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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Smith-Corona and Me

It was displayed in a large glass cabinet at a newly-opened discount store a couple of miles from my apartment. It was a lazy summer Sunday afternoon and I had wandered in to see what the fuss was all about. Normally I avoid crowds, but in this case, I was bored enough to mix with the masses.

My eye was drawn to it immediately. Blacke matte finish that just ached to be touched. Sleek lines and a low profile made it look refined, the artful combination of form-to-function that great design always has. It was a Smith-Corona typewriter, or more accurately, word processor.

I stared at it like I'd found The Holy Grail. I didn't even know I wanted it until I saw it; a triumph of modern consumerism, I guess. People pushed and bumped around me, trying to get better views of whatever else the large cabinet held. Outweighed as I was by even slender women and large children, I was rooted to my spot in front of the Smith-Corona.

The description was brief: A small screen allowed two lines to be viewed at once, it could save about two pages of text, printed with a "one-off, high intensity" ribbon and included more than 150 "international symbols." Price tag: $99.95.

I checked again. $99.95. It didn't make sense. A blue-jacketed drone walked by and I actually grabbed his shoulder to ask "Is that the price?" He peered closely, bumping his nose against the glass and said "Yeah. Discounted from $249.95." He lumbered away.

The original price I could understand, though I knew very little about word processors in 1982. (Yeah, this is a period piece. Please adjust your timeframes.) I searched the cabinet and found nothing like that Smith-Corona except some clumsy monstrosity priced under $70.

I know I walked home, but as soon as I got there, I turned around and walked back to the store. Still there. (The store and the Smith-Corona.) The price tag practically glowed like neon: $99.95. I walked home again. I know I did. I just can't remember anything about that walk except the numbers 9,9,9 and 5.

See, at the time, I was down to $110 to my name and didn't have a job until the semester started in six weeks. Could I make it another month and a half with only $10? What about the rent? Food? Pizza? (Pizza was a definite expense category during my college years.)

Monday morning, nine A.M., I was the first customer to enter the store. I walked to the glass cabinet and the Smith-Corona wasn't there. It wasn't there. It wasn't there. The ragged edges of a disturbing panic clouded my vision. I whirled to find a drone and suddenly saw the Smith-Corona, in a small display case, with a price tag of $90.00. No other nines, no five. I put my hand on the display case and yelled "I'm buying this!" (I wanted to lie and say "announced." Honesty prevailed: I yelled.)

A member of the near-dead came to sell me the Smith-Corona. The whole transaction moved like rust. From display case to solid cardboard box, passing through insertion into molded foam endpieces, use of plastic wrap, placed in large plastic bag, the bag taped shut, inserted wrong in the box, then right, box flaps closed, then opened to insert smaller plastic bag with Owner's Manual and assorted papers, close flaps and finally taped shut. I wanted to scream.

I paid, ignoring the quiet voice that told me rent was due in two weeks. After I'd paid, the zombie came to life and told me to wait one more minute. From some cranny beneath the register, he pulled out a small white box. "Ribbons," he said. "There's only a few in here, but you can have them." He shrugged. "Can't sell them." I grabbed the box and practically ran home.

The next two hours are etched in my mind like some people grok movies. Everything I did with the Smith-Corona seemed so right: it fit my desk perfectly, the cord was exactly the right length, the ribbon practically installed itself, it hummed at just the right pitch (neither too loud to cause distraction nor too low to make you wonder if it was turned on), the keyboard was made for my fingers and the clicks it made were marvels of audio engineering. I wrote with ease as every function was exactly what I needed and printing was a smooth flow of beautiful letters.

The small white box had eleven extra ribbons. Eleven! That and the five reams of paper I had were enough to ensure that I might starve, but I could write until I fainted from hunger.

I wrote. That day, the next and deep into Wednesday. I took two short naps, ate Oreo cookies and drank apple juice. No TV, no radio, just the Smith-Corona and me. Wednesday evening I slumped back, turned my new workhorse off and gathered several dozen pages that had scattered themselves all over my apartment.

Thursday morning, I walked into the local paper's office and offered some samples. The editor took half an hour to read them (slow news day, apparently) and then surprised me: "I like two of these. How much do you want for them?" I stuttered. I hate stuttering. He chuckled and offered me $30. Each. I nodded a lot. I hate nodding a lot.

With a check in my pocket and a request to present more pieces, I floated home. The summer went from lazy to focused, my perspective switching from lump to explorer. Writing went from "once in a blue moon" to daily ritual. But what remained as crystal light in my mind was that I had gambled, had plunged ahead once again and in an unforeseen way, I had won. Call it a leap of faith or fortune favors the brave, it doesn't matter. What matters is that passionate risks are the only ones worth taking. And we tend to forget that as the years go by.

(Closing note: I was late with the rent, but the owner was out of town and didn't collect it until mid-September anyway. The Smith-Corona wrote over 60 selling pieces with me and my first novel. As part of the last box of belongings I had sent to my new home, the Smith-Corona was lost. I received $400 compensation for the lost box. I never cashed the check: that box was worth many times more.)


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