“Using a fountain pen or manual typewriter does not impute upon you real writerly credentials,” the old man was saying, “any more than using latex gloves does not make you a surgeon.”
I looked away for a moment, through the dingy window at the foot traffic on the sidewalk outside, noting with a peculiar sense of hidden pleasure the general seediness of the populace at large, another sign of the impending apocalypse.
“Of course,” he continued, “if you were already a writer with a sense of purpose, you might find the aim of your work more acutely focused if you employed certain working habits and tools designed to reduce distractions and help get words down on paper.
I’d heard his line before, but was unprepared to really listen, until this morning. Sometimes life has a way of slapping you in the face. I’d just been on my way down to a meeting with my agent, in mid-traffic, when he called my cell to tell me the meeting was off, the publisher had cancelled at the last minute, and that he, Mister J. Waldorf Haseldine, felt it best that we terminate our professional relationship, post haste.
My book deal cancelled, I’d been dumped by my own agent.
What’s a fella to do, in circumstances like this, but to head down to his favorite haunt, Loser’s Blend, for breakfast and a cup of joe, to drown one’s sorrows in the extract of a dark, oily, roasted bean. Besides, the bars didn’t open until eleven.
The old man, I’d seen him before. A regular, he was like the social butterfly of the artsy crowd, mingling between tables of grunged-out punk rockers just awakening from the previous night’s escapades, or touching base with the usual assortment of lone writers, holed up at their favorite tables along a quiet wall or corner, MacBook, iPad or journal at their ready.
Myself, I’d brought nothing but my old laptop, now on the backseat of the car parked out by the curb. At this particular moment in my otherwise uneventful and seemingly worthless life, I wanted nothing to do with writing at all, thinking I’d finally take up Dad’s advice, after all of these many years of resisting, and go to work at the shop, continue the lineage of the family locksmith business that I had resisted for so long but now found an inevitability, further resistance being futile and all of that.
The old man, he had sat down at my table without invitation, which I had hardly noticed in the depths of my despair, as I was fantasizing about the rest of my life spent grinding keys and changing deadbolts. What I needed at that moment was a key to unlock the trap I was in and get me the hell out of this mess. Sometimes, poorly crafted metaphors come to the best of us, even us worthless writers facing yet another rejection. It’s a gift that pours forth unannounced, after all.
This must be how drug pushers work, I observed. Wait until the user is at their lowest point, their body or mind falling apart at the seams, then BAM!, hit them with that one temptation they cannot refuse.
“I noticed you look a bit down this morning,” he had opened, like a shot across the bow, or the opening move of a chess master where you can tell, just a few pawns into it, that he already had you beat.
I had mumbled something incoherent and vaguely threatening, hoping he’d move on to more favorable pickings, but he persisted.
“I’ve seen you here, off and on, and noticed you’re a writer. Writing’s my business. Name’s Sam.” He extended a beefy, wrinkled hand, which I grudgingly took and knew, just a half-second too late, that I’d not prepared myself properly, didn’t get my hand secure enough inside his before he put the squeeze on my fingers, leaving me feeling effeminate and ineffectual, just like Dad used to do. Must be something generational about a manly handshake, like some antiquarian calling card. Didn’t help my self esteem, either.
The old man went on and on, while I pretended to listen, then half-listened, then couldn’t help but listen. What he had to say made sense, actually. Writing required the focus of the mind, free from distraction, upon specific internal chains of thought and word associations, and that the worst possible tool to use for writing was the one most commonly seen at the writer’s side, namely the computer.
He had me pegged, that’s for sure; guilty as charged. I’d been the classic case of what he called the “jackrabbit writer,” who’d poke at the keyboard a few lines, then switch to the Internet browser and get lost in something entirely distracting, all the while telling himself the lie that this was “research,” or “clearing the mind”. I was clearing my mind, all right - clearing it of any chance of forming an actual coherent chain of thought.
What I needed, he suggested, was another method of writing, employing a different set of tools and methods. “All technology is technology,” he had said, “from the most primitive rock carving to the most sophisticated software. Your responsibility to yourself is to find the technology that works for you.”
I could tell this was going to be more difficult than I had imagined, fending off his sales pitch with reasoned argument. The core of his thesis was pretty watertight, and I was a walking, talking case study.
He went on and on like this for a while, as I sipped at my now cold coffee, hoping that it would be like the experience of sitting in the car salesman’s office, listening to the sales pitch and feeling sorry for the guy because he doesn’t know that you’ve already made up your mind and there’s nothing he can do, even if he knew, to convince you otherwise.
Until, that is, he reached down, under the table, and retrieved a square, hard case at his feet, clearing off a spot on the table between us, and unlatched its patinated clasp.
To say you’ve seen a naked woman is nothing until you can say you’ve seen the most beautiful naked woman who’s ever lived, right there on the table at Loser’s Blend. Actually, a real-to-life naked woman might fit right in at Loser’s Blend with nary a titter, but right at the moment the thing of beauty that sat before me was a 1920’s era Corona 4 manual typewriter, burgundy in color, its gold leaf lettering immaculate, its body shiny and curvy, its round, black keys with their shiny metal rims and art deco lettering utterly inviting.
He must have noticed that my coffee cup was dramatically listing to port, suspended by one finger in midair, and my mouth was half ajar, saliva beginning to trickle from my lower lip, and that my pulse was quickened and shallow, and my eyes glassy and moist.
I was in love - slayed, in fact - and a man of lesser conviction would have had pity on me at that point, but all he did was reach into his satchel and extract a sheet of fine parchment, silky as a queen’s hanky, and thread it up around the machine’s platen, the hidden mechanism emitting that gently soft ratcheting sound, like a lover whispering in your ear.
“Go ahead,” he gleamed, “give her a whirl”.
I was somewhat familiar with the general operation of a manual typewriter, Dad having kept one in the back of the shop all of these years, upon which I used to tap out little stories as a kid. All of those memories came flooding back to me in one moment, along with that wonderful oily mechanical smell.
The rest of it, as they say, was quick work. I typed out the usual ditty of the quick brown fox, the letters printed straight and even, the line feed was smooth, the ribbon fresh and dark. I was already figuring out in the back of my mind how much of the advance I’d have to return from the blown book deal, and whether I’d have enough to buy it right here, right now, when he strikes the final blow.
“Just take it, you can pay me whenever you can, or on installments. I know you love it, and it’s like it was made for you.”
You can’t separate two lovers, that’s for sure. No use even trying, their minds are already made up. And that’s how I came to walking out of Loser’s Blend on that fateful day, typewriter case in hand, thinking that it wasn’t such a bad day after all, that things were beginning to look up, and that I had another idea for a story, just needed to get home as quick as possible, thread up some paper around its rubbery platen and see what kind of magic we could make together.