Usted ama estas máquinas. Estas máquinas son muertas: una ficción del amante
Warning! This story contains badly translated Spanish
I was riding down Figueroa street, rolling down a decent grade through Highland Park when I saw it, at the top of the Highland Strip. It was an old route 66 storefront, with 1940's vintage business signage painted directly onto the brick: US OFFICE MACHINE. Let us be your typewriter repair center.
The paint was faded into varying shades of brown. Under the high-key flood of Santa Ana sunlight, everything was varying shades of brown, tan, and white. It was hot - a we-buy-in-bulk importation of the desert heat from across the mountains. On the bike, it was murder. I wanted to get home, retreat into my hillside hideout, before I photodegraded and was scattered in white boy pieces on the wind like a polyethylene grocery bag, little fragments of Anglo-Gaelic Igloowhite Urban Biker Action Figure plastic, as white as the driven snow, drifting up against the curbs to be swept away by the next El Nino fueled rain, or a fortuitous fragment, maybe shaped like a stealth fighter or a pistol, could find a home as a toy-of-opportunity for some kid on a scooter.
I kept on rolling, drafting off a natural gas metro bus, but those words kept looping. Let us be your typewriter repair center.
I own three manual typewriters. A Royal Portable, a Smith Corona Galaxie 12 Portable, and an Olympia Portable. They were purchased at flea markets and garage sales - one was a gift. If I had more money, and more room at my house, I would own more. I would found a home for wayward obsolete machines, where they would retire safe and loved.
I actually use them. As time has gone on, my handwriting has devolved significantly from its peak of screwing up my grades in high school drafting - I was aces at everything but the lettering, my nemesis. Since that underwhelming apex, my calligraphic capabilities have degraded into a time-sensitive code available for decryption only by myself - if I'm lucky. The miracle box and its word processing powers have been both my simultaneous deliverance and damnation. I can write with great speed and accuracy, and the letters spool out like a semiotic string of pearls in beautiful machine and human readable ASCII text. The perfidious aspect to all this keyboarding is that it has atrophied my already meager handwriting to such an extent that I really am screwed when I have to write longhand. I had more than one professor send me down to the computer lab to key in essay tests that were originally written in longhand. This is where the manual typewriters come in.
When I write, I compose directly at the computer. I suspect this is how most folks do it nowadays. My brain plays a little game with me, where it throws out other ideas while I'm trying to pin down something tricky. So, I keep a manual typewriter on my desk, next to my keyboard, loaded up with a blank piece of paper. When I get one of these wild cards from my unconscious, I just pivot to the left and hammer it out on the manual. The act of blamming away on those mechanical keys, the metal arms wailing away at the platen, getting the idea OUT and onto paper in instant on, instant hard copy type seems to clear my buffer and let me get back to the task at hand. If I get writer's block, sometimes I'll just turn to the manual machine, and pipe my unconscious right to my hands, just let the letters hammer away. It's more like watching the machine do all the work - like the process is taking place outside of you. Like a word pump - depress the levers and out come the words.
As an individual blessed with good machine empathy, I've always known that these typewriters were a little ragged out. I mean, the newest one is probably 35 years old. The keys were a little loose. Some of the type arms would stick. I had cleaned them all as best as I could with some degreaser and canned air, then lubed them up with tri flow. It helped, but they needed real servicing, and one look at the complex and delicate guts of each machine told me that anything attempted on my part could only end in tears of rage and a non-operational typewriter.
But now, rocketing down Figueroa on the anvil of the sun, a ray of hope. Was it possible? Or would I only find a lonely retail space with reconditioned photcopiers, their beige plastic yellowed from the sun? I swung the bike around and locked up out front.
The foyer of the shop was tiny. There was almost nowhere to walk - nearly every square foot of the floor was covered in shelving loaded down with dusty office supplies. Against the far wall, however, was a neat line of IBM Selectric electric typewriters. A big American flag hung on the wall, along with numerous black and white photos of latino men in US Army Class A uniforms. A bald old man in a western shirt was asleep at a green metal desk. I could hear Mexican music floating up out of the back. The shop had the look of a place that had been there for decades.
"HELLO THERE. HOW CAN I HELP YOU?"
The old guy spoke very very loudly. I wasn't sure what to make of this.
"I was wondering if you repaired manual typewriters?"
"YOU WANT TO BUY A TYPEWRITER? WE HAVE LOTS OF TYPEWRITERS."
"I have a manual typewriter..."
He was already up and pulling the dust covers off the selectrics. They were desk dominating hunks of multicolored metal. Metallic green, burgundy, metal flake khaki, and basic IBM black. I stepped over for a closer inspection. They had that clean, ultramodernist look, like something from the set of 2001: a space odyssey .
"THESE ARE 100 DOLLARS EACH. THEY SELL IN BEVERLY HILLS FOR TWO HUNDRED. THERE IS A MAN THAT COMES UP AND BUYS FIVE FROM ME EVERY TWO WEEKS."
"They really are beautiful. But I have a manual typewriter that..."
"PACHECO! TRAIGA UNA MANUAL MÁQUINA GRANDE Y UNA MÁQUINA PEQUEÑA Y ALGO OTROS"
A neatly groomed man with wire rim glasses emerged from the back of the shop, lugging the largest manual typewriter I have ever seen - a gleaming aluminum bodied Underwood. He was a small man, about 5 foot 2 inches, dressed in a shop apron. He had a big salt and pepper mustache and ink stained hands.
"THIS IS MY COUSIN PACHECO. HE'S FROM MEXICO CITY. HE'S A FACTORY TRAINED IBM REPAIRMAN. WORKED FOR THEM FOR 20 YEARS."
Pacheco had deposited the Underwood and was ducking back into the rear of the store.
"Uh, wait! Yo no necesito una máquina nueva!" Patcheco stopped and came back out.
"HEY! YOU SPEAK SPANISH?"
"No, my Spanish is really awful. Mi espanol es muy malo."
"IT'S OK IT'S GOOD YOU TRY. MY SPANISH IS NO GOOD BECAUSE I'M FROM IOWA. SO YOU DON’T WANT A MANUAL?"
I had gotten a closer look at him now. He had hearing aids in each ear. Pacheco was smiling.
"What's your name, sir?"
"MY NAME IS JESS FLORES"
We shook hands. I spoke directly at him, bumping my own personal volume level.
"Mr. Flores, I already own 3 typewriters. I need one repaired."
"YOU OWN THREE MANUAL TYPEWRITERS?"
"YOU LOVE THESE MACHINES."
"Yes! I think they are very beautiful. uh, los máquinas lindos."
Pacheco nodded and smiled.
"THESE ARE MACHINES THAT TIME FORGOT."
"WE CAN FIX ANY KIND OF TYPEWRITER. DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE SHOP?"
"Yes!" God yes! I'd have paid 5 bucks to see it by now. This was the most entertainment I'd had all week.
I was taken around the corner. To say that there were more manual typewriters back there than I had ever seen before really isn't a useful metric. Off hot, dusty Figueroa Street was an incomparable shrine to a dead technology, complete with two monks that spoke in riddles. It was like A Canticle for Leibowitz, and these two monks had been charged with the sacred duty of keeping this technology alive for those who had kept the faith. For those who had stopped at countless yard sales in hopes of finding another good machine. For those that had sold almost everything they owned when they moved out to California, but kept their three manual typewriters.
Think about a popular, high end commodity item - like home stereos. All the different body styles they come with, the colors and shapes, the different features and controls. They all do the same thing - play recorded music. However, the variation across this population, driven by the manic power of market capitalism and human whimsy, is enormous. In a single space, as my eyes swept the room, I was confronted with this same bounty of choice - except that no one would ever be choosing these machines again.
There were dozens of machines that looked brand new. There were hundreds of machines that had been stripped of their form factors and lay stacked like cordwood. There were huge inventories of parts - ribbon carriage modules, cogs, springs, spindles, and spools. The entire QWERTY Gutenberg galaxy exploded into alphabetical shrapnel and categorized as neatly as Darwin's finches.There were bins of A's. A giant box full of Royal Typewriter Company "A's" Next to it, Smith Corona "A's." And on and on and on. There were vats where stripped typewriters could be lowered into a solvent to have all their collected crud melted out. There were vats of penetrating oil to lubricate the cleaned machines. There may have been components and parts for over ten thousand typewriters in there.
"WHEN WE WORK ON YOUR MACHINE, I PUT IN NEW PARTS."
"You put in new parts?"
"SOME OF THE NEW STYLE MACHINES HAVE A LOT OF PLASTIC PARTS." He dipped his hand into a bin of ratchet gears for Olivetti ribbon spools. They were all clean, lightly oiled steel.
"THE PLASTIC PARTS ARE NO GOOD. METAL IS BETTER. WE TAKE OUT THE PLASTIC AND PUT IN METAL. THE LAST SUIT I WEAR HAS NO POCKETS. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?"
"The suit you wear to your funeral will have no pockets?"
"YES. I CAN'T TAKE ANY OF THIS WITH ME. SO THE PARTS ARE FREE. THE TYPEWRITER WILL LAST LONGER WITH THE BETTER PARTS."
It was at that moment I knew that I was wrong. This man wasn't placed here to fix my machine. I was guided into this shop so that my machine could be brought to him.
A week passed. I had dropped off my favorite - my Smith Corona Galaxie 12. Mr. Flores had called me two days later to let me know it was ready. I drove up to the shop.
"Hi Mr. Flores."
"HELLO. HOW CAN I HELP YOU?"
"I dropped off my machine. A Smith Corona portable?" I held up the claim ticket.
"ARE YOU IRISH?"
"My maternal grandmother was Irish - Mehaffee. My mother's mother."
"YOU LOOK LIKE SOMEONE. ARE YOU ON TV?"
"No sir. Many people tell me I have a familiar face."
"ARE YOU NAMED WILSON?"
"No sir. my last name is White"
"AH! IT'S HARDER WHEN THE PERSON YOU LOOK LIKE IS A WOMAN, BUT YOU LOOK LIKE A WOMAN HERE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, MS. WILSON. YOU COULD BE HER BROTHER. SHE'S IRISH."
"Lots of people have told me I look Irish or Scottish."
"I USED TO LOOK A LOT LIKE MY BROTHER"
"THAT'S HIM, THERE ON THE WALL" He pointed at a black and white photo of a young man in an Army dress uniform.
"THAT'S MY BROTHER JOE. HE WAS KILLED IN ACTION ON THE ISLAND OF LEYTE. I GOT A LETTER FROM HIS COMMANDING OFFICER. THEY WERE EATING LUNCH WHEN THE JAPS ATTACKED FROM ALL SIDES WITH MORTARS, FIFTY SHELLS ALL AT ONCE. HE WAS HIT WITH SHRAPNEL IN THE HEAD. HE DIED INSTANTLY, SO THERE WAS NO PAIN."
"I guess he didn't have his helmet on, because he was eating lunch?"
"YES. THAT'S WHY. AH! NOW I REMEMBER YOU. YOU DROPPED OFF A SMITH CORONA."
"Yep, that's me."
Pacheco came out from the back. "Hola!"
"Hola. Buenas tardes."
"YOU CAN GO BACK WITH HIM"
I followed Pacheco into the back. I waited in the main workroom. Pacheco returned with my machine and presented it with a flourish, placing it on the table in front of me. I took a sheet of paper off a nearby stack and spooled it up.
The moment my fingers touched the keys, it was a brave new world. The machine was tight. All the floobiness and play was gone. The type arms snapped out like quick rabbit punches, no wasted effort, all speed. I quickly clicked out the old exercise:
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.
"Bueno! Wow! It's like it's brand new, uh nueva maquina!"
He just nodded and smiled. I looked around the shop, inspecting a shelf of skeletonized machines, nothing but keyboards and type arms.
"Basura. These are junk. No work." he said.
"Muerte?" It was the best I could offer.
"Si. Muere. Son todos muertos, en realidad."
"Yes. I guess they are all dead."
We both stood there for a bit. I was a little shocked, partly because we had a moment of genuine mutual comprehension, but also because I felt a wave of emotion come over me. They were beautiful. There was an entire economy of human intellect, endeavor, artistry, and design hammered into these machines. It was a feeling of loss and inevitability.
"Uh, son muertos, pero... son hermosos." I was trying to say they were still beautiful.
Pacheco looked up at me, thought a moment, and began to walk into the rear of the shop.
"Come. Come. I show you this."
We were headed way back into the depths of the shop, back into a room I hadn't seen before. It was pitch dark. Pacheco was moving by memory, I guess. I pulled the LED flashlight out of my pocket and squeezed it on. Pacheco clicked on a single dim gooseneck light.
There, in a pool of yellow light, was an enormous Remington typewriter. It had a large frontal loop of steel that formed a backing for the amphitheater of typearms inside. The word "Remington" was scrolled across the front with gilded paint in rolling, hand painted text. The machine was an imposing black cube almost two feet tall. Pacheco strained at it, trying to ease it onto its back. I took hold of the other side and helped him settle the machine.
"How old is this?"
He just nodded. I thought back to my Political Novel in the 20th Century seminar - during my senior year of college.
"uh, Cien anos? Cien anos?"
"Si! Si. Mas!"
He clicked at the inner workings of the machine with his pen - the gears and keys and pivots and type arms. It made a hollow "Tock!" sound, like a woodblock.
"Madera! Madera!" He tapped again with is pen. Tock, tock! I looked closer.
"Holy shit! This thing is made of wood!" I pointed at the part he had been tapping with his pen.
"Wood! Madera! Like a piano! Similar de piano. Hecho de Madera!"
"Si! Madera! Madera!"
He started to laugh. I did too. I couldn't believe the audacity of it - a wooden word piano. The two of us stood there in the darkness, staring at the king of the dead and the father of the living, the wooden patriarch of a billion clicking keys singing out a trillion words, and we laughed.