Nostalgia and the Typewriter


Nostalgia is tricky. You can bath in it or just feel it as a gentle rain. It can hold you and put lead in your shoes or awaken you and set you running out the door. As with any memory, it can rise from all of your senses. An aroma on a street corner is as likely to stop you short as the feel of a certain fabric between thumb and forefinger. And always, there is that moment of decision. Hold the memory or just let it go. Yea. It’s tricky that way. 

Nostalgia isn’t the sole domain of the old.  Ever hear a child wish for something they once had?  No, from the moment a soul can know past, present and future, nostalgia is a fact in that life.  A wish can be a memory.

Currently, I have the freedom to access life randomly.  I know how special that is.  This is how I stumbled upon a documentary called, “California Typewriter.”  The title alone intrigues.  It is about the relationship between the proprietor of one of the few remaining typewriter repair shops and sculptor who dismantles typewriters to create his art.  Most importantly, it explores a small but persistent collection of people who own and use typewriters.  Analog revolutionaries. 

In the course of one interview, the typewriter repairman talked about the quality of Olympia portable typewriters.  Made in Cold War West Germany, they are still considered the Mercedes Benz of typewriters: solid, reliable and timeless in design.  What? I thought.  I have one of those in my basement.  

At first, out of curiosity, I went to my basement and dug out the leather covered case.  Heavy.  Very heavy.  Once in my hand, I remembered all the times I had moved with this typewriter.  Nostalgia creeps in from every sense.

I pulled the typewriter from its case and put it on my basement workbench.  Ah… above the carriage it says De Luxe, whatever that means.  Above keys the Olympia brand is sandwiched between two labels.  The one above says in red and green script, “Stockwell and Binney – Complete Office Products.”  Below, “Hawken Office Equipment” with a full address in Redlands, California.  The first was the place my parents must have bought the typewriter in Indio, the second is where I had it serviced when I was at the University of Redlands.  Reference points.  Road markers.

I recall the typewriter was a gift for the first kid on either side of our family to go to a University.  1974?  What strikes the most about it now, is that it must have been an expensive choice.  In a family that values and respects cars, gadgets and all sorts of mechanical devices, it would have been my folks choice to get the best they could afford.  I didn’t know that then, but knowing it now humbles me.  

I am a bit of a packrat.  I box my history for future reference.  When I bought my first home in 1990, my dad and Uncle Jim (that’s right, Uncle Jim, Father Jim, Grandfather Jim.  A family tree littered with Jims) brought up all the boxes of my stuff, a pick-up full, for my new basement.  But the typewriter, it was always with me.  Up and down the west coast, to the east coast and back.  It was ballast for all my moves.

Right there on my workbench, I slid in a piece a paper and started to type.  The action of everything was mushy and slow.  I went to my computer and found the two remaining typewriter repair shops in Portland.  The nostalgia door open, I jumped in with both feet.

As I sit here quickly banging out words on an IMac, an admission, I can’t type.  I took a class in high school.  I was awful.  I tried to practice on the Olympia, no dice.  Early papers were slowly, painfully typed on a special paper that allowed you to erase mistakes.  I couldn’t type a line without a mistake.  Mostly, my girlfriend in college, Megan, typed my papers.  Compensation was arranged.  And, I had a buddy, a strange genius from wealth who actually brought an IBM Executive typewriter to his dorm room.  It was the most expensive, proportional font typewriter on the planet.  He typed 100 words a minute and was paid in cash.  

When I worked in Washington DC, I had an IBM on my desk.  One of those types with the letters on a ball.  The speed of the keys made me even worse.  I only began to type well enough with the advent of the personal computer.  God Bless the backspace key.

When you open the door of a typewriter repair shop you are overwhelmed with the smell of solvent.  It’s a reminder that these are mechanical devices.  The owner opened the case and nodded approvingly.  Confirmation, it’s an iconic portable, worth saving.  I spent a half-hour talking with Sam.  He has been fixing typewriters for 52 years.  “This one,” he said, “needs a bath…maybe two baths.”  He took me in the back to see two tubs full of solvent.  “Oh, yea, mechanical…of course,” I thought.

I am pretty sure that the last time I sat down to type a full page on the Olympia was about the time I first came to Portland, 1983.  In other boxes in the basement are stacks of paper from the typewriter.  Journal entries, short stories, poems, essays.  I have always fancied myself some sort of writer, that is why the Olympia always travelled with me.  In 1985, finally employed, I used all of my extra money to buy one of the first IBM clone computers.  The Olympia lost its purpose.

Revived and loved again, I brought the Olympia home, opened the case and put the typewriter on my desk.  The solvent had spared the two stickers.  I would have been crushed if they had been lost.  As I typed, the oil on the strikers and carriage was activated.  Words have a smell, the musty smell of an old book store, and now, I remembered they also smelled of oil and ink as they appeared on the paper in front of me.  Words have a sound.  Clack…Clack…Clack.  One letter at a time.

Writing is hard.  Typing is harder.  I am marginally better now, but my fingers have not known such effort for decades.  And the bell.  Left hand up.  Push.  Slide.  Back to the keys.  Damn…two strikers at once…unstick them.  In a digital world, where speed is both real and an illusion, actual typing is deliberate and strangely rewarding.  I typed random thoughts about my random life and when the page was full, I pulled the paper from the carriage.  There it is, laying on the desk.  Solid…messy…real.

Did I first type this essay on my lovely, smelly Olympia De Luxe portable typewriter?  Of course not.  I think faster than I can type on it.  But that isn’t what nostalgia is about.  In the week that it has been on my desk, within reach, it has been a time machine.  I can look at it and see it on desks, kitchen tables, on a door sitting on sawhorses, floating with me on a houseboat, shoved in the back of a pick-up moving again.  It has been a constant companion, an old friend I ignored for a very long time.  And, I now wonder whose hands will embrace it when I am gone.

Nostalgia is tricky.  It is a summoning.  It is very personal and sometimes shared.  Enjoy a revery now and again.  Let your senses lead you.  And when you are done, if you can, tell a story or two before moving on.

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