Mad Old Men unearthed

So many people seemed interested in my recollections about old typewriters that I thought I’d share this dusty relic, a three-part conversation between Tommy Kane and me in which we discuss all the old technologies that used to be part of our work in advertising. If you’ve had a long career in design or what you used to be called ‘Madison Avenue,’ it’ll ring some ancient bells.

We recorded it about four years ago. It’s sort of pathetic how unreliable our memories were already.

QWERTY and all that.


I am writing this on my iPad and on a manual typewriter — at the same time.  I downloaded a new app developed by, of all people, Tom Hanks, that impish lover of World War II. It make my iPad into a virtual manual typewriter with clickety-clacking keys, a carriage return, and paper that slowly furls the page up as I write.  The idea is to give writers the sense of rhythm that come form typing, a focus on the act itself, and  a sense of progress and productivity.   It’s quite soothing and makes immediately think of when I first had this experience,

It’s astonishing, considering how lousy a typist I am, that I have been pounding a keyboard since I was in elementary school.  My family always had typewriters around, in my parents’ study at home, in their offices at the university, or in my grandparents’ medical practice.  I got one of my own to play with before I was  teen ager, a manual Smith Corona, then  I saved up to buy an Olivetti Lexikon 83DL that was in the MOMA design collection and was grey and orange and super sexy.

This app I am using lets me zoom around my document, hopping up and down with arrow keys and highlighting sections to delete.  That’s a feature I can turn off, however, so I can return to those dark days when I was stuck with every letter I mistyped. Back in the day, to deal with my inevitable plague of typos, I used a typewriter eraser, a round thing with a plastic brush for wiping away the crumbs.  And Liquid Paper which I consumed by the gallon. It also came with little plastic brush to apply the opaque paint in little dabs.

This app lacks a few other features I remember. Like the way the keys would tangle together if I hit several at the same time in my zeal to get the words down. I used carbon paper if I thought there was any reason to have more than one copy of what I wrote.  When I worked for my local paper I would write on rough yellow paper and type —30— at the end of each article.

But I always hankered for an IBM Selectric, which had the backspacing correction function and used a little golf ball with different exchangeable typefaces, like “Orator”.

Then, when I got my first job as a writer, there was an actual  Selectric at my desk.  I felt I had arrived. But within a year or two, I had my first word processor, a TRS-80, and I could save my articles onto cassette tapes, reformat them, backspace away typos virtually, and write wand write without ever having to roll in  another sheet of onionskin paper.

I have written on so many things in my life — notebooks, legal pads, index cards, pages torn from the ends of paperbacks and the corners of newspapers, on laptops, desktops, phones, tablets…  Each new tool arrives with a fanfare, but they were all peripheral to the real tool, the one resting between my ears that has not yet been replaced.  I work everyday to upgrade it — with reading, living, thinking, and pounding on whatever keys are at hand.

The shortest distance between two coasts is a wonky line.


Playwrights say that if a gun appears on stage, somebody will use it before the curtain falls. Photographers say that the best camera is the one you have with you. The New York Lottery says “You gotta be in it to win it.”

I just spent ten days in a car with a journal on my lap.  As  result, I did a lot of drawing. Not that drawing in a car is ideal. I am prey to carsickness so jolting highways and juddering views are usually not the ideal environment for the delicate stomach of my muse. Nonetheless, as I looked out the windshield four thousand miles, I was constantly drawn to draw.

Aphorists say when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And as I spent my whole day with a pen lightly gripped in my hand, everything looked like a drawing. The only effort required to start a drawing was to shrug off the cap and, whenever I wasn’t at the helm, I seized every excuse to draw (thank you, Tommy Kane).


The unfolding miles inspired me to use the pen which in turn defined the journey we were on. I saw connections between things, I saw unusual shapes, I saw common things suddenly looking very uncommon. I was hyperaware of the light, of the weather, of the ravages of time. Holding a pen can be like donning polarizing sunglasses, sharpening everything in your field of vision.

Now I am back on terra firma, I want to hold on to that urge and habit. To keep recording all the days that pass under my feet, to keep seeing even the most familiar landscape with the fresh eyes and open mind of a traveler.