The final assignment for my seventh grade English class was a research paper on William Shakespeare. We were given months to work on it, and the night before it was due I thought I should probably start my research or at least take a look at the assignment sheet. Aside from the usual admonitions about structure, sources, and spelling, there was a direction I had never seen: “All papers must be typed! No exceptions!!” And underneath that was something I had seen before: “No extensions will be given! No exceptions!!”
Typed? I had seen typewriters in movies. All of my papers up until then had been handwritten, and it was still the time where only extremely nerdy families had computers. This typing requirement put a ripple in my usual last-minute drill. I found my mother in the kitchen consolidating boxes of cereal and asked her if we had a typewriter.
“I think there’s one in the basement. Who knows if it still works. Why do you ask?”
“I have to type a research paper on William Shakespeare.”
“And dare I ask when this paper is due?”
“Of course. Well, I think I last saw it in the basement under a bunch of your old lunch boxes. When are you going to throw those things out?”
Underneath the moldy and dusty lunch boxes was a moldy and dusty plastic covering under which lay a somewhat less moldy and dusty typewriter. It was large and black like a Rolls Royce and at first I thought the carriage return was a hood ornament.
With the help of a neighbor I hauled it up to my room and removed the covering. I was afraid to touch it, and as I plugged it in I felt a little like Dr. Frankenstein.
The machine whirred and I pressed one of the keys. The resulting sound was a like a gunshot, a short staccato pop and I checked the opposite wall for holes. I hit a few more keys, and figured if I could get used to the sound of Hungry Hungry Hippos I could get used to this. After a few minutes of working on my paper I realized something was wrong and had to visit my mother again.
“Mom, where does the paper come out?” I asked.
“It doesn’t,” she said. “You have to load typewriter paper. What have you been typing on all this time?”
“Um, never mind.”
I loaded in paper from my spiral notebook but the mangled edges looked like the work of a fifth grader, so I had to persuade my mother to drive me to the office supply store for some typewriter paper.
Typing on typewriter paper was a lot more effective. Then I accidentally spelled “Stratford-upon-Avon” with a “Q” and discovered that the correction tape was missing, and again we were off to the office supply store. Using a typewriter apparently required a full tank of gas.
Not five minutes after our return the ink dried up. I could see letters being embossed on the paper, and considered filling the indentations with pen. Luckily my mother still had her coat on and again we went to the office supply store.
But alas, the ribbon was not in stock. “We really don’t carry stuff for typewriters anymore,” the manager said. “But we’d be happy to order it for you. When’s your paper due?”
We tried another store but the manager there just laughed at me. It was getting late. Stores would be closing and I did not know what I was going to do. I needed this time to be thinking about making the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on Shakespeare sound like my own words, not having my mother drive me all over Long Island looking for typrewriter ribbon. Writing with a quill would have been easier than this.
Somehow my father had gotten wind of my dilemma and took me to the working typewriter at his office. I typed my paper while my father sat in the waiting room reading a book titled You’re Almost There: Parenting Through Adolescence. It was close to midnight when I finished, and from my father’s face I gathered that we would be not going for ice cream. My parents bought me a word processor the following year, and we traded in the typewriter for an Acura.
I just read that the last typewriter factory in the world, located in Mumbai, India, is closing its doors forever. I am sure that a lot of people are lamenting this, people who grew up with typewriters, got used to thinking with rapidfire gunshots coming with every depression of their fingertips, people who got a thrill from hearing the ‘ding’ that told them to hit the carriage return, people who enjoyed the challenge of knowing which stores stocked their particular ribbon and correction tape. People who are not me.