I hear the sound deep in my head in all the moments when I'm just too fed up with how complex and crazy everything gets some days, the sound of mechanical linkages and levers in action, stirring the hammers into motion, beating the words into being against a ribbon and rubber roller.
I dream of typewriters, and the obsession bleeds from my dreams into my waking life, into every moment, and all I can think about is finding the exact typewriter that will set me free, that will come lurching forward in time from the era of the Beats to rescue me from all this digital madness, even if the roiling columns of bits and bytes are the only reason I've been able to become who I am, and tell the stories I'm telling. I close my eyes and reach out, and under my fingertips, there lies that perfect Hermes 3000 or the subtle, well-oiled magic touch of a grey and turquoise Olympia SM7, and it's all so much more than these imaginary words, floating in mid-air on a screen.
In my dreams, I can find my soul in these steel and plastic shrines to the modern word, in the atavistic presence of the machines that tortured my avatars, with Ashberry, Didion, Cheever, and Hemingway on their Royals, Kerouac, Faulkner, Thurber, and E.B. White at their Underwoods, Gibson, Dixon, and McMurty beating out their prose on Hermes 3000s, Michener, Dick, DeLillo, Ellison, Powell, and McNally clattering through their work on Olympias, and Sedaris, Irving, and Hunter Thompson thumping away on Selectrics. The computer is supposed to have destroyed that whole world, but there are still people on bicycles in the age of the automobile, and still people dialing rotary phones and having conversations indifferent to the modernity of the connection.
In my dreams, I step away from the chaos and endless emotional bookkeeping chores of this digital dreamland, pull up a chair at a perfect Hermes 3000, and set about changing the whole world.
My mother knew, and she saw the little two-tone Royalite portable at the multi-family yard sale behind our school and recognized an opportunity. It was expensive, and my mother was and remains a very thrifty woman, and yet, she handed over her cash, picked up the tiny typewriter in its tan faux-leather case, and presented it to me with a sparkle in her eye that I didn't often see in those years, when it seemed like all she could do for me was to rescue me from one misery after another.
I held the case, feeling like an expatriate on my way somewhere wonderful, unzipped the twin zippers with little faux-leather tassels, and revealed the small, but perfectly-formed, writing machine. I touched it gently, like a sacred thing, and examined it from all sides. On the back, a decal in an elegant font spelled out ROYAL McBEE NEDERLAND N.V. and MADE IN HOLLAND, and I was thrilled by the exotic origins of the lovely machine.
Holland, I thought. That's that country that made itself, and now typewriters, too.
I could hardly believe my good fortune. It was practically the best present anyone had ever gotten me, and it wasn't even for my birthday or xmas or anything, just something I got because my mother saw it and thought I needed it.
My father helped me clean it up and oil the typebed so that all the typebars moved smoothly, and took out the old, dried-up ribbon to replace it with a brand new one that smelled strongly of the tang of typewriter ink.
I rolled in a piece of fresh typewriter bond, studied the keys for a moment, and pecked out my first words.
This is Joe's typerwiter.
Hmmm. My first typo.
"Becoming a writer is not a 'career decision' like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days."
- Paul Auster (Olympia SM9)
There'd been a typewriter in the basement for as long as I can remember, a hulking, dust-covered black thing painted in strange wrinkly paint, marked IBM in stark letters on the front. I often wondered why my father kept it, though I eventually learned that he'd left his small town in Georgia to roam the highways of America repairing those typewriters and other ominous examples of mid-century office equipment for IBM, and thought maybe it was just something sentimental, or a repair he'd put off until it was far, far too late.
"Don't fool with that, son," he said, finding that I'd laboriously lugged the grimy monster from the sagging wooden shelves behind the basement workbench to the desk where his ham radio transceiver sat, tied into the whole endless world by wires threaded out of the basement and into the network of antennas he'd strung through the ancient oak trees around our house. I looked up, as if caught, and protested.
"I just wanted to try it out," I whined, but he just stepped past me, picked up the huge thing in one easy motion, and put it back in its place.
"Doesn't work anymore," he said, and that was last thing he ever said on the subject.
I carried my two-tone portable Royalite to school in its tan faux-leather imitation calfskin case with tassels on the zippers and felt impossibly sophisticated, even as all the other kids looked at me and said, "what's that, dork?"
"It's my typewriter," I said, in my haughtiest tone. "I'm allowed."
For a time, I'd come to each class, clear my desk, unzip the tasseled zippers, unfold the case with a grin and a subtle flourish, and lift out my two-tone portable Royalite almost like it was an Oscar statuette, centering it perfectly on my desk and rolling in a sheet of crisp typewriter bond with a kind of electric glee I could barely keep hidden. I felt like a writer, or like one of those breezy cub reporters in all the old black and white movies, getting set to write a story.
My teachers would roll their eyes.
I clattered my way through my classes in an increasingly skillful way, typing quickly, though in a way that frustrated my father to no end, because my fingers never returned to the home keys and the chaotic logic to the way I found my way around the keybed never made sense to him. In my classes, the sound was magical, a flurry of mechanical punctuation marks to the home ec teacher's endless droning monologue on the importance of keeping the sink clean.
"Mr. Wall," grumbled Mrs. Lanier, my math teacher, "can you please type a little more quietly if you're compelled to use that ridiculous thing in class."
"It's not ridiculous," I protested. "Erik Satie wrote music for typewriters, you know."
"Well, Mr. Wall, you are not Erik Satie and that typewriter is disruptive."
"But I'm allowed," I said, as the class laughed, "and I'm dysgraphic."
"Dysgraphic," she said, rolling her eyes, and turned back to the blackboard.
Hunter S. Thompson did it in front of his Selectric, having typed out one word before making his last call and slipping the gun into his mouth.
A funny thing, in its way, that.
I sat in English class, poised at the keys and waiting for the next word from my teacher, and followed closely behind her, click-clacking along in a symphony of little impacts that echoed back from the other side of the cavernous open-space "pod" where teachers were forced to endure the thunderous sound of three other classes in service of some idiotic seventies experiment in progressive instruction. The teacher dimmed the lights in our section of the pod, switched on an overhead projector, and asked us to copy, word for word, a whole sheet of text.
I loved such challenges, and my fingers sped through the words, going faster and faster until I hit the limit of my little Royalite. There was one thing you could do wrong with that typewriter, and as I sought more and more words per minute out of the machine, I ran squarely into it.
The S and the E typebars locked together, my fingers kept moving, and my middle finger slipped into the gap where the keys were jammed. I snatched it back and the sharp bottom edge of the plastic key sliced my finger opened.
"Ow!" I hollered, pulling my hand back to suck on my finger.
"Do we have a problem, Mr. Wall?"
"Umm…no," I said, knowing that she'd been gunning for my little two-tone Royalite portable in its imitation calfskin case for a while. The lights snapped back on, revealing my bloodied finger and a few bloody fingerprints on my desk and the grey keys of my perfect writing machine, and that was the end of everything.
"That thing is dangerous," she said, reaching over me to lift the typewriter from my desk. She carried it to her desk, zipped it up in its case, and put it on the floor, leaning against the wall like a noir street tough. "You can have it back after class. Now go see the nurse to get your finger attended to."
I stomped out of class as the other kids laughed, my jaw set, and knew my days in the typing pool might be over. I sucked at my fingertip, tasting the metallic tang of blood, and grumbled to myself.
That thing is dangerous.
Woody Guthrie's guitar carried the words "this machine kills fascists," on its face, and maybe typewriters should, too, warning the world of their inherent power and their potential energy.
In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of William S. Burroughs and Naked Lunch, effectively ending censorship laws throughout America and freeing every man and woman to speak their mind, most of the time.
Burroughs often said that, to be a writer, one had to have a boundless tolerance for the act of sitting in a chair, staring down a typewriter. He lived by his words, and had that boundless tolerance for a long, long time.
These machines kill fascists.
I leaned on the desk next to my professor, Rod Jellema, the founder of the creative writing program at my college, and I just felt smart when I was around him, because he saw something in my arch and appallingly smug poetry that made him take the extra time to talk to me after class and give me guidelines on where I was going wrong.
"I was just trying to express something of how it feels to be trapped in that line," I said, defending a particularly awful line in a poem I'd written about a laundromat, one of many, actually, because I'd come to see laundromats as the temples of my arcane world, places where everything became clear.
"Jesus Christ, Joe—please don't say 'express.' I hate that word. You 'express' toothpaste, or you ride the 'express,' but 'expressing' something is just a dodge used by the kind of people who call everything 'weird,' as if that's an adjective that's anything better than the word 'nice.' You're smart, you have a real gift of language, so don't let me down," he said, wrinkling his nose every time he mentioned the offending word. I recoiled a bit, smiling nervously, and his typewriter caught my eye.
"Wow, do you still use that old thing?" I asked, and his eyebrows shot up.
"'That old thing'? For god's sake, Joe, the history of modern English writing came out of 'old things' like that," he snapped, responding appropriately to my maladroit attempt to change the subject.
"Can I try it? I haven't used one of those in years."
Rod rolled his eyes, handed me a piece of paper, and I rolled it in, typed out a single line, and smiled.
"I forgot how hard it is to type on these," I said.
"Things are better when you have to work for them, Joe."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"There's something in the act of typing on a manual typewriter that clears the head, and makes you have to form your poetry in your head before you even touch the keys. That's important, you know, even if you've got word processors that can do everything for you but wipe your goddamned ass," he explained, and I shrugged, thinking him a luddite and a bit silly, even.
He got up, gathering up a sheaf of papers, and walked over to his old green file cabinet with shiny corners where the paint had worn away, adding the papers to a neat stack there. He peered over my shoulder, looking at the page, where I'd typed out a familiar line.
This is Joe's typewriter.
"Get your own, Joe."
The Royalite was never a particular high quality machine, more suited to writing letters and postcards from once-grand resort hotels than writing the great American novel my father kept telling me to write, and I turned out many, many pages of mediocre text before the keys started to jam and stick. One day, I had it perched on the corner of my bed, just put there while I looked for something under my desk, and in a sudden motion, it slipped off and hit the floor, ringing the little bell that signals when you've reached the end of the line.
It never worked quite right after that, and I'd gotten tired of wielding a paintbrush of white correction fluid, anyway. On the weekends, my father would bring home one of the workhorse Adler Satellite 2001 electric typewriters, and I'd sit there, rattling out my term papers, thrilled by the novel addition of a correction key. Sometimes, we'd head down to the office so I could get my hands on the real deal, sitting in front of a Selectric II or even my father's personal Selectric, which had a memory and more features than you could possibly imagine.
Those Selectrics were cold, faceless machines, with each keystroke sounding almost like a gunshot as the typeball hit the page, but man, oh, man, did they type well, and in whatever font you wanted, whatever magic typeface you could find in one of the little plastic boxes of typeballs.
This is power, I mused, working on the sprawling, incomprehensible script to the movie I'd decided I was going to make in high school, but even then, the wind was shifting. I'd started writing on our Apple ][ plus, somehow working around the fact that the Apple couldn't display lower case text (it rendered capitals as white, inverse blocks with the letter in black in the word processor I had), and once I worked out how to use cut and copy and paste, I was ready to leave the typewriter behind once and for all.
Sitting in front of a Selectric, I listlessly thunked my way through a page. Watching the hypnotic, lightning-fast action of the typeball, I had the insane flash that I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to block it with my finger. I reached in, touched a key, and felt as if I'd had my finger smashed with a hammer.
Sonuvabitch, I thought, sucking on the wounded digit.
The last typewriters in regular use at my father's company were all "wheelwriters," horrid daisy-wheel monstrosities that typed out of sync with your keystrokes, and I'd sit in front of them, trying desperately to work, but the disparity between cause and effect just kept me forever off-balance, cursing as the delayed action threw me off, and I gave up on the cursed machines for good.
For a decade, all my words were made of light, just traces on a screen.
The bank descended on us like locusts, coming to take everything—the business, my house, the house in Scaggsville where I grew up, and we ended up fleeing like refugees running for our lives with the packs of dogs at our heels. In the warehouse, I went through the stacks of Selectrics and hollered "this is all just a bunch of crap, just stupid Selectrics," as we made the hard decisions of what to keep and what to let go. Moving furniture, I knocked over a box of typeballs, which rolled under my feet, tripping me up, and I angrily stomped them flat, leaving a trail of broken Courier and Orator and Prestige Pica 72 in my wake, and I pitched perfect brick-red Selectric IIs into the dumpster, side by side with both of the rare Selectric Composer typesetting machines, and it felt wrong, but there was no time to stop and think in those days, no time to cry.
I climbed over the stacks of typewriters, thinking only to take one of the accursed Wheelwriters and slam it to the concrete floor from the upper level of the warehouse as if to say, "take that, you fuckin' piece of crap."
In the midst of all the chaos, it was a rare moment of satisfaction.
All my words turned to light, and that was the thing that made me, that made it possible for someone wired the way I'm wired to even ponder being a writer, and I wrote and wrote and wrote until I found that I'd become rather good at it, sometimes.
Every time I touch a manual typewriter, I find that it becomes my confessor, a tool with which to expose the truest details I otherwise hide.
I sit at my semi-functional Royalite or my 1929 Corona 4 and confess.
It's all so hard to say.
Should I have tried harder when I had a chance?
Why did things go so wrong?
Why not love
It's all just impossible.
Why not quit while you're ahead?
I think of the day that Rod Jellema told me that the best poetry in the world came from the pencil and the typewriter, and how silly it'd seemed then, how regressive and stubborn and pointless.
It's the effort, Joe. The invocation of words through actual work.
"God-fucking-dammit," I growled, sitting on Terry's couch with my laptop, trying over and over to get it to boot up. I'd come to think of my laptop as something like my old Royalite, as a simple machine with which to tell my stories, and it'd been that, for a whole year. "How can this fucking thing be broken in a fucking year?" I asked, saying it out loud just to hear the words that I couldn't believe. "Everything's so fucking shitty these days? Doesn't anyone care that everything's so fucking shitty?"
Terry did his best, but I was wounded by that failure, and the obsession started to swirl in my bloodstream again, insinuating itself into my bones and muscle tissue like some kind of potent drug, until all I could think of was leaving it all behind, just running away from those lighted screens and all the mental bookkeeping that's involved in using a computer, until all I could think about was how it'd feel to have a clean, freshly-lubricated Hermes or Olympia under my fingertips.
Making the best of the feeling, I dug the Royalite out of the basement, laid out a towel on the stovetop in my kitchen, and carefully dismantled it, stripping it down to its spidery essence. I cleaned and degreased and scrubbed every part, soaking it with a fresh coat of lubricant, washed the cast aluminum case pieces until they were fresh and bright, and put it all back together. It was so pretty I could hardly stand it, and I felt like I understood my mother in a way I often forget, and remembered how she'd known that that little typewriter would mean something, and that it'd be the start of something that even she couldn't fully imagine.
I rolled in a piece of crisp typewriter bond and typed out a single line.
This is Joe's typewriter.
No typos. I've learned a few things in these endless years.
Feeling confident, I started to type something more intricate and even more confessional, and the muscle memory returned to me like the tide rolling in, and I typed faster and faster, smiling until I was almost laughing, until the S and the E typebars locked together and my finger slipped into the keybed.
I snatched my finger back, noting the thick drop of blood where it'd sliced my middle finger.
My father traveled the country for IBM, roaming the old industrial sides of town after town, bending the typebars of countless hulking late-forties Electromatics and adjusting springs and cogs and belts and motors to make them all run smoothly. Growing up, it all seemed so insanely quaint, the idea of making words with such ridiculous equipment, of using such impossibly complex tools that all ended up in the dump in due time, and I walked through the Smithsonian exhibits on office technology with my father, giggling and pointing out all the things that'd been new when he'd been my age.
In recent years, I've revisited that exhibit, and found, to my horror, that all the tools I'd so proudly called the "wave of the future" were ensconced side by side with all the old ones, locked in history just like everything else.
Apple II computer, 1981, read the label, and I felt terribly sad that my future was someone else's past now, too, that a whole generation would smirk at me just like I smirked at my poetry professor and his well-worn Olivetti.
In the aftermath of the crash, the last place to go was the house I'd grown up in, the old log farmhouse in Scaggsville, and as we raced to beat the deadline, I explored the basement where I'd experimented in more ways than I could count, hunched over the workbench with my soldering iron or randomly swapping tubes in the old radio I salvaged from the dump, and when the place was mostly empty, I took a moment to write, in huge, scrawling handwriting, "JOE WALL LIVED HERE AND IT MEANT SOMETHING" on the back side of a floor joist near the furnace, where no one would ever see it unless they were sufficiently curious.
I'm not interested in anyone without curiosity.
As I looked around, I noticed the hulking black IBM Electromatic from 1947, still glowering at me from the sagging wooden shelves. I picked up the massive, ungainly thing, laid it down on the battle-scarred workbench, and unwound the cloth-bound electric cord.
Don't fool with that, son.
I switched it on, listened to the ominous humming the huge drive motor made, pulled up a chair, rolled in a piece of mildewed paper from one of the drawers in the workbench, and pressed the keys. It made a sort of angry graunching sound, kind of like the sound a pig might make on a particularly difficult day, and I tried again, but couldn't get anything out of it but more angry graunching sounds.
I reached for the carriage, touched the heel of my hand to a chromed piece of metal, and a hundred and twenty volts of household current shot through me. For a second, I just sat there, trembling and choking and going "g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g," in an unvoiced stutter, and then I flipped backwards, spun out of the chair, and landed on my ass on the dirty cement floor of the basement.
The hulking typewriter just sat there, humming angrily, and I heard my father's voice in my head, as clear as it'd been the first time he said it, saying "Don't fool with that, son. Doesn't work anymore," and the two of us had one last laugh there, alone in the basement of the home I'd grown up in, in front of that damn hulking refugee from another age.
When I left, I left the light over the workbench on, even though the hum from the fluorescent fixture always drove my mother crazy. It was time to go, time to let it go.
I've sat up nights lately, pecking out simple lines on my Royalite, just confessing everything to the typewriter, telling it my fears and my anxieties and my plans, typing whole worlds into being, a few words at a time, just like all the writers I've loved have done, and I wonder why it was not enough for Hunter S. Thompson, sitting there in front of his Selectric and the single word, counselor, at the end of the line.
I pick up the two-tone Royal Royalite my mother bought me sometimes and I can't resist the urge to hold it like you'd hold a baby, or a lover, maybe, to just gently touch the keys and surfaces and feel the reversed imprint of each letter embossed on the typebars, and it's all too much, just too much, that twenty-six letters and a bunch of little marks and squiggles could carry the weight of the whole world.
They're quite a fad, lately all the bracelets and earrings and other things made of the keys torn from all those Coronas and Underwoods and Remington Rand portables, and they seemed so pretty to me at first, before the obsession returned and I realized that they're all just like ivory, just like the teeth of elephants we slaughtered for piano keys and inlaid things, leaving the carcasses behind to rot in the burning sun. It's cheaper to buy a whole typewriter than the keys it yields, because as savage as we are as a species, most of us lack a taste and talent for butchery, and we know we're doing something wrong when we loom over a poor Underwood with pliers and wire cutters.
I reflect on all those glossy black typewriters scattered in the junkyards, stripped of their keys and left to soak in the rain until they rust into a solid mass of red, just ending their lives upside-down like dead horseshoe crabs, daydreaming of all the stories they once told, if machines can daydream.
It's so easy to keep leaving the past behind, as if there's nothing worthy but what's coming.
Maybe it's just me.
I'm a child of the computer age, and whatever I write will always eventually end up in the digital realm, but sometimes, I just want to step back, all the way back to 1961 or so, and let it all go, pull up a chair in front of a perfect Hermes 3000, roll in a piece of crisp typewriter bond, and do what all those who went before me did, beating reality into the shapes I want it to be with nothing more than the strength of my ideas, the interplay of bones and muscles and skin, and the help of one of the few machines ever invented that actually made new things possible, that set us all dreaming that everything could be true, that everything might be possible.
© 2005 Joe Wall