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The IBM Selectric Typewriter Changed My Life
2002-04-17 16:41:30


The M Files
 
It seems I've fallen into a pit of booze and can't get up
-- Johnnie Royale

 

I ran my hands lovingly across her frame, lightly brushing her metallic nipples with my fingers, admiring the shapes and the ways of her curves, the empathetic hum she produced as I had my way with her, the way she made it all seem so effortless and right... she didn't even seem to mind the way I roughly manipulated her knobs and tweaked her casing. She was extremely tolerant, for a typewriter.

You never forget the first time you fall in love. For me it was 1984, and I was buzzed out of my skull on an entire box of Vivarin washed down with cheap screwtop red wine. I was a young junior college journalist desperate to come to grips with his first assignment: reviewing a lute concerto. Just when I thought I was completely doomed and would have to resort to a staccato, textbook inverted pyramid account of the horrid thing I was trying to write about, I touched her in all the right places and she rewarded me by willing my hands toward a weird and unsettling fairy tale that scarcely touched on the lute or the lutist, and rightfully earned me a reputation in the journalism department as some sort of quick-witted mutant who would never be considered either reliable or insensate enough to be sent out on routine stories, for good or ill.

Nowadays I've got that reputation wherever I go, which basically means I'll never work for a McClatchy newspaper, and hell, I owe it all to the IBM Selectric Typewriter. Because it was a weird machine, and you had to be weird yourself to make anything good on it. There was only one of them at the time in the Pierce College journalism department's newsroom, and I jealously guarded it like a hoard of pirate jewels.

The rest of the place was filled up with clangy anonymous machines that were really only good for banging out sports stories, or filling out time sheets. The IBM Selectric could make you want to write strange odes to Japanese fishing villages you'd never even heard of, only imagined. It had a little type ball instead of the normal typewriter configuration of long metal arms tipped with letters, which tended to get stuck every few minutes and kludge up whatever process you were getting into. The type ball was a very elegant solution to an old problem; change the font to bold or italic, serif or non-serif, and no sticky rods to disengage when the typing jones got a little wild or out of control. No, I could have typed 300 words a minute on the Selectric, had I been able to move my hands that fast, and she would have obliged lovingly. The Selectric simply demanded more from anyone who dared to use it.

I don't remember much else about that night, aside from the Vivarin and the Selectric. The whole room had turned yellow, just like the box the pills came in, and I kept having to go outside and walk around the building very quickly every five or ten minutes. But I do remember finally coming to reluctant terms with the pressing need to file the story, and when I finally sat down at the machine and emerged from the hazy inclinations of my intricate fascination with the beast, I began to write, slowly at first and then much more rapidly, using only two fingers and one thumb, as I still do to this day, and then I quickly realized I would never actually be One Of The Boys:

The lutist appeared from stage left, walking diagonally toward the audience with a woozy gait that suggested deep psychic scars or some sort of barely controlled inner frenzy. He appeared to have many scabs from self-inflicted wounds, but when he began to play his instrument, the emotions of the piece, whatever the fuck it was, combined with the man's self-evident talent to produce a brilliant noise that left most people in the audience openly weeping, some tearing out bits of their own hair, or that of someone sitting next to them. The old dowager to my right said she hadn't seen such a thing since the Great War, and when I asked her which Great War, she began thrashing about like an epileptic and had to be dragged away up the aisles by her ankles, at the hands of burly men who appeared out of the shadows like assassins. That's when I began to notice that the entire place was swarming with crickets....

It went on like that. Hundreds of words about crickets and blood and hypnotic lute music that caused otherwise normal people to hurl themselves about like Shakers. It was unprintable, of course: the copy editor cut the whole thing down to 200 words and played up the bit about the crickets interfering with the performance, and massively rejected everything else about the piece. Not that I blame her one bit, although she did everything she could after that to maintain at least 10 feet of distance between her and I at all times.

And I owe it all to the IBM Selectric Typewriter. I once said that if I could take only one thing with me to a deserted island, I'd take an IBM Model M keyboard, but hell, an IBM Selectric could not only outperform a Model M on pure typing ease of use, it would crack coconuts far more efficiently as well.

So think about that the next time someone offers you an Underwood, or, shit, an Olivetti or whatnot. You think you know all about typewriters, but you haven't become Human until you've used the IBM Selectric.

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

lurid@pigdog.org


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