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Of Typewriters and Time

cropped-old-typewriter.jpgNoisy Typewriter is software that makes the sound of a typewriter when you hit computer keys. It produces a comforting clack. When you hit the backspace key, it makes the sound the typewriter would make, sort of an errrt. When you hit the tab for a paragraph, you get a ding just like returning the carriage. When you hit the arrow key up or down, you hear the sound of the roller as though you were loading paper.

I love this program. In fact, from time to time, it stops working, sort of decides to go outside for a smoke. Or I have turned down the computer’s speaker volume. In any event, silent running is now unsettling. But it’s easy enough to coax it back to clack.

It took only a short time for me to become addicted to the sound of the keys banging. It’s a DNA thing. My writing life started with the typewriter. I started composing with the typewriter rather than a pen. I did not realize how much I missed the sound. The only analogy I can think of is comfort food. It’s like having grown up having meat loaf once a week. Then for like 30 years you go without meat loaf. Then suddenly, it’s there on your plate. You don’t eat so much as devour.

The typewriter sounds spark all manner of nostalgia, particularly of the newsroom and the machine I used, an Underwood from the 30s or 40s. It had many a user. From what it weighed, I figure the metal could be melted down for a Volkswagen.

I was obsessive about gunk in the keys. I wanted crisply struck letters. I also wanted to procrastinate. I felt I had to rid my copy of ink-filled “o”s and “e”s. The “e” was a serious problem. I used chemicals to clean the keys, which spread with a toothbrush. Later, there was a gummy ball of clay-like material that would clean the keys. It was a ritual. At least I did not invoke  incantations or mantras.

I was also obsessive about my glue pot. The paper bought rubber cement by the gallon. The glue was poured into plastic jars. The  jar top was attached to a shaft with the brush at the end. You used the glue to attach sheets of copy paper. One story thus could have several sheets of copy paper — this is newsprint cut to size that was somewhere in between regular eight and half by eleven and legal size. The advantage in gluing pages was in the fact they didn’t get lost.

When rubber cement is exposed to air long enough, it hardens. This is a bad business. Some reporters took advantage of this characteristic and rolled gobs of glue into balls and used them as projectiles.

The daytime shift was usually 9 to 6, and at the end of the day, there were 20 or 30 typewriters giving full voice to the orchestra, writers hunched over their instruments — except for AJM. He never looked at the copy he was writing. He raised his head high as though he were Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, turning his head left and then right, swaying to a music only he could hear. His copy, however, left much to be desired, and the last I heard he was working at a Circle K. He was not the first such newspaperman to wind up tending a Circle K, and for a while I wondered if that was where all of us would wind up eventually. In those days, you didn’t take much of a pay cut when you landed behind a Circle K cash register.

Just to round out this little nostalgia waltz, I want to point out that I still have the pica pole first given to me when I started at the Star in 1971. My name is engraved on it. This was done by Swanee — one Porter Swanson — the Star’s librarian, a very nice man with many fine qualities, none of which, I suspect, included library skills. I also have my scissors from the time, a pair of exquisite shiny chrome with an edge that has held for 40 years.

Finally, I must mention the reporter’s desk. This is a custom I have preserved in old age. I am amazed at the amount and quality of flotsam that unconscious hands seem to broadcast on my desk. At least I do not eat over my keyboard. I recall vividly an editor one early morning in the newsroom using a full-sized vacuum cleaner with hose to extract what must have been a ten-year collection of bits of  pizza, sandwiches, hot dogs, Pepsi, coffee, tea leaves, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Jack’s Barbecue from the keyboard of a recently departed reporter. It took her much longer than she would have liked.

One reporter, DW, who was both dyslexic and a slob, was famous for her desk. The janitorial staff was directed not to clean reporter desks because there might be precious material buried among the three-week old newspapers, scraps of paper, tin foil and doggy bags. I know of no Pulitzer Prize that was buried in garbage. Nonetheless reporter detritus was allowed to accumulate on desks. This consisted mostly of pizza boxes, scattered rather than stacked, and containing gobs of now-hard cheese, sausage and pepperoni. In between the pizza boxes were square Chinese take out boxes, half filled with fried rice, moo-shoo pork and kung-pao chicken. The desk itself was known as D’s landfill. Sometimes an editor with authority would leave her a note to clean up her desk top. She threw these away, muttering to herself that she possessed no desk pot.

I have seen many newsrooms, and they are typically in great disarray. Some reporters, of course, are worse than others. But the most startling newsroom I ever saw was in Fort Lauderdale at the Sun-Sentinel. Every desktop was clean. As a whistle. There were no newspapers, no pencils, no nothing. I asked my guide if this was an insurance office rather than a newspaper. He said the publisher had ordered all reporters to clear their desks or be fired. I could only shake my head. It was just one more piece of evidence to add to the great pile I had collected over the years and had led me to the unshakable conclusion that newspaper publishers of my time, with rare exceptions, were a brain-dead life form.


From Bunny Fontana:

I taught myself to type on a Remington standard when I was still in elementary school: three fingers and a thumb at a time.  That’s the way I type today.  I never learned the keyboard and still couldn’t type blindfolded.  But I can whack out about 70 wpm.  And have whacked out millions of words over the years.
Hazel used a typewriter almost to her dying day.  She never touched a computer.  She had her typewriter mounted to a board attached to the handle bars of her stationery bicycle, and typed letters to family members as she pedaled away.
They were wonderful machines, bells, black-and-red ribbons, and all!
Thanks for the memories.  B.


From Adolfo Quezada:

This post prompted a lot of memories of the Citizen newsroom in the 70’s . Funny, sad, I miss some of it.

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