graduate writing programs, a typewriter comes standard-issue to every incoming student, along with a beret and twenty cartons of French cigarettes. But after meeting Chuck, I was positive: I needed a typewriter. The hunt began.

That May, the retirement community in which my grandmother lived held its annual rummage sale. The donors of said rummage? Tenants who had recently deceased and whose next of kin felt no real obligation to preserve the memory of their detritus. Thus you can get collectible plates for a dime and bathroom scales for a quarter. I bought a fifty-dollar coffee maker there for a buck. But I knew what I was really looking for, and my wife, Erin, found it first and led me to it, proud with her discovery.

There it sat: a Royal KHM desktop machine in battleship gray with glass-top tombstone keys. It looked quite heavy, and casually trying to pick it up, I discovered I was exactly right. I was searching for the price. I had no idea how much a machine of such intricacy and heft would cost, but since I knew this place always had great deals, I figured fifteen or twenty bucks. The round, white dot of a sticker was on the lower left corner, and inscribed in the gracefully unsteady hand of an old woman: $1.

I immediately heaved it up and cradled it awkwardly in my arms as I lugged it through the ridiculously long line (nothing speaks more of America than white suburbanites on a weekend trying to find a good steal on the crap of other white suburbanites, now dead) and out to the trunk of my car, strangely pleased with how the rear bumper now rode just a little closer to the ground.

My wife and her parents were still inside, so I returned, invigorated with my discovery. Pawing through old board games and puzzles heaped beneath the folding tables littered with weathered tchotchkes, I bumped against what seemed to be an inexplicably heavy plaid hatbox. Inside was an Underwood Golden Touch portable from the 1950's in honest-to-goodness metallic gold. Immediately next to that was a similar-looking case, but one that unmistakably read "Royal" on its top. A near-mint baby-blue Royal Safari laid waiting. Fifteen minutes after purchasing my first-ever typewriter, I stood in line with my second and third ones, confident I could justify the additional three dollars (the Safari inexplicably cost twice as much as either the Golden Touch or the KHM).

Erin saw me standing there. "I thought you already bought your typewriter," she said.

"I did. I'm buying these," I said, struggling to open each case while holding it on my arms in order to display my new finds.

She was not impressed. "What are you going to do with those?" she said.

It was an intelligent question. I would hear it again.

* * *

But when we got home, we took out all three machines and Erin, her brother, and I tried them out. We wrote ridiculous formal letters to each other, and when we all typed at the same time it sounded like the romantic notion of the newsroom of a metropolitan newspaper. "Go with it!" I commanded the others as I read over their shoulder, only wishing I had a cigar to chomp to go with my gruff editorial persona.

And go with it I did, suddenly finding a new reason to scour the thrift stores beyond tacky nautical-themed clothing. "Guess what I bought at the thrift store today?" I would ask Erin as she plodded through the door, wearily dropping her satchel on the floor after another exhilarating day of convincing teenagers they should care about things like hypotenuse.

"A typewriter," she would say flatly, then follow up with, "I see you haven't started dinner yet." Only the primary breadwinner of the family is concerned with dinner being ready. I was too busy wasting four dollars at a time and arranging more and more display areas.

She was at least grateful that I did decide early on to limit my spending to no more than $5 a machine, which immediately ruled out any temptation from the shiny antique-store models. I only cracked once, when I found a 1958 Smith-Corona Silent-Super in brilliant bubble-gum pink. Seven dollars was acceptable, I reasoned, since no collection is complete without something that's bubble-gum pink.

I adamantly refused to purchase anything electric, as that seemed to be entirely against the point of my burgeoning collection, whatever that point was. I also learned to eschew anything that wasn't in immaculate working order, defusing the obvious utter frustration stemming from my lack of technical competence in all things mechanical and more specifically my impatience in dealing with any mechanical part smaller than, say, a remote control. However, for $4 I couldn't pass up a 1948 Smith-Corona Sterling in crinkle-paint black with art-deco black racing stripes and an unfortunately non-existent carriage return. That night, after three hours of mangling various gears and winding apparatuses with a hopelessly oversized needle-nosed pliers, I successfully wound the motor and sat contentedly at midnight at my dining room table as the carriage crisply advanced one keystroke at a time.

The following evening as she again walked through the door, I told Erin, long beleaguered by my flighty inability to sustain significant employment, that I had a promising future in the fast-paced and high-tech world of typewriter repair. "What's for dinner," she asked.

* * *

Like any good collector, I know exactly how much each item cost, where I bought it, how old it is, and how much it is worth (never more than what I paid for it, sometimes less). My current count stands at twenty-three machines for $84. Coupled with the five given to me as gifts, that's a nice round average of $3 per typewriter, certainly far from the high-priced world of collecting cars or trophy wives. Of course, this cost doesn't include the continual stream of air freshening products Erin has put in what is now known as the typewriter room in a futile attempt to stem their glorious must.

Trying to pinpoint the rationale of the collection, though, has Erin left stymied and me with only a nebulous feeling that I am doing what is right. Pop psychological explanations of such an obsession (yes, I gleefully acknowledge the obsession) allude to child abandonment issues or inability to control other material aspects of one's life. But my childhood was blissfully banal, and I have successfully remodeled most rooms of my house without major medical bills.

I would like to say I use them all, and I have dabbled on most of them at one point or another. But my workhorse is still that Royal KHM, on which I composed a critically-acclaimed collection of unpublished poetry. To think like a writer you need to act like a writer and all that, but while at times I think like a pompous blowhard, I rarely feel the need to act like one.

Perhaps the mythos of the writing group we established provides a starting point. While writing, we smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, and listen to Monk, Coltrane, Davis, and Getz--in short, we do our best to become beatniks from 1957. The harmony of our syncopated keystrokes is indeed impressive. The sound announces very clearly: "I am doing something important!"--especially compared to insipid clicking while fiddling with the keypad of a laptop. It is significantly harder work to pound something out on a finicky mid-seventies Smith-Corona, pleasing in the way that all good, honest work is pleasing, and ripping a page from the roller is unquestionably more satisfying than watching an inkjet spit out a splatter of quick-drying goop. This physicality carries over to the page itself, a texture of impressions, particularly on the reverse side which becomes an inscrutable mountain range of commas and periods.

During that second gathering where all four of us were banging away, I used a $5 1941 Royal Model A portable--the same genre of typewriter Hemingway was known to use. I tapped out a thirteen-page poem called Crap, soon published as a widely-unread chapbook. My mom bought ten copies.

Ultimately, isn't that what we as writers would like to pretend? That we are the next Hemingway, riddled with firearms and unstoppable machismo as we concoct our brilliantly simplistic tales about ourselves only forty years older, wrestling with that which we cannot comprehend? We love Kerouac because he hopped himself up on coffee and Benzedrine and powered through On the Road on his Underwood in one long scroll. We do not love our abused second-generation PCs.

* * *

Last year in July the four of us returned to the cottage where we first met. Chuck brought one typewriter; I brought six. Joshua became enamored with the bubble-gum, and we have many amusing pictures as a result. Rob explored philosophical plays on a silver Remington Letter-Riter. Chuck plucked the keys of his faithful Olympia like harp strings. I wrote lovingly on my repaired Sterling.

We were finally able to take advantage of the lake and its environs instead of the smoggy, bottlecap-ridden cottage interior we had grown to love. That sultry Monday we decided to take a trip upriver--four men in two aluminum runabouts towing two canoes. We motored until it became too shallow, and then we canoed until we literally ran aground. It was, we figured, as good of a place as any. In the middle of three inches of iron-tinged running water in a river that was fifty feet wide, we settled our camping chairs in the loose shale, followed by wooden TV trays we had brought. Atop those trays we placed our typewriters.

My choice was an avocado-green Royal Sabre with a jumpy left margin. The trees leaned over the river in canopy and conspiracy. There were gorgeous, iridescent-green dragonflies everywhere, many of which were mating. The tall grasses on the banks whispered of a very distant thunderstorm while the cumulus clouds built up like cauliflower. We had brought sandwiches. The beer was cold.

I sat in the middle of this river, a July Monday in northwestern Wisconsin, a languorous river running as it always does, regardless of whether or not I'm there.

And then I typed.

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