Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Signore Olivetti

My first typewriter came from the same source as my first bicycle--my cousin. In both cases, Eddie had moved on to something more splashy and articulated. The bicycle, a Schwinn, had a book rack and red handlebar grips, the typewriter was a substantial Remington upright with a bell that rang seriously each time the right-hand margin was reached.

My inherited hand-me-downs were sturdy, the well-designed bicycle and typewriter, respectively, that got boys laughed at. By the time I had mauled and pounded the typewriter to oblivion, my father was firmly established as an auctioneer, which meant I came cheaply into possession of an army of typewriters that had seen duty for failed companies, companies whose assets had to be sold at auction to help repay creditors.

I'd worked my way through Royals, Underwoods, and Remingtons in my twenties. and then came my first brand new typewriter, a bright red Olivetti portable with large Bodoni font type. It was a typewriter I could and did take places, much as though I were anticipating the laptop computers in my life. After the clunky solidness of my uprights, this portable even sounded carefree, Italian, artistic. It became the instrument I think of when I think of typewriters. I got places with that Olivetti, polished it, took it to gas stations where I blew away eraser crumbs and gunk with the air hose, daubed away the filled bowls of e's, d's, and o's with a rag dipped in gasoline.

The Olivetti portable represented the same kind of freedom that having a car meant to so many of my peers; I could and did type anywhere at whatever hour I chose. Persons hearing me at work on that smooth red instrument knew I was no frivolous court reporter or secretary; they could tell from the very cadences of my keystrokes that I was, by God, a writer, driven by the insistent energy of someone who had much to say and who expected to be paid for saying it.

I did not keep track in those days, but I don't believe I exaggerate when I place the number of books written on that Olivetti at twenty. I had long since learned from other writers how to mute the end-of-the-line bell, starting with chewing gum and finally using a screw driver to disconnect the bell. Real writers didn't need bells, they felt the end of a line; they knew when to send the carriage back to the right-hand extreme.

Never a good typist--read accurate--I was a fast, steady typist who sounded accurate, who sometimes got to feeling he was at the keyboard of a Steinway or a Bosendorfer, who knew he had reached some plateau where the coordination brought the words down on the page with just the right pace. I could remove a typed page and insert a fresh sheet with a dazzling display of coordinated pizzaz. This was Eden, and I could take it wherever I went.

I took it eventually to a one-bedroom apartment just off the Barham Boulevard turnoff, as the Hollywood Freeway sped northward. I typed, smoked Camels, drank Chemex-filtered coffee and with the incessant sound of the typing attracted Sam, a serious cat. Like many things in my life, Sam was previously owned, but our friendship progressed to the point where I would have pawned this splendid red Olivetti to keep him in his favorite eats, Kitty Queen chopped kidney.
Not necessary. Somehow, the red Olivetti kept us in eats and with the rent not seriously in arrears.


But then one day, there was a knock on the door and when I opened it, someone carrying a huge box bade me a happy birthday and presented me with the second brand new typewriter of my life, and it was to cause a dizzying change. This typewriter looked and sounded suspicious from the get-go. This typewriter needed to be plugged into a wall outlet. In many ways, this typewriter was the end of innocence as such, a downward spiral that would end with a computer.

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