Once again a student asks me why I became a writer and this time I say: Because of the staggered, staccato music of my dad’s old typewriter in the basement. Because when he really got going, you could listen to it like a song. Because after a while you could tell if he was writing a book review or a letter just from the shift and drift and thrum of the thing. Because it sounded cheerful and businesslike and efficient and workmanlike and true. Because a bell rang when he came to the end of a line, and you could hear him roll the paper in and out of the carriage, and you could imagine him carefully lining up the carbon sheet. Because he typed with two fingers faster than anyone I knew could type with ten, and he had the professional journalist’s firm, confident hammer-stroke with those blunt forefingers, as if they knew perfectly well what they wanted to say and went about saying it with a calm alacrity that you could listen to all day long.
Because his typewriter had dozens of machined metal parts with cool names like spool and platen. Because his typewriter was a tall older model that he loved and kept using even when sleek electric typewriters came into vogue and tried to vibrate their way onto his desk. Because if you stared closely at the keys, as I did quite often, you could see by the pattern of wear which letters he used more than others. Because I would daydream of writing a story on his typewriter, but I would never actually do so, because it would have been like driving God’s car, and I’d be afraid I would break something and feel bad about it until Judgment Day, when all is forgiven.
Because his typewriter stood proudly in the center of his desk, surrounded by books and magazines and neat stacks of paper and manila folders and newspaper clippings and rulers and erasers and pencils and pens and a jar of rubber cement and not one but two X-Acto knives sharper than a falcon’s talons, and above his desk was a shelf crowded with dictionaries and catechisms and manuals and other books of all sorts, many of them bristling with scraps of paper marking particular pages or passages of heft and verve and dash and wit.
Because when he went downstairs to his desk, you could be in any room upstairs, even the attic, and hear the first hesitant strokes as he began typing, and then the sprint and rattle and rollick as he hit his stride, and when he was really rolling, you would hear an impossibly short pause between the end of one page and the start of another, a break so brief that you could not believe he could whip one sheet out and wind another in so fast unless you saw it with your own eyes, which I did sometimes, peeking from the doorway into the study that no child was allowed to enter when Dad was typing, for fear we would interrupt his thoughts, which were — no kidding — putting food on the table. You will not under any circumstances interrupt your father when he is in his study. If you are bleeding, come upstairs and inform me of the cause of the bleeding, and if you cannot find me, find your sister, and if you cannot find either of us, staunch the bleeding with a hand towel, not a bath towel, and go next door and ask the neighbors for assistance if necessary.
Because he had been typing since he was a boy, and because all the love letters he wrote to my mother when he was far away in the tropics during the war were meticulously typed, and the poems he sent were meticulously typed, and because he once told me that several times in his thirties he had tried to rise before dawn to type a novel, even as the house was filled with small children and he was due on the early train to his press job in the city, but he did not have the energy to invent and embroider, and he would fall asleep on his typewriter with his head on his arms and startle awake after a while and never finish.
But I have written novels, and there are times when I think that I have done so in large part because of him and the sound of his cheerful efficient staccato typing in the basement. Maybe my novels are somehow the novels he started to write but could not finish. Perhaps somehow I have finished them for him, and now, even as I finish typing this, he startles awake and grins ruefully at his old typewriter and pads upstairs to wake the kids.