Portable

22 January 2010

The Christmas present my little sister (littler of the two) gave to me. Mid-60s, used; all it needed was a new ribbon.

I didn’t know where to find an office supply store in western Michigan, so I opened the Yellow Pages up for the first time in maybe six years. There’s one store under “typewriter repair,” an office supply place on the North Side. It was the day before my flight to Bilbao, via Gerald R. Ford, O’Hare, Frankfurt. Constant snowfall, too steady for the plows to clear. We were in a Mini Cooper with no snow tires; it felt a little like driving a slalom course.

We’d called earlier to make sure they were still in business. It happens sometimes now that the place you want to go to isn’t, anymore. For example: I went to the mall at the end of the summer with my family. We were looking for a Radio Shack — needed some kind of cord to connect two things together, I can’t remember what to what. At Westshore Mall these days, there’s an eerie quiet. Entire hallways are unlit, fronts of stores in various stages of dismantling. Some you can still see the outlines of the signs, some look like somebody had just walked out one day to get a cup of coffee or something. Thirty-six — while my mom asked at the Bath & Body Works whether Radio Shack was still around, I took a walk & counted — thirty six stores out of business. The Radio Shack too. I went to the website to check that I’d counted right, that I’d remembered.

As it turns out, Westshore Mall, according to the About page, was “acquired in 2006 by southern-California real estate investment and development firm Howard & Mills Inc.” The most advanced of the vacant units have been covered up with beige walls that feature a well-designed graphic in red & black: “Within Your Reach: Westhore Mall, New Stores, New Look Coming Soon . . . A Howard & Mills Inc. Property.” In a Holland Sentinel article from June, the mall’s general manager blames residents for not buying local: ““Every time you go and you shop the JC Penny store there [in Grandville or Muskegon], you’re hurting the JC Penny store here.”

Hell. Where was I? Right. The last typewriter repair listing in the Yellow Pages is on the North Side. With vintage machines you never know if there’s a ribbon in stock until you take it in, but we did call ahead.

It was quiet inside — paper advertising color copies for however many cents a page, an empty parking lot, tamped down enough that thankfully it looked like we wouldn’t have to shovel ourselves out. The man who runs the place told my sister & I that this was the third typewriter he’d seen that month. These things are coming back, he said. He popped off the top, spooled a piece of paper. That sure is faded, he said. Let’s try this — and got a generic Smith Corona black ribbon, took it out of the package, spooled it in. His fingers had gotten all covered in carbon, & there were smears on the top. He has those short, stubby old man fingers, surprisingly dextrous. He threaded the ribbon through the little clasps & spooled it to the beginning & hit a few keys twenty or thirty times in a row to make sure it advanced like it was supposed to, replaced the top, said — hold on — and went in back to get some cleaning fluid, wiped down the case to get the carbon off & even a little extra, closed it up.

“Well, thanks for coming in,” he said. The whole thing cost $5. He watched us from the window to make sure we got out of the lot into the street okay.

This is my second typewriter. 11 lbs. with the case, which makes it easy to carry through airports. To replicate what it does, you’d need a computer, a power source, & a printer. It’s only inefficient, an affectation, if you think about efficiency in only one way. Nice typeface, smaller & neater than my Remington, & a little louder too.

I meant to write about that — but here I am & I find myself thinking more about my town, about the mall & that office supply store on the North Side. It’s the sort of place, like where my dad used to get his shoes resoled, that charges so little for such profoundly helpful things & is so seldom patronized you wonder how on earth it stays in business. The cobbler, in fact, has left town.

The mall, on the other hand, is just a wreck & an eyesore. It almost destroyed the downtown in the 70s, but the Victorian storefronts are doing pretty well these days — Prince money saved it, the same Princes who run Blackwater & overlook contractors raping Iraqi girls & intimidate ex-employees (that would be the son, Erik, born in Holland in 1969) . . . — but in the meantime on 8th street there are thriving traces of community, a microbrewery-restaurant, coffeeshops, little boutiques, college kids, lamps & street musicians. Only someone like me, some depressive egghead five thousand miles away in a bar drinking local wine & getting melancholy about the hometown he barely comes back to, only someone like me would ever dream of drawing a straight line from one to the other.

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