Monday, April 15, 2013

On Dr. Phil and Goats in Berkeley and Learning to Type

Robert wouldn’t be caught dead watching Dr. Phil, and I wouldn’t either, except I watched it last week.  (See my recent post, The Five Stages of Watching Really Bad Reality TV Shows and What It Has to Do with Being a Writer

In the episode I watched, Dr. Phil talked about his “10-7-5” plan, in which one examines the ten moments, seven decisions, and five people that, for good or ill, have had the biggest impact on one’s life.  Despite the fact that Dr. Phil is a self-aggrandizing blowhard, I decided to think about all this.  Robert and I have been talking about it at dinner, and it’s a fascinating exercise.

One of my “moments” occurred in 1969, when I was twelve and my family was living in Berkeley.  It was a bad summer: my uncle died suddenly and unexpectedly, and our neighbor’s goat crawled into the backseat of my father’s Imperial and took a massive shit.  My parents were a mess and wanted to get me out of the house, so my mother signed me up for typing.

I was already “hunting and pecking” on my father’s discarded Underwood, writing long and formless stories in which characters with funny names were described in great detail and did absolutely nothing.  But I don’t think this is why my mother signed me up, because the course she picked for me involved six weeks of typing and six weeks of shorthand.  Fortunately, the typing came first.

Every weekday morning, I would walk to the intersection of Claremont and Domingo and get on an A/C Transit Bus.  I’m pretty sure it was the E, and I think I had to transfer to get to Shattuck by nine.  It was the first time I was ever allowed to take a city bus by myself.  I remember it as a whooshing, wind-in-the-face-blowing-my-hair-straight-back kind of freedom. 

The typing school was in an old brick building that has long since been torn down.  I think I had to take an elevator to the fourth floor, and then walk through a wooden door with a frosted glass panel, like the ones behind which 1940s private eyes worked.  The school was housed in a single, windowless room, with three or four slightly rising tiers of desks, and on each of them, a typewriter and a workbook.

I was the only kid in the class.  The other students, as I remember, were in their late teens, or possibly twenties, and were clearly there for the purpose of remedial education.  The mood was deadly serious.  The only sound was the clicking of typewriter keys, and the sizzle-click of carriages being returned by hand.

I think there were two teachers: elderly women in shirtwaist dresses with big, gray beehive hairdos, who smelled like old paper.  They took turns walking behind us students, looking over our shoulders to see how we were coming along.  I don’t remember either of them ever speaking to me.  When they felt I had mastered whatever I had been working on, they simply turned the page of my workbook for me, thereby signaling that I could progress.

I loved that class.  I can’t tell you why, exactly: it had something to do with the exhilaration of getting there by myself, the clear expectations, the fact that socializing was not required, the fact that I was good at the subject at hand.  (To this day, I remain a kick-ass typist.)  Also, I think I felt in some corner of my soul that this was necessary for me in a way that my mother didn’t understand.  It was one of several keys I needed to unlock my future, my bliss.

After the typing class ended, I put my foot down and refused to attend the shorthand segment.  My mother was unhappy with me, but my father, who was starting to recover from the whole goat thing, understood.  I spent the rest of the summer eating Quisp cereal, figuring out which Monkee I would marry (Peter Tork, because Davey Jones was too short), and mentally typing anything anyone said to me.  I worried that this private quirk would never go away, but it did, eventually.

I miss old typewriters.  I see that they are now collectors’ items, often for sale on ebay.  Perhaps I shall put in a bid.