Manual Dexterity

I found a little bit of old New York in the Flatiron building this morning, when I took my girlfriend’s malfunctioning Olivetti Lettera 35i typewriter to the Gramercy Office Equipment Company for repair. This 70+ year old business is run in a little hovel of an office on the eighth floor by an impeccably groomed, kindly gentleman with a pleasing Brooklyn accent and a preternatural understanding of what makes a typewriter, er, type. Every available surface in the office is stacked up with aging typewriters, office equipment and unfiled paperwork, and when I walked down the very narrow yard of floorspace with the Olivetti, he pulled out a small writing extension from a hulking old steel desk, slapped it with his palm and instructed me to “Set it there. That’s all the space I got.”I unpacked the Olivetti from its carrying bag and set it down. The proprietor slipped a piece of paper in the roller and started typing some random letters to get a sense of the problem (it was inserting random and unwanted spaces as one tapped its keys), after which he told me why, despite being a new machine and sporting the logo of a once respected Italian manufacturer of 20th century office machines, what I had brought him was cheaply made and unworthy of the cost of repair labor.

And then, as if to illustrate how a unique familiarity with obsolescing technology can trump time and space, he reached for what looked like a small suitcase on some cluttered, dusty shelf and produced a beautiful, pristinely preserved Olympia manual typewriter — I was almost sure that, for the half second when he disappeared behind the barely balanced bookcases to fetch it, he had made a ruthless trip back in time and stolen the item from a secretary’s desk in the Truman White House.

He inserted a piece of paper into the Olympia, began typing and demonstrating to me the difference between my diluted, pale descendant of a typewriter and this paragon of the past — the way the carriage moved and the sharp, satisfying sound with which the keys hit the ribbon — I thought to myself, “That’s the typewriter I should have bought.”