At 13, my friend Linus is the most tech savvy kid I know. A young artist – visual and literary – he feels at home in a wide range of media. He’s been making movies, editing on iMovie and creating special effects with Adobe software since he was 8. The stories he writes tend toward the futuristic, often dystopian fantasies filled with inventive gadgets, hovercrafts, hidden cameras, remote communications devices, and evil robots. Even when words are his main medium, he draws on the technology available to him to envision and enhance the imaginary world he’s building. It’s fun to watch him move fluidly from building a virtual skyscraper in a Google illustration program to writing an action-packed paragraph and back again. For the others in the group, Linus is the go-to guy for all computer-related problems (or smartphone or iPods as well).
A few weeks ago, though, Linus turned heads when he walked into the cafe where our writers’ group meets lugging a large yellow box. He heaved it onto the table, unfastened the metal latches and revealed the object within: a vintage Smith Corona typewriter. “Isn’t that heavy?” I asked. “Hey, it’s portable,” he said, quotation marks hidden in his grin.
It was amazing how quickly the outmoded machine in the middle of our table became the talk of the Green Line Cafe. Linus soon found himself fielding a barrage of questions and expressions of admiration, interest, curiosity. Every one who came over to gawk had a story to tell, mostly about the typewriters in their youth. What was funny (to me, who got through college and grad school and even started a professional writing career in the B.C. era — before computers that is) was that most of the gawkers and reminiscers couldn’t have been much more than 30.
“Hey, I first started writing on one of these,” said a guy in a black t-shirt with multiple figures who resembled Marvin the Martian cascading down a flight of stairs. “And then I actually used a Word Processor. Ever see one of those?” He talked to my 13-year-olds like a classic geezer lecturing the young about the lazy ease of their existence. “It had a big black screen.” He widened his hands to demonstrate the unimaginable unwieldiness of his first computer. “Plus, the letters were bright orange. Bright orange! Freaky!”
Unhindered by memories, the kids just wanted to get their hands on this cool new toy. They reached over, grabbed for a turn, punched at the keys. Linus fended them off. He wrapped his arms around his precious machine and warned his friends about its fragility. I was impressed how much he knew about the history of typewriters. He recited the origin story of the QWERTY keyboard, designed to slow typing down. Too quick and the keys would cross, stick, break, he demonstrated. The kids and I then mused about cultural habits, and how our tools don’t always evolve along Darwinian lines, how custom can trump efficiency. We’ve inherited that keyboard, long after it outlived its usefulness. It has become a language of sorts, one we learn with our fingers. Our children’s fingers learn it too, even as they touch-type messages with their thumbs on electronic simulacra of pressable keys.
When I asked Linus what he liked best about typing — the process or the product, he answered without hesitation. He loved the act. The click and clack. The dance of the slender metal arms as they reach for the page. He hated the result. Too messy, he said. “If you make mistakes you can only type over them.”
I, on the other hand, found myself drawn to the look of the page. A typed sheet of paper has appeal. It has, for lack of a better word, personality. Not something I ascribed to it back when I was typing college term papers (in fact I cringed that my own WhiteOut caked bibliographies might reveal too much personality).
Again and again I’m reminded that loss is a lens that sharpens our view of the past. Linus, his view unclouded by past associations, can see his vintage machine as an object of wonder, more toy than tool, though I toy that’s treated with a measure of awe. Watching him play with his typewriter, I see its wonderfulness too. I admire anew the intricacy and inventiveness, the combination of delicacy and force present in a tool I once took for granted. Rich in history. Potent with possibility. Brand new.