Sunday, January 15, 2006

Alone Amidst the Electrons

I GO THROUGH PERIODS of my life where I feel like regressing technologically 40 or 50 years, particularly when it comes to writing utensils. I'm not saying I want to live in such a lost age permanently. I get an occasional pang of loss that can only be filled by a typewritten page or a letter scratched into existence via a fountain pen.

Such a spasm will take a predictable course:
  1. I will buy, or unearth from the depths of accumulated crap in my apartment, a fountain pen. Usually one of the Parker cheapies that takes an ink cartridge.
  2. In the same spend-or-rummage fashion, I will locate an ink cartridge and load up the pen.
  3. I will use the pen for a few days until it leaks all over (a) the paper, (b) my index finger and thumb, (c) my pants, or (d) all of the above.
  4. I will replace the pen where I found it in the tides of detritus in my apartment and grumpily steal a pen from work.
I feel myself getting pulled into that direction again. Not sure, in the limited amount of time I have before the Las Vegas trip, how I will slake this particular yen. I do own a manual typewriter, a Smith-Corona I snagged at the town rummage sale a few summers ago for a ten-spot. It is a portable model, packed into a mini-suitcase for easy transit. I wonder what the reaction would be at the Newark Airport security checkpoint when I cracked the case open. I could tell a dense guard it was a vintage laptop. And what would the tourist in the next room over from me at the Golden Nugget make of the tap-tap-tap-swear-erase-tap-tap coming from beyond his wall? A whole crop of youngsters exists that has never heard even one of those fusion typewriter-word processors from the Eighties.

I had an electric typewriter for the first couple of months of college. Although Boston College was progressive enough to have an Apple Store on campus, I had dragged my Sears typewriter up the Eastern Seaboard to school for my paper-writing needs. I had used a computer word processor before, via my battered Commodore 64 and the GEOS operating system software. Considering that I had to use a small color television for the monitor, finding space for it in the cinderblock mausoleum of a dorm room would have required a degree in engineering, not English.

I eventually caved and bought a Macintosh SE. BC offered discounts on Mac packages, and a number of folks on my dorm floor had them. I don't recall how I broached the topic with my parents, but somehow I made it plain that my lowly typewriter was far inferior to the combination of a Mac and and Imagewriter II. These two items soon made a home on my tiny dorm desk; the typewriter sulked in the closet until May.

Even then, though, I would attempt class note-taking with a fountain pen now and again, with the results I listed previously. A skipping, leaky pen was a liability in keeping up with fast-talking professors. So such fits were limited.

My occasional urge to use a typewriter, despite the total dominance of laser printers and email, still resurfaces. Before I bought the Smith-Corona, I spotted an IBM Selectric from my car while passing a garage sale. I snapped it up for a dollar, but found when I returned home that it didn't work. Getting it fixed would have exceeded the price ceiling I set on impulse buys, so I deadlifted the dud into the Dumpster outside my building.

When I saw the blue-grey Smith-Corona Super Sterling grinning up at me with its white keys at the rummage sale, I was smitten. Sitting in its travel case, it looked like an Enigma code machine. It exuded a musty scent of machine oil and platen rubber. The dealer said the machine was functional and would only set me back $10. I walked home for a Hamilton and a few sheets of paper. It typed; the bell still emitted a satisfying "ding" near the end of a line; so I paid and lugged it home.

For a stretch after that, I actually kept a typewritten diary. This required a trip to Staples for a suitable ribbon — all the local typewriter shops are gone the way of the fedora and the Automat — as the one included was light and tended not to spool. Mine was probably the first typewriter ribbon sold at that Staples that summer. I don't recall what distraction pulled me away from it, but I ceased after a couple of months. Possibly my horrid typing skills did me in. One tends to forget how infinitely indulgent of mistakes computers are. Perfection is but a backspace away — in my case, tens of thousands of backspaces. (My boss, who sits on the other side of my sound-porous cube wall, once complimented me on my rapid typing; I told her my delete key deserved the credit) In contrast, the Smith-Corona was an unforgiving iron taskmaster. Pages of that diary look like redacted scripts for some hastily rewritten sitcom, without the humor (just like real sitcoms).

When the blog phenomenon began to bloom, I had a crotchety idea of somehow keeping a typewritten blog. Not one made from a typewriter font like Schmutz — I figured I would actually type pages, scan them, and post them for folks to click and read at full size. Naturally, the content on such a blog would show up in none of the usual search options (although I suppose it could be syndicated if there was a title or even a date to be propagated via RSS, etc.). Aside from being a nifty gimmick, unless it was a known throwback like Andy Rooney or a crazed fancier of moribund tech, I can't see a blog like that thriving in today's interconnected, content-multipurposing world.

Still, it's a devilish thought. I do occasionally hear the Smith-Corona whispering to me at night, like the hallucinated bug-typewriters in the movie of Naked Lunch — itself a gem of typewriter fetishism. I let it out now and again to breathe 21st Century air. Typical of a Fifties refugee, it asks for a cigarette. I usually have to run a few pages of typing through it to take the edge off its jones, but I do sit a Mohegan Sun ashtray next to it, so it feels slightly at home, dislocated from its era and alone amidst the electrons.

1 comment:

Midwestern Deadbeat said...

Vintage laptop--ha!

I learned to type on an ancient manual typewriter, but I've never used one for writing, which strikes me now as incredibly odd. In undergrad I had a Brother word processor, which my family thought was the snazziest machine around (and certainly all they could afford). The damn thing didn't even have enough memory to store a single poem. I think that's what got me in the habit of writing longhand, and I thought I'd go to my death defending the inimitable feel of pen on paper, the way longhand forces one to slow down and actually *create* differently.

And then I guess I realized I was running out of time. I'm composing the novel directly on the computer (I too type super fast), and it's an entirely different experience--in this case, a better one. My comment is already too long to go into why, but it has something to do with the quickness--I think I'm less apt to edit and second-guess myself and more apt to "vomit forth." And, with a bambino on the way, anything that gets me to write more quickly is more than welcome.