This Essay Isn’t About a Typewriter

Some people listen when you talk; others are just waiting for their turn to say something. Your words, your vocalization, your teeth and tongue and ticka-tacka is the yellow light on the traffic signal for the other person in the room.

Sorry; now you know.

Mrs. Murray, apparently, wasn’t waiting for her turn. She was actually listening.

She was my — I don’t even remember what it was called — home ec teacher? She taught cooking and sewing at my middle school — yes those subjects were still being taught in the early 1990's. She was a severe looking lady, with lengthy, piano-key teeth, red lips. Her eyebrows were painted on long ago. Always impeccably dressed in a vibrant, cashmere primary-colored turtleneck and black slacks, she actual age seemed not to scan. She taught us about ration books and remembered how, during World War II, she used to bring jars of bacon grease to her town’s local fire department which would then, allegedly, be forwarded along to the government, to be used in the making of artillery explosives.

What a time to be alive.

I imagine Mrs. Murray as a little girl in school; every pleat on her dress impeccably ironed just-so by Mrs. Murray, Sr. Hair all done up. Starched white knee-socks — bobbysocks, that’s what Mrs. Murray called them. Girls wore bobbysocks in the days of Eisenhower and Truman. Gentlemen’s sport coats had three buttons, not two, and shirtsleeves were never rolled up in the presence of a lady, no matter the temperature.

I wonder, now, what Mrs. Murray thought of us; a pile of punks in Umbro shorts and Absolute t-shirts. One day, in Mrs. Murray’s cooking class, we were making cinnamon buns. Latifa, the nearly six-foot-tall class clown, threw one of her cinnamon buns straight up to the ceiling, where it stuck, for nearly the duration of our class. They probably would have made great munitions, too, and our country was at war during this time — Kuwait. Desert Storm. George Bush. Jackets had two buttons now. And we were all bad to the bone.

Even me.

In addition to her duties teaching the business of homemaking to adolescent imps and scamps, Mrs. Murray also clothed over 100 children during each of the school’s mammoth musicals. In 1992, she adorned me with feathers and buckskin that would make 2019 parents shudder as I played Lonesome Polecat in the the hokey, awful “Lil’ Abner.” In 1994, it was a three-piece suit for the anal-retentive efficiency expert Vernon Hines in “The Pajama Game.” In between, I donned a long, curly black wig, a vibrant red coat, and slid my hopelessly flat feet into a pair of Mrs. Murray’s daughter’s Girl Scout boots to inhabit the role of Captain Hook, a part that would forever change my life.

“You are just too funny for words,” Mrs. Murray said to me as she leaned down to futz with the yellow ruff of my pirate shirt collar. I liked having her approval. In class at that age I was nondescript, invisible — and I preferred it that way. On stage was another matter entirely. Always will be.

Ten years after I graduated middle school, my former middle school drama teacher called me on the phone and told me that she was going to retire from public school, and that she wanted to open up a performing arts center for children. I found myself looking at buildings with her, dreaming up dreams. A little while later, I found myself teaching a class or two, then I found myself in the office, sitting across from the woman I’d admired since I was a boy.

Second-in-command. And who was helping to costume the children? Why, old bacon-bombs herself.

One day in the office I was prattling on to whomever would listen about one of my many inane hobbies/obsessions; typewriters. I had them all over the house — an Underwood here, a Smith Corona there. A very heavy Olivetti. A round, shapely Royal. None of them had really much value to them and the only one with any real age, the Olivetti, was in terrible shape — that’s how I could afford to buy it. In Harrisburg. Or Chambersburg. Antiquesburg. In the hallway, Mrs. Murray was bustling around with bustles and vests, finding and losing thimbles, patching old things up and making new things fit.

A couple months rolled by and she popped her head in the doorway.

“I have something for you, Captain Hook,” she said. I liked that she called me that, even though that was so long ago. Or maybe not so long — I don’t know.

“For me?” I said stupidly; automatically.

“Yes,” she said, “but you’ll have to help me bring it in because it’s quite heavy.”

“I don’t really know anything about it,” she said as we plopped it on my desk rather unceremoniously and she lifted off the wood cover with her very red, immaculate fingernails.

I stared at it. It looked alien. I mean, I knew what it was, but I had never seen anything like it. I would learn, later, that it was a Hammond Number 2 Typewriter with a Universal Keyboard, made in the 1890’s. The QWERTY keyboard we all know today, the one on which I was taught to type by Mrs. Doughtery, another vintage holdover from the ration book era, was invented in 1874, but Hammond was still manufacturing the Universal keyboard for stodgy old folks who didn’t like that new-fangled QWERTY nonsense. Rather like people who thought FM radio was a fad.

“My husband was a lawyer,” she said, “and he kept this in his office. He used it. He killed himself — a long time ago. I think you’ll give this a very good home.”

I was shocked by the matter-of-fact way in which she presented the information to me about her husband’s death, in the same breath as she did information about his occupation and that he used to use this typewriter. By the time I got this gift from Mrs. Murray, my aunt had killed herself, in Israel, but I didn’t share that with Mrs. Murray. At that time, I didn’t talk about suicide, and I wasn’t accustomed to hearing about it either. My own aunt’s seemed to be something from a movie I once saw, or a story someone told me about their own aunt; so disconnected I was from her and her illness and her demise; by geography and time.

Geography, distance, and time. I think that’s what separated us from Mrs. Murray, too. She was as alien to us as a Universal keyboard. We were taught

F, J, SPACE. F, J, SPACE. F, J, SPACE.

How do you f j space on this thing? How do you connect the letters together to make words to make a hug to make a thank you forever and ever? How do you Smee, help me? How do you I won’t grow up?

How do you get Latifa’s cinnamon buns off the ceiling?

Every year, my wife and I try in vain to get tickets to Antiques Roadshow. What will you bring is the inevitable f j space. My wife and I both know very well that we have nothing of value in our home that is easily transportable other than Mrs. Murray’s late husband’s Hammond Number 2. But how will we ever tell this story in under a minute so that the congenial appraisal can start? Where do you begin when the keyboard is Universal and your fingers don’t know what to do and your feet are inside vintage Girl Scout boots?

How do you tell the story of a thing?

Mrs. Murray is late now, too, ALS took her a few years ago. The Hammond is dusty and I don’t work for my middle school drama teacher anymore. I do see her every few months, to talk, and laugh, and remember. The ration book ladies are never far from my mind.

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Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.

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~Clocking Out Again~

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Gabriel Nathan

Gabriel Nathan

Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.

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