I Sing the Body Selectric *

A few years ago I bought a manual typewriter at an estate sale. I found it sitting ingloriously on a dusty basement shelf huddled next to coffee cans filled with nuts, bolts, screws, nails, spikes, brads, o-rings, split washers, shims and escutcheons.

I lugged the typewriter home and placed it on a shelf next to my computer. With a dried up ribbon and an unreliable space bar, it's more of a boat anchor than a writing tool, but I keep it as a votive to the art and practice of writing. Were I so inclined, I could don a fedora, light a Lucky Strike and pretend to be Dashiell Hammett waiting for a dame to walk through the door with a bad attitude and a hankering to catch her cheating husband in Room 109 of the Curl Up Motel wrapped in the arms of a cheap blonde he calls "Dollface." Or, I can use it to prop open a door.

Recently I noticed that underneath the gold "L.C. Smith" label is a faint shadow of the name, "Smith Brothers." Had a family feud separated the brothers, requiring a relabeling of existing inventory? No, nothing like that. But I did discover that the Smith clan started out by manufacturing guns. (The overlap between the two industries appears to have been common in that age--Remington made typewriters too). Thus, my L.C. Smith typewriter is related to a line of shotguns:

How about that marketing slogan? "L.C. Smith Guns are good guns -- for every kind of shooting."

I picture a salesman talking out of the side of his mouth: "I'm tellin' you buddy, you got any kind of shooting you gotta do, dis here is your gun, you know what I'm sayin'? ANY kind of shooting." And kudos to the copywriter who came up with the line, "When you feel the urge of the outdoors and must get behind a gun ..."

I was a member of the final generation of college students to use a typewriter for term papers--no laptops for us. I have hazy memories of typing into the wee hours of the morning, praying that the caffeine and the correction tape would last until dawn. Back in old-timey-time, moving a paragraph or untangling a hinky sentence took more than the few key strokes we now use to relocate or banish text. A typo or grammatical error spotted upon proofing forced some tough editorial decisions: Do I retype the whole page, or can I make a few judicious inserts that will fix it? I’m deeply grateful to live in this magical, digital age. However, I still feel the occasional twinge of sepia-toned nostalgia for the clickity clack ding of a typewriter.

Here’s a video homage to the typewriter -- my first mashup constructed from footage and audio culled from the internet archive (about which I wrote two weeks ago). From a vintage training film in the public domain, I extracted the extraneous to create a meditative distillation of choreographed sound and motion, interspersed with brief morality lessons.

* For our younger readers, the Selectric was the ne plus ultra of typing technology built by the International Business Machine company (a.k.a. IBM). The Selectric featured a golfball-like "pivoting type element" that could be changed to allow the use of different fonts. The Selectric became THE standard for offices everywhere, at least until the computer made typewriters obsolete.


Tim said...

I just saw an Olivetti Lettera32—very sexy little manual portable at a vintage store on Hawthorne. . .if you had that you'd feel like a Mastroanni (sleek, modern and oh-so desirably continental)

MightyToyCannon said...

Ah, Olivetti -- the typewriter that sounds like a pasta dish. If you spot a cherry red Olivetti Valentine (designed by Ettore Sottsass), let me know.

Unknown said...

Oh, man, I'd love to have one of those old clackety-clacks again. I used to have three or four, but they were all lost years ago in various moves. I love the emphatic splat of hitting those keys, although the computer's a MUCH better tool for writing, rewriting and editing.

On the rifle association, which I'd never thought of: A few years ago I had dinner with one of my favorite architecture and design writers, Witold Rybczynski, and his wife, who's Canadian. The subject of shotgun houses, those long narrow Southern working-class houses that are so-named because you could shoot a blast in the front door and have the shot go out the back door without ever hitting a wall, came up. Rybczynski's wife broke into a raucous laugh and said, "Americans! Who else would think of naming a house after a GUN!"

MightyToyCannon said...

Stan Foote just found two typewriters on Craig's List that he plans to use as props for the Oregon Children's Theatre production of "Click Clack Moo" in January. (My boat anchor was fine for the photo shoot, but too heavy for practical use on stage). One of them looks to be a mid-century Smith-Corona in a green shade that makes me suspect it was Army issue for typing orders in the field. As younger folks played around with it, they all noticed that it is missing a "1" key and an exclamation point. I had forgotten that a lower-case L served as the numeral 1, and an exclamation point was created by combining a period with an apostrophe. What a pain!

MightyToyCannon said...

Also, I completely concur with Bob's sentiment that a computer is a vastly more useful tool for writing. I can't imagine going back to the old-fashioned typewriter, though I wonder if it forced one to COMMIT faster -- rather than dithering around with word choices and order, etc.

I'm also reminded of footage from the Pennebaker documentary on Bob Dylan, with shots of Dylan in a hotel room or backstage banging out lyrics on a manual typewriter. Or thinking about Kerouac typing out "On the Road" on a single long, roll of paper.