Letters From My Father, and a Typewriter That Made the Journey With Me
I blame a severe case of left-handedness for fouling my penmanship and pushing me toward the typewriter well before I could shave.
I started on an aqua-green Olivetti Studio 44 whose “portable” description belied its weight. My father claimed to have liberated it from the Hong Kong office of Newsweek magazine, where he was bureau chief, when we moved to New York in 1965.
I typed my way through high school, through college, late nights and all-nights, retyping first drafts of 20-page term papers and always on two sheets of paper to protect the platen. For mistakes, there was white-out.
I lugged the Olivetti to London for a year abroad, then lugged it back to college in Baltimore, where I typed increasingly desperate letters to my English first love.
With all that typing, I began to get the hang of writing, too. It helped that my journalist father, now living in France, sent beautifully written and always-typed letters to my sisters and me as often as once a month. I typed back to Our Father Who Art in Paris, as we called him, and eventually stopped imitating him and started writing.
The Olivetti stayed home when I quit my first newspaper job to backpack for a year through Asia, and it stayed shelf-bound as I encountered the early computers at journalist jobs in the late 1980s.
By the time I moved to Shanghai in 1995 as a foreign correspondent, the Olivetti was residing in the basement of my then mother-in-law’s Woodstock, N.Y., home, still in its original dark-red case.
It took a move back to New York in 2003 and a divorce four years later to see that machine again. Home in my apartment at last, the Olivetti shared pride of place with an imposing black Royal that had belonged to my stepfather, a journalist as well.
That’s when I found Bino of Typewriters & Things, a shop at the tip of Eighth Avenue between Jane Street and 13th Street. The Olivetti didn’t really need much, I figured: a bit of oil, unsticking some of the keys, a new ribbon.
Bino, who is from the Philippines and counts Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese among his typewriter clients, flicked a few keys, noted with approval that the carriage sat smoothly in its frame, then fingered a few scratches and blemishes in the paint.
“You’ll want it repainted, of course,” he said. “We can easily match the color. It’s a classic.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that a repaint was possible. Red, it had to be red, I decided — and not just any red, but that very best crimson Italian: Ferrari Red.
The result, almost a month and about $200 later, was breathtaking. My schoolboy typewriter glowed like an object of industrial art. I stroked its smooth body, pressed its freshly oiled keys. I tapped the space bar, clackety-clack, until the comforting “ding” warned of the line’s imminent end.
Now my bright-red Olivetti sits majestically atop one of my 1980s-era Klipsch loudspeakers. The black Royal, which I also had Bino repair (though not paint; that just didn’t seem right), squats on the other speaker.
Truth is, I don’t use either typewriter much these days. Two years ago I banged out thank-you notes to each of the apartment building’s two dozen or so doormen, to accompany their Christmas tips. They were startled, impressed. Short of cash, I abandoned that practice altogether last year.
And if the Olivetti ever needs a tune-up again, it probably won’t be with Bino. He told me when I stopped by the shop a few weeks ago that’s he’s closing on Dec. 31, a victim of ever- rising West Village rents.
It’s good enough for me that the Olivetti, and the Royal, are both in perfect working order. My teenagers sometimes poke at them curiously.
I dream that just once, cleaning up after a particularly liquid dinner party, I will discover a guest has used the Olivetti to create a miniature haiku. The semi-smudged, slightly misaligned words, I imagine, will reveal some greater truth about myself — or at least include a pretty girl’s Twitter handle.
More practically, I have made myself a promise: Should I and my children ever live a continent or an ocean apart, I will write them at least one letter a month — on the Olivetti.