I’m not a neo-Luddite. I love technology, which is why I still remember my first electric typewriter.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – “What’s that clacking noise?” I asked my 13-year-old son a few days ago.
“It’s just an app on my iPod, Mom.”
“It sounds just like a typewriter,” I told him. “I haven’t heard one of those in years.”
It was a rare moment. He actually looked a bit interested in what I was on the verge of saying.
“I still remember my Smith-Corona electric typewriter. I saved up just enough money in high school, and I was going to buy an acoustic guitar or an electric typewriter. I chose the typewriter.”
My son, an accomplished guitarist and drummer, shook his head in disgust. “Just think, Mom. You could have been Joan Jett instead of a journalist.”
How do I explain life’s choices to a boy who has grown up in the digital era, and has never known a world without personal computers, smart phones, iPods, mobile apps, email, group chatting, profile updates and Google?
He’s a “digital native,” and I was born into an analog world. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a neo-Luddite. I love technology, which is precisely why I remember my first typewriter. At the time, my Smith-Corona was state-of-the-art. It had an automatic return carriage (no need to manually return between each line while typing) and an ink cartridge that eliminated the need to mess with spools of ink ribbons. The day I bought my first typewriter, I placed it gently and lovingly on my desk in my bedroom. I immediately felt like a “real” writer, and sat down to write my first short story, which I submitted for a teen magazine writing contest.
I was crushed to receive my first rejection a few weeks later, but it didn’t dissuade me from pursuing a writing career. I’ve been writing since I was in middle school. I worked on my middle school newspaper, my high school newspaper, and for my college newspaper. Then I spent 20 years working in professional journalism, first as a bilingual reporter in Venezuela, and in Denver for the Associated Press, the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization. I’ve also written for magazines, and daily and weekly newspapers. I’ve crossed the digital divide into the realm of “new media,” including social media, blogging, and podcasting.
But back to that typewriter.
It was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and I was working my butt off in a dark, steamy, cockroach-infested industrial laundry in my hometown of Pueblo, Colo., to earn money to buy that Smith-Corona. I folded towels and table cloths, and fed wet sheets into a gigantic mangle that dry pressed sheets as they passed through several heavy cylinders. My co-workers called it “the mangler,” and told me about a young girl whose arm had gotten caught in the machine. Who knows? Maybe it was true. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they just wanted to test my gullibility, and introduce me to the world of hard labor.
“He didn’t have the safety gate in place,” one of the women told me my first day at work, jerking her head toward the laundry owner, a heavy-set man with a blond crewcut, a paunchy belly and a florid complexion. “He said it slowed things down.”
The owner’s onerous glances seemed to support her theory. He tromped around the plant with a cigar clenched between his teeth, scowling at the young Latinos who fed sheets, towels, table clothes and uniforms into industrial-size washing machines with lightning speed, and the Latinas who handled the pressing, folding and packaging at large tables. The safety gate, presumably, would have made it impossible for anyone’s fingers or arms to get caught in the mangle’s gigantic, twirling cylinders. Each one looked like it weighed at least a ton.
“He told everyone to stop the mangler so he could install the safety gate before the ambulance and police arrived,” the storyteller said. “There was blood everywhere. Her arm was smashed to the elbow. It was horrible. She was screaming and crying. We couldn’t do or say a thing.”
(Years later, I read Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” and watched the campy horror movie based on his short story about an industrial mangle that comes to life and devours people. I wondered if King had worked in a laundry, and whether he had ever seen anyone get mangled.)
A friend’s mother had landed us the summer jobs. My friend bought herself a used Mustang after carefully banking her savings, but I blew mine wantonly on music, books, incense, stationary, clothing and makeup. Wearing purple Mary Quant eyeshadow, peasant blouses, platform wedgies and bell-bottomed jeans while listening to Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck was more important to me than a car. I had my 10-speed bike to get me around.
That summer, my friend and I rode a crosstown bus to work in an industrial area adjacent to an historic train depot and railyard district. We walked the last few blocks to the laundry, talking nonstop as we passed rundown motels and single-story rental units, where a naked man posed in his doorway, offering his stiff appendage to us. We screamed and laughed nervously, and ran to work. Our faces were flushed with embarrassment, and our bodies hummed with arousal and the power of our young sexuality.
At night, alone in my bedroom, I listened to Joni Mitchell and wailed along to every song on “Court and Spark,” dreaming of acoustic guitars with tapestry straps looped over gauzy, poet-chick frocks. On weekends, I stopped at a guitar shop and admired the curvaceous lines, shiny wood and taut strings of the instruments that hung on walls and rested on guitar racks. I thought of taking lessons and learning how to play “Help Me” or “Free Man in Paris,” even if there was no way in hell I’d be able to reach Joni’s high notes. It never happened. Practicality overrode my whimsical notions of a music career, and I bought the Smith-Corona so I could write term papers and newspaper stories as a University of Colorado-Boulder student.
I typed my first term paper while my roommate, a Southern belle from Memphis, screwed her Mexican marijuana dealer in the single bed behind me. She had ordered me out of the room, but I had refused, telling her my paper was due early the next morning. They refused to leave, and a Mexican standoff ensued. As I typed, the bedsprings creaked, the bed rocked, my roommate sighed, and her dealer grunted with pleasure. They rolled out of bed and rolled a joint.
“Belle” had brought a man into our room our very first night on campus. I had gone to bed with rollers in my hair, and woke up to find her and a tall, handsome blond man in bed. “Buenos dias, señorita,” they chimed happily as they spooned, their lean, tanned bodies wrapped in a white sheet. I was a virgin, Catholic, and mortified, and pissed that they were calling me “señorita.” It sounded so condescending and ignorant to my young American ears. I had been born and raised in the United States, and didn’t speak much Spanish. It was a reminder that they saw me as “the other.” Once again, I was a foreigner in my own land.
All that semester I put up with Belle, and the countless boys and men she brought into our tiny dorm room. I came home or woke up to a white-haired retiree taking undergraduate classes; a drunken Hawaiian who leaned out our window in the nude and threw snowballs at passersby; a virgin ROTC student who soon lost his virginity; a suave, Algerian Muslim with a French accent; and a group of boys from back East who lived on the floor below us, and had heard about Belle’s version of Southern comfort.
I awoke every morning to the watery sound of Belle’s glass bong, and watched her parcel out weed into baggies, or “lids” she sold to other students. I typed away night after night as she slipped into slinky Diane Von Furstenberg wrap-around dresses, or tight jeans before heading into the night in her Honda Civic to hit the dance clubs (we called them discos back then).
After one particularly raucous night with the Hawaiian, I confronted her, called her a whore, and walked down the hallway of our dorm as all of the other women on our floor stepped our of their rooms and cheered and applauded me. After Christmas vacation, Belle came back to campus a born-again Christian, and begged my forgiveness. My Smith-Corona and I saw it all. In the end, though, I didn’t own that gleaming typewriter for very long. Just a year later I hocked it at a pawnshop to buy a Christmas present for my Venezuelan boyfriend, who later became my husband.
We moved to California, where he studied engineering. On a hot summer night in a beautiful seaside town, we stood outside a packed dive bar and watched the Runaways perform. I don’t remember seeing Joan, but I remember seeing someone in a bustier, garter belts, stockings and guitars on stage.
Sadly, I never learned to play an acoustic guitar like Joni or an electric guitar like Joan. I’m hoping my son will teach me some day––if I can just learn the chords and place my fingers between the frets without contortions. Maybe then I wouldn’t be such a disappointment.
“You know you get your musical skills from me, right?” I told him.
“What? Mom, No.”
“It’s true. All that yearning I had to play guitar, all that love of music, I poured it into you.”
He rolled his eyes, picked up his iPod and walked away with a smirk on his face. “Sure, Mom.”
OK. Maybe that’s a bit much. But, isn’t it strange how a simple sound can stir so many memories?
A version of this essay also appeared at Salon.com.