Blame my predilection for allowing particular dates to stick to my brain for knowing this, but it was twenty years ago tomorrow — December 3, 1990 — that I last typed anything more substantive than a mailing address on an electric typewriter.
Not just any typewriter, but the Brother model I was given by my sister as a high school graduation present. I lugged it to college and, much to the consternation of various roommates and dormitory neighbors, clack-clack-clacked my way to a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications, with a minor in History. When four years were up, I lugged it back home and took up my professional writing career on it. I’d type my stories and Express Mail them to editors or slip them into a briefcase and drop them off at magazine offices in the city or on Long Island. My copy was marked up (not too harshly, I hope) and passed along to typesetters. That’s the way it was done.
Then it wasn’t. I’d occasionally be asked to drop by this or that publication and write my story on-site on one of their computers. It would really help, I was told. Oh sure, I said, no problem. Then I transitioned from freelancing to a staff job, where, except for addressing the occasional envelope (because nobody could ever figure out how to work that with the printer), we did everything on our desktop computers…first a Cado (from which I once watched the words on my screen literally blow up, with smoke rising from the monitor), then, as if to finally get with modernity, a Mac.
By then, the Brother typewriter wasn’t called on much, except if I was home from the job, sick or something, and I wanted to get some work done. I did not own a computer yet, so it was clack or nothing. Twenty years ago tomorrow, a combination of car trouble and encroaching illness kept me on the couch. But I had this story that had to go to our art department the next day, so as long as I had my notes with me, I set up my old typewriter on my even older typewriter stand (inherited from my father’s office once he gave up the space) and typed my piece. Next day, I was back in the office and typed it again on the computer.
That was it for my Brother. It was back in its case, cord detached, placed aside the typewriter stand which we used for our phone and answering machine in our first apartment. When we moved, we repurposed the typewriter stand in our new kitchen as the staging area for our toaster oven, while the typewriter slid into a dark corner in a back room that we never used for much beyond storage. Fast-forward a dozen years, when it was time to move again, and one of the last items whose destiny was left for me to decide was the Brother.
The typewriter stand was on the curb. The toaster oven had long ago heated its final pot pie. Our last answering machine was giving way to voice mail. We owned a computer. I stared at the typewriter for a minute. I thought of what it meant to me, how it ushered me into adulthood as much as any single inanimate object could. I contemplated where it took me and why it had been the ideal graduation gift 23 years earlier.
Then I threw it out. What the hell was I going to do with an electric typewriter in the 21st century? If I ran into a computer problem, I could type on this…and then what? Mail the piece of paper to the Internet? It just lost its utility. Time marched on. Something that was a key part of what I had attempted and achieved no longer had a place in my life.
In that spirit, good luck John Maine.