Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

Penman No. 347: The Master of Commandante Street

 

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Penman for Monday, April 1, 2019

 

COMMANDANTE STREET branches off Evangelista in Manila’s Quiapo—a downtown district a poet-friend endearingly described as “the armpit of the city.” It’s an area teeming with shops selling generators, compressors, engine parts, filing cabinets, and cheap guitars and stereos, not too far from soft-porn moviehouses and restaurants offering Chinese noodles and dumplings. You wouldn’t know it, but on one side of a hole-in-the wall along Commandante works one of the world’s most highly regarded craftsmen, known to his clients and admirers only as “Gerald Cha.”

Gerald repairs and restores typewriters—yes, those noisy machines your grandparents used to write letters and fill out forms with—catering to a small but fiercely dedicated community of typewriter collectors and users, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. He’s not alone—there are still many master repairmen out there who can make a 1912 Blickensderfer or a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super work for you (check out Duane Jensen’s Phoenix Typewriter videos on YouTube, for instance)—but Gerald has acquired near-mythical status in the online community, as much perhaps for his skills as for his mystery.

As one member of our Antique Typewriter Collectors group puts it, “Gerald Cha was a quiet man. He lived among the pines in seclusion. His family and friends knew him as a gentle soul, but the typewriters feared his name. Legend has it that Gerald Cha once carried 16 desktop typewriters, using 8 fingers and 8 toes, crawling on his elbows and knees. He stood 5.6 meters tall, weighed 10 stone, and could throw a VW Beetle 270 feet. His shoes could hold 23 gallons of water, each. Gerald did not seek attention, but attention found him.”

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On the day that I and two other collector-friends—Toastmaster Dennis Pinpin and lawyer Javi Flores—visit Gerald at his shop, he’s poring over an 1880s Caligraph shipped in from the States. The Caligraph is a large, black Rube-Goldbergian contraption with a plethora of screws and bars. Like many early models, it’s an upstrike typewriter—meaning, the keys strike the platen (the rubber cylinder on which the paper is rolled) from under, instead of from the front, as in normal typewriters. In other words, you’re typing blind, not seeing what you wrote.

Gerald’s job is to see how everything hangs together, and to fabricate parts that no longer exist. He does this with the help of local artisans, including someone who custom-made the one-inch-wide ribbons used by the Caligraph (the standard size is half an inch). Most of the Caligraph’s key caps were gone, so he had to have a whole period-correct set of letters, numbers, and assorted characters printed out, along with the machine’s emblem—normally a decal, “but for now I’ll have to do with a sticker” that he had made. Gerald’s in the right place for any kind of copying—C. M. Recto Avenue, just around the corner, has a decades-old reputation, predating the Xerox, for being Manila’s Forgery Row, where you can order anything from a birth certificate to a diploma from the university of your choice.

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Our requests seem easy by comparison—Javi is having a ca. 1910 Oliver No. 5 restored, I need new rubber feet for my 1938 Royal O, and Dennis (he with the 90 typewriters) always has something or other for Gerald to mind. The man who attends to all these is no bearded guru, but a slightly built, soft-spoken guy in his early 40s. “Cha” is really his wife’s nickname. “There were too many other people with my name, so I had to find something different,” he says. Another signature is his impossibly weathered Nokia, as if to suggest how far behind the times he is, like his machines. But you can find him as “Gerald Cha” on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, urged by the likes of Dennis to share his uncommon expertise not just with fellow Filipinos but with the world. He’s been online for only a few years, but in that short time he’s risen to legendary status among the typerati (yes, I just made up that word).

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Incredibly enough, he was born on the same street where he now works. “I was a helper in an office machines shop in my teens,” he explains as he looks over Javi’s Oliver. “That’s how I learned to do this. I never went to college because I was already earning good money!” That was then, of course, and while he still rules the roost, he’s had to make concessions to changing tastes to make ends meet. Aside from the tough specialist jobs he does for collectors, he refurbishes and repaints typewriters for an online outfit that sells the spiffed-up machines to millennials angling for a taste of vintage, including set and fashion designers looking for props. “They like their Olympias in hot pink.” His top sellers include chromed Royal QDLs and Olympia SMs.

Sadly, Gerald says, kids these days are more interested in computers, and no one will be taking over from him. “You can still find quite a few typewriter repairmen in Metro Manila,” Dennis tells me, “but Gerald is different. He loves his machines, loves to figure out how they work and how to get them back up to speed.”

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If you need Gerald, you can text him at 0916-7761268, landline 733-4896—unless you want to take an interesting trip out to 1691 Commandante Street, in the armpit of Manila.