Type Casting

The word processor may have replaced the typewriter, but don't write off Austin Gomes yet.

My favorite memories are typewritten.

In 1970, I pasted this paragraph, with attached fantasies, into my journal:

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I never went any further with The Night of the Owl, but it seemed permissible to give myself a review in the New York Times, because after all, I didn't just write; I typed. My machine was about fifteen inches wide, as uncomplicated and ox-tough as a Model A engine, and came in a plywood case spray-painted black, with a fraying leather handle. Its keys required a two-inch downstroke before they made contact with the paper; its ribbon was old and faint. But it had the power to imbue my entire room with a delicious sensation of Writer at Work. I loved to shut my door and picture my family walking by in the hall, detecting the sound of typing and wondering what I was up to. True, I was merely typing notes to be passed in class tomorrow -- "Alissa! Don't you think Miss Taliaffero is TRITE?" -- but sometimes I was doing it with carbon paper, which made me feel secretarial yet clandestine.

Typewritten memories are easier to picture than computerized ones. The opening sentence of a letter from a French pen pal, circa 1972:

"Bon jour ma de moi selle, je m'appelle Michel Decatoire."

The rest of it, other than the weird separation of words by phonics, was incredibly uninteresting. Michel lived in a suburb near Paris, collected stamps and was planning to go to business school. But, oh, his typing! It was deft and true, almost engraved onto thick, light-blue stationary that smelled faintly of garlic.

Typing is every bit as emotional as handwriting. When my mother felt the need to yell at me by letter, she typed; it gave her the correct disciplinary distance. My father's stock description of an excitable gal: "She types so hard the Os fall out of the page." At different times, my sister and I both thought this to be a hilarious use of a typewriter:

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When I started working at Westwordin 1980, the mark of how far a person had risen as a writer was which typewriter he or she was allowed to claim as his or her own. I am proud to report that I worked my way up to a machine that was very wide, extremely heavy, and electric! But today, when a business wants some Olde Timey status, it will use an ancient manual typewriter or a bit of a typewritten sentence as part of its logo. I suppose there once were miners around here who got all misty at the sight of a sledgehammer, too. But I can't help it. I love typewriters. Damn it, I miss them.


It's the right time to visit Austin Gomes, typewriter repairman.

Since the early Eighties, Mr. Gomes (rhymes with "homes") has been hearing dire warnings about his profession's imminent obsolescence, and they worry him not at all. "All this time, I've been hearing that computers are about to put me out of business," he says. "I always reply: 'I don't think so.'"

In fact, a new typewriter repair job came in only this morning and is sitting expectantly on Mr. Gomes's workbench. Needing nothing more drastic than a new ribbon -- yes, they're still available -- and a light cleaning, the old Smith-Corona belongs to an even older man. "Apparently, he's 91," Mr. Gomes says. "He's taken very good care of this machine. It still has its original paint. Quite a nice machine."

Mr. Gomes has already assessed its condition by typing the classic:

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country onto a piece of yellow scratch paper. I add Classic Typing Test Number Two: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy brown dog.

"I haven't had that feeling in a while," I say, grabbing the carriage return and zooming it smartly back, enjoying its efficient, metallic whir.

"The thing with a typewriter like this," Mr. Gomes points out, "is that the letters appear as dark or as hard as you hit the key. If your pinkie's not strong that morning, your typewritten page will appear to be different than it was the day before."

This would seem to be Mr. Gomes's cue to become sentimental about the good old manual days and how disposable everything has become. He doesn't. "Everything is plastic," he says, halfheartedly, after some prompting. But to him, all these word processing devices are simply business machines, and he refuses to play favorites.

"Well, I've been working with them since 1946," he explains. "My father was a manufacturer's rep in British Guiana, and I went to work for him. He sent me to various schools to learn different branches of the office-machine business. Calculators [as in adding machines], copiers [i.e., mimeos?] and, of course, typewriters. And then," he says darkly, "the communists took over."

Though Mr. Gomes's father refused to leave British Guiana, the younger Gomes saw no alternative but to depart. Taking little more with him than his wife, a couple of typewriter ribbons and whatever cash he could sneak out of the country, he moved to Denver in 1958.

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