When I learned to use a typewriter in elementary school at PS 40, the classroom was stocked with old Underwood “Student” Typewriters, bulky machines with keys that stuck. At the end of the class we had to cover the 1939-era artifact with a fitted vinyl fabric, as if these were precision works. For two hours every week the sound of pecking, clacking, ringing, pinging and carriage returning filled the third-floor room with percussive rhythms like nothing else in the building. I developed a real love for that Underwood.
If a student did well enough (by typing an amazing 30–40 words a minute without mistakes, a tough feat for our little hands on such a large machine), they’d be invited to demonstrate their skill, as though at a concert recital, at the teacher’s desk on the comparatively new Olympia, which belonged to her and was rarely used. It was not Board of Ed issue.
I typed pretty fast and accurately, so earned the honor of “playing” that instrument on various occasions. It was among the few instances I was called upon to do something at PS 40 other than go to Principal Spellman’s office for some intolerable infraction.
On parent/teacher night, my typing teacher was among the rare ones who had something good to tell my folks about my achievements. She also hinted that they buy me a typewriter of my own (if for nothing else, to prevent me from causing my signature mayhem).
Whenever we visited my uncle, a professor and writer, I would always hide away in his study, typing on his new IBM electric with the hair-trigger keys. I knew my parents would never get me one like that, so I had to take the joy where and when it came. Which was not as often as I liked.
Where I could always satisfy my passion for typing was not in any study or schoolroom but at the Olivetti showroom that opened in 1954 on lower Fifth Avenue, where, outside the store, underneath large metal cutout letters—O-L-I-V-E-T-T-I—sat a baby-blue Scribe Portable with a (sometimes pristine) piece of white paper in the carriage, just waiting to be hit with a few keys to make words or sentences. It was because of this brilliantly simple display, open to any passersby regardless of intention, that I fell in love with all things Olivetti.
Inside there were some great demos, too—typewriters (maybe even the Valentine) and business machines of all description, which, like a cell phone store today, one could touch and sample. There was also a mural by Costantine Nivolo; recalling it now, it was the height of retail modernism. Back then it was a cool playhouse (sans -ism). That typewriter on a pedestal was inspired and inspiring. I became a typewriter obsessive and my parents got me an Olivetti 22 portable for my birthday that year. (Although my handwriting skills suffered, I turned in the cleanest book reports.)
I pass by what I believe was the old Fifth Avenue storefront often. Always the sound of the keys, the kiss of the metal elite type on the page, and the manual dexterity it demanded, come back to remind me of when I fell in love with all things typewriters. It may be cool to speak into a machine and get a flawless screen of letters and words in return, but nothing compares to the typewriter.