Essay Typewriter Ribbon

Kenneth Foster, Jr., became a writer on death row. When he was nineteen, he drove three friends to two armed robberies in San Antonio, Texas; late that night, one of the friends shot and killed a man. Foster was in the car, approximately eighty feet away, but, under the Texas Law of Parties, he was convicted, in 1996, of capital murder. (Foster, like more than a third of the prisoners executed in Texas, is African-American.) He started writing a few years later, after he watched correctional officers forcibly remove a prisoner from his cell. “This man was gassed, wrestled down, cuffed and dragged to his fate,” he told me recently, in a letter. The prisoner was executed by lethal injection, and Foster began to grasp that, one day, the same thing would happen to him. He needed to share what he saw and felt. “I have written with everything from pen, typewriter, marker, to my own blood,” he explained. “I have written on tables, floors, on walls when I only had a crack of light, in the dark, under blinding lights.”

He bought his first typewriter, a Smith Corona, around 1999, and he began writing letter after letter in an effort to stop his execution, which was set for August 30, 2007. The state kept death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, or “seg,” and, alone in his cell, Foster began to think of his typewriter as a companion. He recalled:

Regardless that I’ve had countless of these cheap machines each one is “baby.” The receiver of my affection and attention. Without “her” I didn’t feel complete. With “her” I felt like I was on a DELL in an office somewhere in upper Manhattan. While guys spent time in these Seg cells calling out chess moves over the walkways or doing push-ups until their veins bulged from their temples, I was in my cell pecking away trying to create a different world for myself. Some kind of way I felt I could rewrite my future.

In Texas, before prisoners are put to death, the seven-member Board of Pardons and Paroles reviews their applications for clemency one last time. On August 30th, Foster saw his wife and grandfather, and, in a small act of protest against capital punishment, he refused to eat a final meal. Then his father arrived. “Six to one!” he shouted, ecstatic. The board had read Foster’s typewritten application and voted to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison. An hour later, Governor Rick Perry called off the execution.

Foster said that as soon as he was sent back to a prison cell, he resumed writing. In the years that followed, many prisons began to regulate typewriters. When Foster’s typewriter broke a few years ago, he discovered that the commissary stocked only clear-plastic machines made by Swintec. This model often broke, he said, but he depended on it. “Buttons stop working, centering goes off,” he told me. It costs two hundred and twenty-five dollars. “That’s a ludicrous price to pay for such junk, but for a person that produces as much material as myself it is absolutely necessary.”

Just across I-95 from New York City, in a light-industrial patch of Moonachie, New Jersey, a one-story building houses the headquarters of the Swintec Corporation, the nation’s sole supplier of clear typewriters. Eighty-five people used to work in the office; fewer than ten do today. Among them is Ed Michael, Swintec’s prison-sales manager. He joined the company in 1985. “We didn’t think about the prison market until the early two-thousands,” he told me. “We had no sense of the amount of business that was available.”

Swintec started out as a supplier of office devices like shredders and adding machines, but the rise of personal computing cut deeply into its profits. Then Swintec employees realized that PCs weren’t making it into prisons: few American prisons permit computers, and many require that electronics be constructed out of transparent plastic, to prevent inmates from hiding contraband inside. “It was a breakthrough,” Michael told me. At corrections conferences, guards confirmed that clear-plastic typewriters would reduce the need for tedious inspections. “It was good for them, good for us.”

More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States; they represent an immense and literally captive market. In total, states spend more than fifty billion dollars a year on their correctional systems, much of which goes to private companies in the form of contracts for construction, food, medical services, phone lines, and products sold to inmates. Swintec typewriters sell modestly, on the order of three thousand to five thousand machines per year, Michael said. Each costs roughly the same as a cheap laptop. But, unlike laptops, typewriters also consume a steady stream of supplies. One catalogue sent to prisons across the U.S. sells ribbons (eight dollars), correction tape (fourteen dollars for a six-pack), and printwheels (forty-nine dollars). The handful of inmates with whom I corresponded all told me that few people in prison can afford Swintec typewriters. In that catalogue, they’re the most expensive item for sale. (A clear-plastic television is as much as eighty dollars cheaper than the cheapest Swintec.) Wages for incarcerated people can generally be measured in cents per hour.

“We don’t feel that our machine is overpriced,” Michael told me, citing the costs of developing special features like spell-check and cut-and-paste. He wouldn’t say how much Swintec spends to manufacture its machines, which are shipped in from factories in Indonesia and Japan, but he did say that the company profits when prisons specifically approve their devices. “A lot of states will mandate that their inmates can only buy those types of machines,” he said. That’s one reason that a typewriter company can survive in the era of smartphones.

I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”

John J. Lennon, who is serving twenty-eight years to life for a 2001 murder, used a Swintec typewriter to become a journalist in prison. When I visited him recently, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, New York, he told me that he traded his first typewriter to another prisoner for drugs. But eventually he joined a writer’s workshop run by a Hamilton College professor, Doran Larson, and a Swintec helped him write about his life: the man he killed; a stabbing he survived; the mother who had, through everything, continued to support him.

Lennon’s cell has no chair, so, until recently, he would sit on an upturned bucket next to the bed, upon which he would place the typewriter. Lately, on account of back pain, he sits on the bed and rests his typewriter on his lap. “You’ll hear my typewriter going all day,” he said. Lennon’s Swintec allows him to save a maximum of seven thousand characters. “You have to get the first four pages solid, delete, then start the next four,” he told me. During periods when his typewriter is broken, he writes letters by hand, in a neat cursive scrawl. A few years ago, he asked a fellow-prisoner to tattoo a typewriter on his arm.

In 2013, Lennon wrote an essay arguing that gun-control laws could have stopped him from buying the assault rifle that he had used for murder. “Despite the Xanax dulling my emotions, my heart pounded when I picked up the M-16,” he typed. “A surge of power rushed through me when I felt the trigger.” He mailed the piece to a few magazines; The Atlantic published it on its Web site. “It’s a high when you get something published,” he told me. During our conversation, he started one sentence with, “When I’m out, maybe working for a magazine.” Around us, parents played Scrabble with their incarcerated sons, and children drank soda with their incarcerated fathers. “Hopefully my third act is a little sexier than my second,” he said.

Others have achieved what Lennon aspires to. In 2003, Daniel Genis, a Russian-American in his early twenties, was arrested for a string of robberies in Manhattan. In prison he wrote “Narcotica,” a novel about drug addiction, on a Swintec, and since his release he has written about incarceration for Vice and the Daily Beast. But such stories are rare. During my visit to Swintec headquarters, Ed Michael told me about Stanley (Tookie) Williams, III, a gang member who killed four people in Southern California. Michael seemed moved by the fact that, while on death row in California, Williams used a Swintec to write books for children. I asked what happened to him. “They finalized his sentence,” Michael said. “They did it. Yeah. So he’s not there anymore.”

Nearly ten years have passed since Kenneth Foster, Jr., was spared from execution. “I look at it as I’m halfway through my life,” he told me. “I’ve now spent more time in prison than I did a free man.” He’s housed in a maximum-security prison in Beaumont, Texas, where all of his possessions fit in two cubic feet. Alongside the Bible, the Quran, a seven-language dictionary, and Black’s Law Dictionary, he keeps his typewriter. Recently, Foster told me that his unit had been placed on lockdown because of a stabbing in the prison. The phones were shut off, and he didn’t have time to buy stamps before the commissary closed. He found himself, once again, turning to the typewriter for companionship.

He hopes that, if he types enough sentences, he can change the one sentence that matters most: he is eligible for parole in August, 2036. Writing gives shape to the weeks and months in front of him. Sometimes Foster writes letters to his daughter, who was recently released from federal prison herself. At one point, I asked whether writing gives him solace. “I wouldn’t say that ‘solace’ is the right word,” he said. “I guess writing has made me feel that I have a fighting chance.”

I can see why they invented computers.

The challenge?

For one week, I had to use a manual typewriter instead of Microsoft Word.

This meant all my assignments, essays and articles for the week had to be manually typed up. It also meant I had to lug a 40-pound typewriter everywhere I went.

With the recent popularity of typewriter apps, such as Hanx Writer, I wondered if there was some sort of backlash against our always-on connectivity, something I’ve observed, since, well, forever.

Richard Polt, a professor and chair of philosophy at Xavier University, said there is.

“I think there’s a rebellion against…the faster is always better mindset,” said Polt, who also wrote a book called “The Typewriter Insurgency.” “I find that mindset sometimes makes people frantic and distracted.”

I’m 19. Before this experiment, I had never even seen a typewriter.

I wanted to get a taste of what old-time reporters had to go through. I wanted to see how it would influence my writing and my thinking.

Step 1: ‘Think’ Before You Write

Other writers and aficionados of the typewriter said the device could have a big influence on writing.

“It makes you think more,” said Peter Hartlaub, a pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the man behind the @NewsTypewriter Twitter handle.  “It makes you more careful about your words, and it’s going to be really helpful for you as a writer.”

I thought about my writing style. I’ve been writing on a computer since I was kid. I enjoy the freedom of dumping a stream of consciousness onto the screen and revising it later.

Would I lose this freedom with a typewriter? Or would it make me more disciplined?

Peter Weil, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware and typewriter collector, thinks the quality of my writing will depend on me more than the machine.

“Whether or not you do a good job writing,” said Weil, “is really a matter of procedure, not a matter of technology.” Weil said a careful writer will do a thorough job, no matter if they are writing on a typewriter or computer.

I asked Hartlaub for advice on how to be a good writer — on a typewriter.

He told me to have an idea of what I was going to write before I sat down. He also offered this:

“Lift with your legs,” he said. Typewriters are heavy; he doesn’t want me to hurt my back.

With this in mind, I set out on my journey.

Step 2: Find A Working Typewriter

My first challenge was actually finding a typewriter.

I found out there was one in my journalism school’s student services office. I went down to check it out.

In the lonely back corner of the office sat a dusty IBM Selectric III.

“I’ve been here approximately five years and nobody has used it,” said a staff member. “I barely knew it was here.”

Struggling, I hauled the heavy and neglected brute up three stories (by elevator, thank goodness) and set it down with a large thud in my office.

My hands were gray with dust.

I plugged it in and tried it out. It went berserk, typing random letters as fast as it could without provocation. It sounded like a machine gun, only louder. It was broken beyond repair.

“That thing has got to go,” said a colleague.

Two more staff members brought in their personal typewriters for me to use. One was big, green and heavy, and the other was cute, pink and portable. I opted for the smaller, more convenient one.

Oh, also, the green one was filled with mystery hair.

The only problem with the pink typewriter was that the ribbon didn’t advance. Every three seconds I was opening up the machine, spinning the ribbon with my hands, often having to rethread it because it got tangled.

At this point, my quest for writing on a typewriter was making my writing worse.

Because there was no writing to be had.

Just… a struggle.

Step 3: Make the Typewriter Mobile

 

Writer Cory Blair hauled his 1940s-era typewriter around campus while he tried to make it “mobile.”

After one page of faint text and black fingers, I decided to use the hairy typewriter.

I wondered how old it really was.

I advanced the carriage all the way to the left and used my index finger to wipe the exposed area of dust, dirt and grime and spotted a faint indent with the serial number. I was able to look up more information on TypewriterDatatabase.com.

It is a 1941 Royal KMM.

I decided that if I was going to do this experiment right, I was going to have to integrate this typewriter into my mobile, modern life. That meant I was committed to hauling it around to my different workspaces.

I needed a cart if I wanted to carry around this 40-pound beast.

After much searching, I eventually found a rinky-dink dolly that I could use for a week.

The typewriter barely fit the dolly and would often slip through the metal frame, crashing on the ground with a metallic thud.  The faster I tried to walk, the slower I would go. Oh, the bitter irony of it all.

I walked my typewriter like it was a crippled dog.

This was all so hard, getting the device to move, I didn’t even think about the words “Twitter” or “Facebook.”

I wondered what was it like for 1940s-era reporters who didn’t have mobile phones and tablets.

What was it like to have a thought you weren’t compelled to immediately share with the world?

So many feelings. Blair took notes on his experiment on his typewriter.

I took the typewriter home to my dorm, where I brought it to a lounge where I normally do homework. I had to write a 300-word news story for my journalism class. I sat down and started banging away on the keys.

Every single person there looked up from their laptops and cell phones and stared.

“Am I making a lot of noise?”

“Yes,” they replied, in unison.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, before putting my head down and getting back to work.

Finally, even though I was annoying everyone in the room, I was in the zone.

The keys were loud, but each word was lobbed onto the page with a satisfying thud.

I felt strong. I felt empowered.

That is, until I screwed something up and had to start over from scratch.

It took me 13 copies and a couple of hours to bang out the perfect news story. It wasn’t too pretty, but I loved it, the same way a parent is obliged to love their ugly child.

Step 4: Try Not to Throw the Typewriter Out the Window

AJR’s @cornsplosion is using a typewriter for a week. He will offer #typewritertweets throughout the week. Like this: pic.twitter.com/esJiK7bfdp

At one point, I decided to buy white out from my school’s common shop. I immediately spilled it on my black jeans. It stained.

At work, while typing up my stories, my ribbon began to run out of ink. I decided to flip the ribbon upside down to get more mileage out of it.

I popped open the hood and spent 15 minutes threading the ribbon onto its track. My fingers were stained with ink.

While threading, I was writing this very story in my head, calculating how I would talk about the struggle to find a working typewriter, the humiliation of hauling it around campus (did I mention I brought it on a bus?), and the feelings of rejection I felt after handing completed copies into my editor and having them almost immediately spiked.

When I started typing again, however, the words were even fainter than before.

I typed out a few curse words, and began the long process of flipping over the ribbon yet again.

Nope. It wasn’t fun.

The novelty of the experiment was beginning to wear off. I began to get annoyed at the typewriter, blaming it for my problems, lack of free time and low esteem.

My perfectionism began to wear off as well. Fed up with typing multiple copies of everything, I blazed through my 1,200 word essay for a war narratives class in one take, using white out to correct my mistakes. The result was messy, but I didn’t care anymore.

The noise was also a problem. I began to long for the soft pattering of a computer keyboard, the type of noise that doesn’t shoot down my thoughts mid-flight, but creates a soft rhythm to propel them forward.

The clanging. The dinging. The pounding. The ripping.

It was driving me crazy.

Step 5: The Sweet, Sweet Freedom of Typing… on a Computer Again

The next workday, I began to type up this story on the typewriter.

I laid out my notes across my desk. I studied them to try to envision a structure.

How would I get the point across that I possibly learned nothing and it was all a pointless struggle?

I typed up a draft. My editor hated it. And then another. And another.

This went on for four different drafts before we both broke.

We decided to collectively say, “Screw it,” and type up the story on a computer.

And just like I that, I reverted to my old ways.

My thoughts flowed onto the screen quickly and I didn’t hate myself for mistakes. If I wrote a crappy paragraph, I deleted it. And then I wrote another one that was a little better than the one before.

No one glared at me for being loud. No one avoided me for carrying around a device, that, if we’re being honest here, smelled a little bit.

I was funnier. I was smarter. I was, all in all, a better writer.

As I sit here, finishing up this story, I am typing possibly the last page I will ever type on a typewriter. It’s a bittersweet experience.

I look back on my week with this thing. There were good times. There were bad times.

Mostly bad times.

Though I had fun, it was frustrating, my grades suffered and my productivity dropped.

If I learned anything, it’s this:

When your editor asks you to write everything on a typewriter for a week, say no. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. And don’t look back.

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