I’d actually discovered it years ago off the edge of a rugged BLM double-track, a portable with its plastic withered like mummy skin and half full of adobe mud. It seemed like an apt metaphor for a writer’s life, a mystery, a symbol of something, I wasn’t sure what. In any case, I liked seeing it there in the incongruous wilderness as I rode by, often as not pondering some knotty writing assignment.
I enjoyed the image so much I stopped on one ride and moved the typewriter to a spot inside the spiky, gray branches of a saltbrush, against the possibility that someone else might see it and cart it home. I could have brought it home – not easily on the bike – but I preferred leaving it out there, as you might leave an Anasazi pot you’d stumbled across. In the dry hills miles from any desk, it had a kind of talismanic power.
On this ride, though, Ellen decided she wanted to bring the typewriter home. She left me to my longer loop and went back for the truck. She had in mind a design-conscious friend of hers who had placed an antique Underwood on a garden table in her leafy side yard in Santa Monica.
I didn’t use a typewriter when I started freelancing in the 1970s – to compose, that is. The pieces I submitted to magazines and newspapers had to be typed, of course. But I didn’t think I could do the creative part, actually come up with sentences and paragraphs, on a keyboard. I wrote everything out longhand, then retyped the pages for the editors.
This was precisely the way the inventors of typewriters saw their machines in the mid 19th century. As a way for skilled secretaries to take dictation, or render flawed handwriting legible. An early Italian model was created for a blind countess who couldn’t see her own scribbles. In 1870 Friedrich Nietzsche’s mother and sister bought him a Danish “writing ball” for Christmas. The letter keys were arrayed on top of the contraption like a big pin cushion. Nietzsche hated it; he couldn’t think and write at the same time.
In this I may have taken after my own mother. Her first-ever job was a day (it was 1940-ish and she thinks she earned $1.50) of paid typing for a university professor in Berkeley. In high school she had made herself a fast typist by retyping stories from Reader’s Digest. When the call came to the high school for a good typist, they sent my mother up to the big campus.
The only trouble was, the assignment mostly involved typing figures in columns. And there were multiple carbon copies. Mom remembers an agonizing process of peeling back the various sheets, erasing carefully every mistake. She got it done, but I think she was traumatized by the experience. To this day she writes everything in expansive longhand; I’ve never seen her type. She doesn’t have a computer, doesn’t do email. She refers to her daughter-in-law’s laptop as “that white box.”
I got over my keyboard phobias. I pretty much had to as Word took over the world. But I wonder sometimes if the punching of plastic keys doesn’t somehow steal a piece of the writer’s soul, the way Native Americans feared the camera lens robbed them of theirs.
When I got home from my loop, Ellen had already placed the fossil Smith-Corona on top of the garden wall. Saltbrush seeds filled the spaces between letters, and the typebars all clumped together in a rusted fist half-way to striking the roller.
I like it there. It’ll remind me every day of the George Booth cartoon in The New Yorker in which a man sits in front of a typewriter on his dilapidated porch and his wife scolds from the doorway: “Now hit those keys!”
Ellen had nothing of the sort in mind, I’m quite sure, when she brought this one home. Just the same, I’m hittin’ ’em.