I know that one ought to think of the computer, the laptop, as a tool. As the people who make computers and other digital gadgets -- including major appliances -- say of their products, "It's an empowerment tool." Everything with a microprocessor is, in fact, empowering these days. But trying to work on the computer -- which, for me means writing -- is becoming more and more like trying to work while watching TV.
I know, I know: you don't have to turn the "TV" on. Yes, you do. I do. As a journalist, I now use the web more than the phone. I use the web for research, and I'm a creature of habit, so I check my email every 10 seconds and go to my favorite useless web sites, and then go watch the latest Kimbo Slice fight on YouTube, and there's the ads, of course, that beg you to click through to some other web site, and you know you shouldn't but, what the hell, maybe I can write about it? I have to watch the movie trailers, right? (Don't tell my editor this).
When I'm not at work, I have other writing I'd like to pretend to be doing. But I'm not doing it and haven't for months. "Maybe," I thought, "I've just moved on. It's a life change. Pottery, maybe?" But then I realized that the extracurricular writing stopped around the time I picked up my new super laptop that does everything fast, and even cooks lunch. Not a word since.
My computer is eye candy in a box. It's the Las Vegas strip, "SEE ME NOW!!" on every page, sometimes even on my desktop. What used to be a vehicle for Word Perfect 5.1 has become a sluice tube for interactive (add catchword here.) I spend the day with my head in a digital aquarium in which words do battle with digital images swimming about like tropical fish.
So here's what I did: I had my father send up his Hermes 3000 manual typewriter, one of the best machines ever made. Neglected for years, it needed a fix-up. It took me a while, but I found just the place: Gramercy Typewriter, run by Paul Schweitzer, one of the last people who fix manuals. They used to be in the Flatiron Building; now they're across the street next to Eisenberg's Deli, appropriately enough. (Eisenberg's may be the bona fide New York deli restaurant in town).
I lugged the Hermes up to Schweitzer's fourth-floor office, a workshop stacked floor to ceiling with old machines, papers, cases and typewriters with notes on them for pickup or delivery. I prepared to be treated as an eccentric. ("What? You want this FIXED!" laughs all around. "Get me the sledgehammer in the corner, Jake.") But, no.
"See that?" Paul said, pointing to a machine on the floor next to his desk. "That's [playwright] Sam Shepard's typewriter. Look," he said, riffling through a box on his desk, pulling out receipts. "This is Dr. Oliver Sacks'. You know him? He's the neurologist who wrote all of those books. Writes them all on a typewriter. I fix his typewriters. I fix all of Tom Hanks' typewriters."
Say what? Tom Hanks, the actor? Has typewriters? "He's got a lot of them, about 50. Gives them away to people as presents. He was just in here."
He pointed to a famous actress' machine (I think maybe it was Shirley MacLaine's), which he'd picked up personally for repair. And the list went on. "Why do these people use typewriters?" I asked, hoping to glean some secret that might get me into medical school so I could write about someone who mistook his wife for a hat. "They feel like they're really writing," he said.
I can vouch for that. There's a tactile satisfaction one gets from the cold steel, the weight, the sensation of keys hitting paper (none of which I'm getting right now, by the way, as I'm writing this on my notebook).
But the machines aren't cheap. Paul's got refurbished manuals he sells, arrayed on a shelf near his desk. There's a fire-engine red Smith Corona manual for $190. A baby-blue Royal portable for about the same. "It's a collector's item," he says. "They only made five in that color." And if you go to MyTypewriter.com (something you can't do on your typewriter) -- a kind of Edmunds.com for writing machines -- you can get vicarious sticker shock.
They've got my machine, first manufactured the year before I was born, on sale for $495. Intel not inside.