Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Just a Number

   Age, they say, is only a number. And here at Covenant Woods my number is one of the lowest. So, why do I feel so old?

   It goes back to a Thursday morning several years ago. It was a pleasant, sunny morning, as I recall, at the Conneaut Community Center for the Arts. Our little writers’ group was gathered for its weekly meeting in the CCCA annex. That day, Suzanne Byerley, our mentor, heaped praise on Don Marquis, who had been a columnist for the New York Sun and later the New York Tribune during the teens and twenties of the last century.

   Among the characters that appeared regularly in Marquis’ column were Archy and Mehitabel. Archy was a cockroach into whose body the soul of a free verse poet had transmigrated. As luck would have it, Marquis left a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter one evening.

   By diving headfirst on to the keys for several hours, Archy introduced himself to Marquis and the Sun’s readers. He also asked Marquis to leave a sheet of paper in the typewriter every night. In many of his contributions to the column, Archy wrote about his friend and fellow transmigrated soul, Mehitabel, an alley cat with less than pristine morals.

   My curiosity aroused, I purchased The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel. What with one thing and another, I made only a few cursory visits to the book. But last week, I picked it up with the intention of giving it a thorough reading.

   All went well until page 70. There, in a piece titled “Between Him and His Masterpiece,” which ran on March 30, 1917, Archy, who used neither capitals nor punctuation, asks Marquis to buy a new ribbon for the typewriter:

      “had to get a sheet of carbon paper

      and insert it between two sheets of white paper

      and fix it in the machine in order to

      write at all. . .”


      That seemed straightforward to me. Yes, it’s been a few years since I’ve used a typewriter or needed a sheet of carbon paper, but neither is from ancient times. Surely, everyone is familiar with the words “typewriter” and “carbon paper.” Of course they are. And certainly, everyone but a doofus with his head up his I-Pad understands that a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of paper in a typewriter without ribbon would produce a copy without an original.

      Well, maybe not. Michael Sims, the annotator, didn’t think so. A “1” at the end of the passage above indicated that Sims had something to say. I could have ignored it, but my goal was to give the book a complete reading, and I flipped to page 319. There Sims wrote by way of explanation, “In Marquis’ time a typewriter required a ribbon on a spool to provide ink for the keys to strike and carbon-coated paper to produce a copy behind the first page.”

   Typewriter ribbon and carbon paper are antiquities?  That’s what it sounds like. I’ve used them. They can’t be forgotten relics of a bygone age. Can they?

   And if they are, how small can my number be?


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