July 24, 1999
Things That Go *Ping* In The Night

to see David demonstrate proper toaster safety.

I was curled up in bed last night, watching a "Nash Bridges" re-run and waiting for The Other 50% of The Population to finish his computer stuff and come join me, when I heard an *unusual* sound, coming from the apartment directly above ours.

We keep the window above our bed cracked open, so there is a steady stream of noise coming from the outside ... passing traffic, dogs barking, car alarms going off, neighbors shouting, teenagers rolling stolen shopping carts down the sidewalk past our window. (They like to dump the shopping carts into the bay, behind our apartment building. I have no idea why. Some sort of weird adolescent initiation? Or just a "California thing?") And Upstairs Neighbor Guy is notorious for his nocturnal shenanigans: his creaky closet door wakes us every fudking morning at 3:45 a.m., without fail.

(Lately I suspect he's been experimenting with weightlifting: either that, or his mother really does wear army boots. But that's another story for another day.)

Point is: Alameda, on a Friday night, is by no stretch of the imagination a *quiet* or *peaceful* place to be. After eight months I've grown accustomed to the noise: you just learn to tune it out. But this new sound was something I couldn't identify.

I was intrigued.

I grabbed the remote and hit "Mute." The Castle fell silent: all I could hear, for a moment, was David's steady clackety-clack-clack, as he wrote at his computer in the next room. I started to tell myself I was imagining things -- "Maybe it's all the cough medicine," I thought: one of those auditory hallucination things, sorta like the time I thought I heard Jesus, God and Mary talking to me from the flowerbox  --  but suddenly, there it was again.

Tap. Tap-tap. Tappety-tap-tap. Tap ... tap.

A syncopated counterpoint to David's keyboard, although not nearly as smooth nor as lightning-fast. It was like listening to two drummers: one skilled, one not-so-skilled, and feeling a little bit sorry for the not-so-skilled guy.

And that's when it hit me. What I was listening to was the sound of someone typing.

Or attempting to type, anyway.

And not on a computer keyboard, either, but on an honest-to-goodness TYPEWRITER.

I couldn't believe it: at 10:15 p.m. on a Friday night, Upstairs Neighbor Guy was typing, next to his open bedroom window! What I was hearing was the combined sound of an old manual portable and the thump-thump-thump of table legs, as his typewriter rocked back and forth on whatever he was using for a desk. I sat up in bed and listened for a minute, waiting for the unmistakeable *ping* of the carriage return. Granted, it took him forever to get there. He's clearly not a practiced typist.

But eventually ... there it was, right on cue: "PING."

I smiled. Unlike some of the racket that Upstairs Neighbor Guy inflicts on us -- have I mentioned the creaky closet door?! -- I actually found his labored typing to be rather soothing. And familiar. It was like being a little girl again, falling asleep to the sound of Daddy typing in the next room.

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Like a lot of my Baby Boomer friends, I've enjoyed a lifelong love affair with typewriters.

When David and I wander around thrift stores or flea markets, I am irresistibly drawn to the dusty displays of ancient Underwoods and Smith-Coronas. I love everything about them: the way they look. The way they smell: that lovely, metallic, inky smell. The way they feel: solid and sturdy and dependable, like a best friend. And I love the feel of typewriter keys under my fingers. Sometimes, if there is still a useable ribbon housed inside the flea market typewriter, I'll type something. Our names, usually -- "SecraTerri loves DRaftervoi" -- or the URL to *FootNotes.* (Yeah, I know. I'm shameless.)  After six years of soft, squishy computer-keyboard-"typing," I am invariably surprised by how unyielding the typewriter keys feel to my touch ... as though I'm expected to work a little harder to achieve the desired results. I don't mind. I know that if I were to actually plunk down the thirty bucks and cart home an old Olivetti and set it up on the desktop next to the Acer and the Monster P.C., it would only take a couple of days to get used to the stiffer key tension. Pretty soon I would be flying along at my old four-fingered, breakneck speed.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

According to my mother, my fascination with typewriters began at an early age. It also appears to be a familial thing:

"... You should probably know, just for the heck of it," she wrote to me in an e-mail not long ago, "that the picture of you sitting in the chair has some generational significance you may not remember. Behind that chair was my version of the laundry room. My old, black Remington typewriter sat on the pink vanity table I used for a desk in the corner of the living room. I spent a lot of time at that typewriter, working on my 'Cedarhurst Notes' column for the Highline Times and the 'Gateway Magazine' features ... Anyway, the black Remington became your favorite toy--you made your first 'words' on that piece of equipment and it's right there, behind the pink rocker where you sit with one bare foot showing. Prophetic?"

I don't remember that old Remington. But I do remember another Remington that Grandma St. John gave me a few years later, when I was in grade school. It weighed almost as much as I did. I taught myself to type on that machine, laboriously at first, but gradually gaining speed as I became familiar with the keyboard (using my own oddball mnemonic device: "Queer, tie you I up! As dee fog he jeckle! Zee ex civil bean man!")

Typing, for me, was more than fun. And the typewriter was more than a "toy." Seeing my words printed on paper gave me the same emotional charge that I get today, when I see *FootNotes* on a computer screen. It was an immediate conduit between the ideas in my head and the piece of paper in front of me. Before long I was churning out poems, plays, Gothic horror stories -- a la "Dark Shadows" -- and neighborhood newspapers ["Exclusive!  Mrs. Pitcher's Cat Gets Spaid"] for twenty-five cents a subscription. I was the only kid in the fourth grade who knew how to type ... an exotic and remarkable skill for a 10-year-old in those pre-computer days of 1968.

By the eighth grade, my teachers were asking me to type progress reports for them.

The drawback to teaching yourself a skill like typing, of course, is that you never learn to do it "properly" ... or at least, you never learn to do it the way the books SAY you should. I use two fingers on each hand when I'm typing -- my index and middle fingers. I never use my thumbs, not even for the spacebar. It gives me a weirdly erratic, "spidery" typing style that drove my high school Office Automation teachers bananas. All attempts to re-train me, using the classic touch-typing method, were miserable failures. I would place the appropriate fingers on the appropriate "home keys," and obediently peck out neat little rows of H-J-H-J-F-K-F-K-D-L-D-L along with the rest of the class ... but the minute the teachers had their back to me, I reverted to my own familiar four-fingered system. When my teachers realized that -- four-fingered or not -- I was typing 85 wpm with 99% accuracy, they gave up trying to change me.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Throughout my life I've owned -- and loved -- too many different typewriters to count. There was the cute little Smith-Corona my Dad gave me for Chrismas, the year I was thirteen: my very first electric typewriter. (When it had to be taken into the shop for repairs, I cried: how was I going to live without it for ten days?? Dad left a teasing note for me in my empty typewriter case: "Backward, oh backward/Turn time in thy flight/And bring back Terri's typewriter/If just for tonight.")  Later there was another Smith-Corona electric, a gift from the Balding Aluminum Sales Guy on my twenty-first birthday. You had to pop in different cartridges for typing and correction, which was a major pain in the butt -- not only because you could never find the stoopid cartridges anywhere, in any of the local office supply stores, but also because it interfered with the flow of creative juices to have to stop and swap them out in mid-inspiration. But I loved that typewriter anyway. (Lots more than I loved the Balding Aluminum Sales Guy, if you want to know the truth.)

There was an old IBM Selectric I, the approximate size and heft of a Sears Diehard, which I bought for twenty bucks at a neighbors' garage sale in the mid-80's. When the kids went to bed at night, I composed The Memory Book on that one. And there was the sleek Brother electronic I bought in 1990, with (what seemed to me then) its "cutting-edge" LCD readout. As it turns out, that was the last typewriter I purchased before discovering the world of computers.

In between these stand-outs, through the years, was an assortment of portables and behemoths ... fancy electrics and stalwart manuals ... gifts and loaners ... triumphs and failures. And I loved them all.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

It wouldn't be practical for me to own a typewriter right now. Limited desktop space, limited time, the constraints of writing for the Internet, the difficulty of locating parts and service ... all are reasons not to move backward technologically.

So how come I keep thinking about the way that typewriter sounded last night?

More importantly: do you think Upstairs Neighbor Guy might let me borrow it, sometime??



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