Penman No. 368: Scavenging a Smith-Corona

IMG_9518.JPGPenman for Monday, August 26, 2019

 

I HAD the privilege of being mentioned last week in the column of my historian-friend and fellow connoisseur of all things older than ourselves, Ambeth Ocampo, for having facilitated his acquisition of a 1962 Ferrari-red typewriter sporting a rare cursive typeface. Ambeth and I had run into each other at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival in Makati, where we had separate events but both attended the visiting Gina Apostol’s talk on her new novel Insurrecto. Strangely enough, the last time we met was also in last year’s PRWF, where we realized to our mutual amusement that we were both carrying Agatha Christie fountain pens. (For the record, he has also been a lifelong penman.)

Occasionally—like I suppose his legions of fans do—I email him for his professional opinion of my recent antiquarian pickups, like a French book from 1706 about the Jesuits in “Nouvelle Philippines,” which got me all excited until Ambeth burst my bubble by telling me that “Nouvelle Philippines” didn’t exactly mean Manila or even Mindanao but a group of little islands out there in the stormy Pacific. That’s why I always hasten to explain that he’s the scholar and I’m the scavenger, although the things that he himself has scavenged—like Emilio Jacinto’s silver quill pen—are pretty fabulous.

At the PRWF, he asked me if I knew of any cursive (or “script”) typewriters for sale; I said I did not, but would ask a collector-friend, Dennis Pinpin, if he had any. I have about two dozen typewriters (yegads) in my stable, and only one of them has script (that’s it up there, an SCM Classic 12), but Dennis has over a hundred, so he had to have one or two to spare. Indeed, when I asked Dennis, he did—a 1980s Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a sturdy German workhorse on which I had begun my first novel back in graduate school, and an older, fire-red Olivetti Studio. Which one should I get, Ambeth asked me. The Olivetti, I said, will likely have softer keys. The two gents met in a burger joint, had an enjoyable conversation, and a red machine crossed the table for what I knew was a bargain, Dennis being a soft touch for serious writers interested in having some fun with noisy old contraptions.

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But that wasn’t the end of my typewriter week. Like all true collectors, I keep telling myself “Okay, that was the last one,” knowing perfectly well that I’m lying through my teeth. For a couple of days midweek, I got all worked up about acquiring a 1920s Remington that had belonged to a Bulakeño associate of Jose Rizal; I had an agreement with the seller on the price and meeting place, only to be later told that some mysterious stranger had bought it from under my nose. (Ambeth, was that you?) I was beside myself with dismay and disgust, muttering oaths about palabra de honor, but then (like many of you would do, fess up) I sought to soothe my injured feelings by looking for something else to buy. I got lucky over the weekend on a sortie to Bangkal, picking up two lovely paintings by minor masters for the same coin I would have handed over for the typewriter.

And it still didn’t end there, because—idly scanning the online ads while desperately finishing another corporate history (which puts the butter on my bread, and allows me the folly of these pursuits)—my eyes fell on a bright, clean-faced Smith Corona in a crinkle-paint finish they used to call “Desert Sand,” being offered by a seller not too far from me for the price of, shall we say, a couple of dinner-and-movie dates with Beng (sorry, Beng!). I PM’ed the seller, who said the machine had been reserved by someone else. Drat, I thought, but nobly messaged back that I respected dibs, and that if that deal fell through, then I was next in line.

The next day I got a message that the other fellow had failed to show up, and that the Smith Corona was mine to take: destiny! Now I should admit that this was going to be my sixth Smith Corona, the typewriter equivalent of either gluttony or a very unimaginative diet, but as all true collectors know (I really should have an official True Collectors T-shirt made), redundancy is never a problem, except to spouses (and thankfully Beng prefers redundancy in my collectibles to redundancy in spouses). I drove out and picked up the machine, which was being sold out of a Japan-surplus stall in Tandang Sora.

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Back home I gently opened the case, and began drooling at the sight of a near-pristine Smith Corona Standard, whose serial number marked it as having been made in 1941; it had obviously never seen any action, like firing off a desperate message from a bunker in Bataan or Okinawa. After I had wiped and oiled it, the soft clatter of keys striking the platen, probably for the first time in decades, filled the air in my home office like Debussy’s Reverie. (That’s our apu-apuhan Buboy below, trying out the new toy.) How do these beauties, I would later tweet, find their way to ugly old me? I imagined Ambeth across the city, pecking away at his Olivetti, maybe wondering if Rizal had ever used a Hammond or a Blickensderfer.

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(Photo of Ambeth Ocampo courtesy of Dennis Pinpin.)

 

 

Penman No. 315: A Qwerty Quartet

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Penman for Monday, August 13, 2018

 

I’M NOT really a typewriter collector (not like my friend George Mamonluk, whose noodles I patronize to help build up his stable of vintage typewriters and fountain pens), but I realized this past week that I can’t resist a classic when I see one, even when I can barely squeeze it into the budget or, just as critically, into my man-cave.

Surely space and money aren’t foremost on the minds of such fanatics as the 4,677 members of the Antique Typewriter Collectors FB Group—not to mention Tom Hanks, who is to typewriters what Jay Leno is to cars. In fact, Tom—who has hundreds of the machines, including his dad’s Underwood—recently wrote a collection of short stories, published under the title Uncommon Type (Alfred Knopf, 2017, 405 pp.) in which a typewriter appears in every story, and he provided the foreword to the collector’s must-have, Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing (Chronicle Books, 2017, 208 pp.)

I’m not quite there yet; I just have four typewriters hanging around—but what a Qwerty quartet they make. I haven’t really used one for everyday writing since the late 1980s, when I began the draft of my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, on an Olympia Traveller that I’d carried with me to grad school in the US. I began using computers around 1992 and never looked back. But I’ve never lost my fascination for these mechanical wonders, and even observed their sad demise in my July 11, 2011 column, “Requiem for the Typewriter,” in which I noted the shutdown of the last typewriter producer in the world, Godrej and Boyce, in India.

My oldest one is a black Corona 3 from 1922, and in many ways it’s also the most amazing, as it’s a portable whose carriage folds over its keyboard, and opens up like a clamshell. I remember spotting that Corona on the counter of an antiques mall in San Francisco; it had just arrived and hadn’t even been put on the shelves. When the manager flipped out the folding carriage, I was bewitched (here insert the Ping! of the carriage), paid the asking price, and hand-carried it home.

I also have another shiny black Royal “O” portable, which a check of the Royal typewriter database online shows was produced in 1937. I can’t recall where or from whom I bought this very handsome model, but it was one of two fine old machines that I brought back from the US, one of which I gave to my friend, the poet Isabel Banzon Mooney. When the UP Faculty Center burned down in April 2016, I thought mine had gone up in smoke in my office across Isabel’s as well—until, just a couple of weeks ago, I looked under my bed, and there it was!

The third of the lot is a pristine white Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a classic of the ‘80s and a clone of the one I’d brought with me to the US (a gift from my mentor Gerry Sicat), which had rusted away. I loved that portable so much that I always hankered for its replacement. I found this one on eBay, and had it shipped all the way from London; surprisingly, it arrived at my doorstep without a scratch, at minimal cost.

As you might have guessed, I’m leading up to a thesis here, which is that these machines were meant to roost with me—particularly my most recent find, an Olivetti Valentine, a favorite of collectors and an icon of 20thcentury pop art. Designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King, this orange-red typewriter (released on Feb. 14, 1969, thus the name) looks like a narrow plastic wastebasket with a handle—until you flick two rubber clasps and pull out the portable within.

It’s well worth Googling to see the whole machine and case and to get the full story. Cynthia Trope of the Cooper Hewitt Museum explains its appeal thus: “Sottsass chose to use a bold Pop red plastic housing to show that the Valentine was intended more to appeal to writing for recreation rather than work. He said his design was ‘for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment. An anti-machine machine, built around the commonest mass-produced mechanism, the works inside any typewriter, it may also seem to be an unpretentious toy.’”

My friend and fellow Apple fanboy Leo Venezuela had told me about this unpretentious toy a few months ago, and it was burning a hole in my head (as it would in my pocket). I was this close to ordering one from Sweden, when one magically popped up late one night in a local online sales forum. So this late-sleeping bird caught the worm. “You’re lucky,” said the lady who handed it to me the next day. “I had twenty callers after you.” (Note to self: now sell a few old books and pens.)

If there are twenty people in this country who know what an Olivetti Valentine is, then I’m in trouble. That sounds like serious competition—but didn’t I say I wasn’t a serious collector, yet?