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Type Casting

Man vs. Machine: Austin Gomes keeps his finger on the mechanical pulse.
James Bludworth

My favorite memories are typewritten.

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

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:

When I started working at Westword in 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.

"It was a nice little town in a fast-moving country," he recalls. "We had never seen television, for instance, and we had been living below sea level. I discovered that, frankly, I prefer this. It may have been more relaxing in the tropics, but I liked Denver."

Cruising 17th Street for a business-machine company that might have an opening, Mr. Gomes ventured into the Stahl Typewriter Company, in business since 1885. He never left -- in fact, he bought the business in the mid-Eighties. The company, whose ownership had passed from the Stahls to a family named Santangelo, had quickly taken Mr. Gomes under its wing, sending him to train on various machines that now seem as lost in time as the button hook or the corset stay. "I trained on the Address-O-Graph," he recalls. "I was sent to calculating school. I became certified for service and repair of the complete line of Eversharp pens and pencils."

"You actually repaired a pencil?" I ask.

"Well, they were mechanical pencils. And the pens weren't ballpoints then. Mechanically, they were quite complex. Of course, now everything's plastic."

"That's right!" I say. "Disposable! Cheap!"

"You can get a pen for 39 cents," Mr. Gomes says, with evident approval and no nostalgia whatsoever. "At one point, we had four repairmen working full-time, working on all those machines and more. We serviced typewriters for the colleges, the public schools, the libraries. We were very big. Everyone knew us. Every time we had to move, I made sure to keep the same number: Main 3-1024, which really was the 1,024th phone number issued in Denver. I kept the number; I kept the customers."

Mr. Gomes is the first to admit that today he is Stahl's sole employee and that his typewriter work is part-time as best -- but the loyal customers keep coming back. The National Rifle Association continues to rent several electric Olympias for its national convention each year, as do the Native American Artists of New Mexico. Arthur Andersen's downtown office is a regular account, as is the law firm of Trimble, Tate and Nulan.

"We still have three Selectrics around here," says Trimble legal secretary Cheryl Curtis. "They come in handy for typing legal forms, like for probate, and I do like 'em. They're no-brainers. I'm 48, so I remember all those old machines, and these are the best. When they break down, we just call in Mr. Gomes, the typewriter doctor, and he takes them away to his hospital."

"The advantage," Mr. Gomes opines, "is that when you have a quick letter to address or a form to fill out, a computer program is simply too expensive and hard to learn. A typewriter is just the thing."

Indeed, filling in forms and addressing envelopes is what Mr. Gomes uses his own Olympia for, although his words-per-minute have slowed considerably since he lost two fingers in a snowblowing accident. For business accounting and storage of files, he uses an ancient Silver Reed word processor. For prompt index and retrieval of his customer base, he uses a disposable lead pencil and a small-ruled, spiral-bound notebook. In order that his wife may e-mail her sisters in England, he keeps a home computer with a modem. He may, in fact, be the only person on earth who has been able to pick and choose successfully between current technology and its less-sophisticated forebears.

I don't know how he does it. I only like my computer when it likes me, and how often is that? Meanwhile, I cultivate a simplistic longing for simpler times.

"You're like Andy Rooney," Mr. Gomes tells me. "Whenever he came to Denver, he rented a typewriter from us, and he insisted that it be manual. He was very old-school."

"Well, so was Hemingway," I point out, treating myself to an image of Papa typing, in a muscular fashion, in a Havana hotel room.

"I do hear from the secretaries that they miss the feeling of actually producing something. Pushing down a key, hearing the sound, seeing the letter," Mr. Gomes says. "When the IBM Selectrics went electronic, that was the hardest on them. They missed the durability and the sense of touch."

 

There currently are half a dozen Selectrics at Mr. Gomes's shop, lying on their sides, displaying their designer colors, still projecting the high-and-mighty image they once enjoyed in offices across the country. "You still can't buy one for less than $400," Mr. Gomes says. "The Olympia is a better deal. I have some, used, for $70."

But it's the 91-year-old man's Smith-Corona that I covet. It makes me feel twelve again. I go back to the workbench and practice rrrrrrriiiiiiipping a page out of the platen, as if I have just typed the last sentence of The Great Gatsby and am about to telephone my agent.

Mr. Gomes joins me and takes a few rrrrriiiiips himself.


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