Eschatology for Modern Living

The Death Rattle of the Typewriter

A great swell of sadness overcame me this morning after I had gotten myself a head full of peyote while watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I saw Hunter Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) sitting in his violently savaged hotel room typing away on his red IBM Selectric and I thought to myself, No one will ever do that again. No one will ever find themselves barricaded into a flooded hotel room typing about a generation of failed seekers because this is a generation of seekers who – they think – cannot fail to find the so-called truths which they are seeking. The internet and the personal computer has destroyed the mystery of the world, and – I’ve come to believe today – some of the mystery of writing. Almost every word written in the world today can be deleted without a trace before it is ever fixed in print. The typewriter was the last machine which fixed the Word permanently even as it escaped the writer’s mind.

These revelations in my drug-addles mind, I decided to escape the confines of my domicile and the internet for at least a few hours and write something that would – for better or worse – exist in print and not just the ethers of the world wide web, something that would not vanish with the human race, never to be found by future space-faring civilizations.

I owned already an antique manual typewriter: a portable Royal (pictured right) on which this is now being typed (at least in its first draft). But earlier in the morning I had already decided that I should set out to find an electric IBM Selectric – red if possible – and use that to honor the memory of the dear departed bard, Hunter Thompson.

Of course, the last Selectric model ever manufactured by IBM was made in 1980, and that wasn’t even the same model used by Thompson, so I was in for an adventure. I tried every antique and thrift store in town, tooling around in my beat up sedan, tires screeching, pedestrians screaming in mortal terror as I crossed their paths with grim death in my eyes: I was on a fucking mission.

After a lot of bad noise, I found that there was only one place in the entire city which eve sold electric typewriters of any kind: Goodwill. What a harsh trip, wandering through crowds of losers browsing over-sized twenty-year-old Bill Cosby sweaters, thrashed lounge furniture, urine-stained blankets, soiled coffee makers and vintage 1992 era computer hardware. Hell, I searched madly and desperately for twenty minutes through this cesspool of disease and despair, eventually becoming convinced that I had been misinformed by that motherfucker at the St. Vincent de Paul about the typewriters. Before I finally found the old crusters, I even found an ancient Polaroid camera with film still inside (I took a picture of my genitals and left it in the case for some poor unsuspecting bastard to find). By the end of the search, I was on the verge of giving up, and gagging from the foul odors that permeated the place.

Finally I stumbled across the old beasts sitting underneath other used office equipment. I shooed away an older Hispanic gentleman who smelled of oranges so I could get at them, and he stumbled down the aisle to get help from what I assumed to be his (burly six-foot-seven) grandson. They spoke in Spanish quietly, pointing at me with an incredulous look in their eyes. Shit, I thought, here it comes. I had to make a selection quickly and get the fuck out of there. I started tossing typewriters behind me in the aisle, looking for the fabled Selectric. Of course, there were none. I found mostly Smith Corona electrics circa 1975. As the gentleman of considerable stature lumbered towards me menacingly, I decided to grab the Smith Corona XE 1950 model (pictured left) and flee the scene. I sprinted to the front of the store, knocking over an old woman’s shopping cart on the way, and dropped the thing on the counter, paying with a wadded twenty dollar bill. “Yeah, yeah! Keep the change!” I shouted at the poor cashier as I ran out the door with my prize intact. The surly Hispanic gentleman appeared at the door, shaking his fist at me, just as I was peeling rubber past him in my howling beast of a car.

Christ, I thought. My troubles are finally over. Now I can go home, drink a six pack, snort some coke, an write a damn good page: a page that would be real, tangible and incorruptible. It would be a page never to exist inside the meta-god we called the internet, at least not in that draft’s form. And it would be a page that could never really be destroyed by the click of a mouse, or the stroke of a key.

I sat down at the dining room table, plugged the old saw bitch workhorse into the wall outlet, and flipped the power switch. I reveled in the loud whirring sound the thing made as it warmed up, and generally appreciated that I had just bought something that had a power switch and not some button or sensor or fucking touch screen. Then I slipped in some paper and began to punch the keys with my usual violence. My euphoria was short-lived, however, as I found that the fucking thing did not work at all. It was humming, but the keys were all dead, completely unresponsive. I pried the case open and went digging with the old toolkit in a vain attempt to stir the innards of the beast and get it jump-started, but to no avail. The thing seemed to be mechanically sound, which left only the possibility that there was some faulty electrical connection somewhere between the keyboard and the business end of things. With all the stuff floating around in my head, I was in no condition to start tinkering with something that could potentially electrocute me, nor was I in any condition to drive back to the Goodwill and buy another model (I had probably burned my bridges there anyway).

For a few moments I thought the whole thing had been in vain, that the written word had finally died with that crotchety old bitch of a Smith Corona. But I decided after a few minutes of catatonic despair that I would not give up, that I would get really archaic. I decided to dig out the old Royal that I knew was molding somewhere in the attic. I tied a rag around my face and climbed the ladder up into the dusty old lair, brandishing a dust pan at any would-be rodent attackers. It didn’t take as much searching as I might have feared. There the thing was in its ratty old green portable carrying case. I carried it down into the dining room, set the Smith Corona aside. I dusted the Royal off, fed it some paper, and got to work.

Now this was a superior machine. The experience of working its keys reminded me of driving a car without power steering after power steering was all you had ever known. Each punch of the key requires so much violent force and so much energy when it is all said and done, that by the time you are finished with the first page you feel you have to make every word count. A wasted paragraph at that stage is not an option. Who would want to make the fingers bleed and the cuticles bruise just for some useless bit of prose which would only be crossed out in the editing process?

It was invigorating. Every time I switched over to my Toshiba laptop to research something on Google or Wikipedia, or to find a picture of some old IBM Selectric (yes, there it is on the right), I found myself inadvertently pounding the meager plastic keys so hard that I was sure they would soon shatter under the force of my fingers. Switching back to the Royal made my blood run hot; the stainless steel keys with glass inlays covering the letter labels clacking under the assault of the fingers was a beautiful sound that I had not heard in person for too many long days and sleepless nights.

I’ve been working on this piece for over two hours now (in its original draft, that is) and I’m just finishing up the second page on the Royal. It’s not because I type that slow, but because I have stopped so many times to think about what I’m going to write. How many times do you normally do that when you’re writing on a computer these days? Hardly at all, of course. A computer-generated text can be tinkered with too easily, changed and changed back without enough thought or effort. Meanwhile, the typewriter is a pure machine which leaves the writer alone with his thoughts, unconnected from the internet and the electronic world. Furthermore, its a machine which forces the writer to be honest and hard-working, to be careful as he works the word. For that alone, I love the typewriter. And for nothing more than that, the typewriter will not survive in this modern world. The information age is choking this noble machine to death with its speed and thoughtlessness. The defiance of one drug-addled trouble-making blogger with a nostalgic trip dominating his morning cannot save the old beasts.

I can only recommend that from time to time all of you give one of the old bitches a try for old time’s sake – or, the gods forbid, for first time’s sake – and marvel at the pure creative urges that will surely wash over you and cleanse you. Please, if not for you, do it for me. Something is dying in this world that I would like to keep a memory of.

I’m reminded of a scene from The Road, Cormac McCarthy‘s savage tale of the post-apocalypse an a father and son who travel through it together. The main character’s son is a boy who was born on the eve of Armageddon and grew up in the apparent nuclear ice age that followed. In the scene in question, the father and son are wandering through a supermarket looking for edible food and potable water when they come across an unopened can of Coca-Cola. The son asks the father innocently, “What is it?” I was moved to profound feelings of sadness and sorrow at that moment in the story more so than any other. I mourned for the boy, who would never understand a marvelous shared human experience.

And if I ever have a son and if he ever finds a portable manual Royal typewriter in my closet and asks, “What is it?” that will be the day that I must go out onto the front lawn and eat a gun. But I would only do that after composing my will on this old bitch of a Royal and copying it in triplicate on my 1906 model Roneo Duplicator (pictured on the right, bitches!). The will would read something like this:

I am to be loaded onto a viking funeral barge with all of my worldly possessions. My wife should be tied to the mainmast of the ship before it disembarks. My Royal typewriter should be placed with reverence upon my chest with my arms crossed over it and my hands clasped over the keys. My friends and family should fire flaming arrows at the ship as it is launched into the Pacific Ocean with authentic Norse long bows. A viking mead hall is to be construct on the beach and my friends and family should celebrate my life and memory to excess by rinking copious amounts of mead, ingesting catastrophic doses of most drugs known to civilized man, and performing unspeakable public sex acts upon one another.

If only, friends. If only, dear constant readers. If only it were so…


One response

  1. I just spent Mother’s Day antiquing with my mom (she loves old junk). I have been a reader of Carl Hiaasen novels for some time now; many of his books contain a writer, or specifically a reporter, of some type and they inevitably use a Smith Corona typewriter. I had decided a few days ago that I really needed one, I can’t begin to explain the urge to own one, but it was there. I was telling my mom about the desire to own a Smith Corona while walking through the antique mall after seeing an ancient behemoth of a typewriter when (lo and behold!) I turn around to see a Smith Corona XE 1950 sitting there for $10. I’ve only used it enough so far to see that it does indeed work and surprisingly still has ink left on the ribbon. I’m 22 and have grown up with computers and word processors (I had a Commodore 64 in my room when I was in kindergarten), so I’ve never had the experience of writing with a typewriter.
    Long story short, I’m pretty stoked to start pounding out pages on my new (used) Smith Corona.
    Enjoyed your post!

    May 9, 2010 at 5:14 pm

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