My father, a former salesman, was surprisingly easy to swindle. This explains why the two of us were standing on a street corner in Bloomfield, NJ waiting to buy a condemned electric typewriter from a man named Charlie Cheese.
“Keep an eye out for a black Chrysler,” my father said. He wasn’t keeping an eye out for anything. He was chewing an unlit cigar and tapping on the defective watch he’d bought from someone outside Poppa Tony’s pizza parlor in Cedar Grove earlier that week.
“I am,” I said. “You’ve already told me twice.”
An assortment of cars whizzed past, none of them black or Chryslers.
My father tapped the watch again and held it up to his ear.
“Maybe it needs a new battery,” I said.
He took off the watch and shook it. “But it’s not electric.”
“Then maybe you should wind it.”
He put the watch back on and frowned. “The guy told me it works by pulse.”
“Either he was lying or you’ve been dead for the past three hours.”
My father stared at me over his cigar. “I choose to ignore that remark. Have you seen a black Chrysler?”
I slapped myself in the forehead. “Is that what I’m supposed to be looking for? I could have sworn you said a white Cadillac.”
His stare turned to a glower. “Stop being a smartass. I’m not here for my health, you know. This is for you. You want an electric typewriter – we’re getting you an electric typewriter.”
“But it’s condemned.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Then why was it condemned?”
“Because it’s from a condemned lot.”
“That clears things up.”
My father sighed. He hated explanations, which is why it was sometimes hard to understand his career change from salesman to high school business teacher. “Listen, I’m only going to tell you one time. Charlie works for the company that supplies the school with typewriters. He’s also responsible for deciding whether they’re still in working order. He just declared a bunch of them condemned so he can sell them on the side. These are good machines. Everybody’s buying one.”
“So Charlie Cheese is a crook.”
“I prefer the word capitalist.”
“Same difference. Why does his name sound like a cartoon character?”
My father relit what was left of his cigar. “It’s a nickname, that’s all. He used to work for a cheese company. He sold some cheese on the side.”
I coughed as the cigar smoke blew into my face. “How many sides does this guy have? Was it condemned cheese? Hey, wait a minute. Is that where all those packages of Swiss cheese in the refrigerator downstairs –”
Before my father could answer my questions, a huge black Chrysler passed us, made an illegal U-turn, and came to a jolting halt in front of a fire hydrant while horns blared. The rear end of the car sagged almost to the ground. Charlie Cheese emerged from the plush red interior of the car.
He was tall – almost as tall as my 6’7” father. The top few buttons of his flowery pastel shirt were open, exposing a patch of black hair so thick it looked fake. A gold chain dangled from his neck. It matched the gold watch on his hairy wrist. A cloud of aftershave lotion seemed to engulf him and I guessed that the ozone layer above us was in serious peril.
This was the disco era and Charlie Cheese was a disco kind of guy.
“Hello, Charlie,” my father said. They shook hands.
“How’s it going, big man?” said Charlie Cheese. He glanced at his reflection in the shop window behind us and straightened his slick dark hair. “I’m glad I found you boys. I’ve got a date tonight and I need the cash. This your son? Don’t answer, I can see the resemblance between you two strapping lads.”
“Where’s the unit?” my father asked.
“Hold on there, hoss. First things first. I believe the figure we agreed upon was seventy-five dollars?”
“It was.” My father peeled off an assortment of crisp new bills from the roll in his pocket.
Charlie Cheese counted the bills. He didn’t hold them up to the light or examine them with a magnifying glass, but I felt like he was considering it.
“Looks like we’ve got a sweet deal in the making.” He opened the trunk, which was filled with electric typewriters of various shapes and sizes. I now understood why the car sagged. “Peruse the possibilities, gentlemen. All state-of-the art, all in pristine reconditioned condition.”
I was fascinated with Charlie Cheese, who spoke a variety of English that I’d never heard before. But then I was often fascinated by my father’s acquaintances and friends, of which there was no shortage, most of them falling into the category of ‘hustler’. My father knew people everywhere we went. It was impossible to enter a restaurant, clothing store, barbershop, or even elevator without my father knowing someone and launching into an extended conversation. These conversations often led to him being parted from his hard-earned cash, although the truth is that my father had a gregariousness and charm that made some people want to talk to him even without the profit incentive. (He also had an obnoxiousness that made some people want to kill him, but that’s not relevant at the moment.)
“Well, Douglas,” asked my father, “which one do you want? Let’s make a buying decision here. The man doesn’t have all day.”
“Just pick one,” my father said impatiently, although mentioning impatience and my father is redundant.
I made a buying decision and picked one. I also picked it up, which took a lot more effort than anticipated.
Charlie Cheese slammed the trunk, slid into the driver’s seat, and gunned the big Chrysler engine. “You’ve made a wise purchase, gentleman,” he said, “that will give you many years of typing satisfaction.”
He honked goodbye, threw the car into gear, and achieved escape velocity before we could even wave.
“Cast iron,” my father said, tapping the typewriter with approval and almost knocking me over. “Good quality workmanship there. Where did we park again? Watch your posture, young man. Use those shoulders. Oh, there we are. Hold her steady.”
I lurched along the cracked sidewalk. “I can barely hold her at all.”
My father snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous, you’ve got muscles you haven’t even used yet. Only a few more feet. That’s it, just set it down gently in the trunk. Gently! It’s wearing me out just watching you.”
“Sorry to be such a strain.”
He tossed the remaining stub of his cigar on the pavement. “Well, we did it. Now let’s head home and fire this baby up.”
Why did I want a typewriter? Because I’d been impressed by the photo of Ernest Hemingway on the Scribner trade paperback edition of “A Farewell to Arms.” In the photo, Hemingway’s flannel sleeves are rolled up over his muscular forearms as he bangs out copy on an old manual typewriter. Whether he has just typed the last sentence of a soon-to-be-classic novel or a grocery list is immaterial. The message was clear: writers use typewriters. Also, they look tough, cool and intensely creative while doing so.
I wanted to look tough, cool, and intensely creative. I knew it wouldn’t take long for girls to throw themselves at me if I could just master that pose. As for the actual writing, that was a separate issue. Attitude came first.
“Let’s plug her in,” my father said. I had just managed to haul the typewriter – which seemed to defy the laws of physics by growing steadily heavier – up the steps and to the old desk in my bedroom. It made a clattering whine and then a feline snarl when I plugged it into the wall outlet. Sparks flew from the cord as the carriage returned to position.
“A little electrical tape will fix that right up,” my father said. “Come on, slip some paper into her. I want to see what she’s got.”
What she had was more tics, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and eccentric behaviors than even my father himself. But I will say this: she was fast. It was almost impossible to keep up with that typewriter. I felt like a novice rider on the back of a steer with some major anger management issues. Letters appeared in sudden black clusters on the page. The carriage flew back and forth with enough anguished force to dislodge all the other items on my desk. It’s possible that I’m exaggerating when I say that smoke rose from the page – but not by much.
My father was pleased.
“Look at her go,” he said. “She’s a beauty.”
My mother was less pleased.
“What is that?” she asked
My mother stood in the bedroom doorway frowning and patting a stray strand of stiff blonde hair into place. Neither of us had heard her approach. This was a common occurrence. My mother possessed an eerie ability to just show up, which always startled the hell out of everyone, particularly my jumpy father. Since my mother was a registered nurse, and often tended to patients with weak hearts, I sometimes wondered if this trait had ever added to the mortality rate on her floor.
My mother was still gripping the bags from her recent trip to Willowbrook mall. She loved to shop. Shopping to my mother was what desert warfare was to General Patton, the North Pole was to Commander Peary, and chicken was to Colonel Sanders.
“So what did you buy?” asked my father, in a clear ploy to change the subject.
My mother had a look on her face that said she was not happy about something my father had done, was about to do, or might do one distant day in the future. This was interesting since her usual expression regarding my father was one of faint amusement – and perhaps surprise – that she had anything to do with this man at all.
“A blouse and a pair of pants. On sale. I just saved eighty-four dollars.”
“Thank God. Keep saving me money and I’ll be a rich man. Just think how much more you would have saved if you didn’t buy anything at all.”
My mother frowned. “I work hard. I can buy myself clothes if I want them.”
“Good. Fine. When you’re right, you’re right.”
My father’s diversionary tactic had not met with much success. My mother was still staring at the typewriter.
“Where did that typewriter come from?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I think she’s asking where you got the typewriter, Dad.”
“No shit. Jesus. Can’t get anything past you. From school.”
My mother considered. “Did you steal it?”
“No, I did not steal it.”
“Borrow then – did you borrow it?”
“I bought it legally and fairly. Ask the kid. Tell her.”
“We bought it, Mom. From Charlie Cheese. It’s condemned.”
“It’s a beautiful machine,” said my father.
“Charlie who?” asked my mother.
“Cheese,” I replied.
“I see.” She filed the information for future use. “Condemned?”
My father threw his hands in the air. “I’m not explaining that again,” he said. “Forget that part. She’s a beauty. Show your mother. Type something.”
I typed out the words, “Hi, Mom.”
My mother smiled. Being greeted always pleased her. “Hello, Douglas,” she said warmly.
“So what’s bad?” my father said. “The kid needed a typewriter. He’s got a typewriter.”
“Something,” said my mother. “I don’t know yet. But something.”
There were many reasons for my mother to have reservations about my father’s activities. As the family conscience in a family that included him, my mother considered watching my father pretty much a full-time job. My mother tended towards a black and white interpretation of right and wrong, while my father’s take included most if not all the colors of the rainbow.
This might be a good time to mention that my mother’s bemused attitude masked a core of solid titanium. You didn’t mess with my mom.
There were also many reasons for my father to distrust my mother’s shopping tendencies. Shopping was not an action of which he approved. I sometimes wonder if this explains why my mother enjoyed it so much.
In short, my mother kept close moral watch on my father, while my father kept close shopping watch on my mother. My parents were equally matched in this as in so many other ways, and a delicate balance prevailed in our household.
It took a combination of the Home Shopping Network and the electric typewriter we purchased from Charlie Cheese to alter that balance.
The typewriter sat and brooded on my desk. I sat and brooded with it. I hadn’t produced any major works of literature yet but knew it was just a matter of time before the world experienced the full flowering of my creative genius. Maybe next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, it was fun to ponder the many brilliant stories I intended to tell. It was also fun to type my homework at light speed. But my father had the most fun when he discovered that my new typewriter disturbed the reception of the downstairs television.
I believe some explanation is required here. My mother worked the 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm shift at a local hospital. She would come home, have a cup of Sanka with two packets of Saccharine, and watch late-night television shows hosted by people like Tom Snyder and Joe Franklin to unwind from her stressful job.
Once those shows were over, it was time to cut loose with some retail therapy on the Home Shopping Network. Wall art, end tables, a clock radio, a toaster, knitted oven mitts, clay figurines, dolls and a dollhouse for them to live in, a clock radio, silverware, his and her flashlights and towels, perfume for my two older sisters who were wise enough to marry and move away, electric scissors, and many more fine items arrived on our doorstep each day.
My mother’s shopping behavior drove my frugal father nuts. The Home Shopping Network was now high on his list of enemies. It ranked slightly lower than the IRS but about equal to our neighbor George the Republican engineer, who according to my father had a mind “as rigid as the starched, button-down collars on those white shirts he marches off to work in every day.” Unfortunately, my father was usually sound asleep when my mother used her credit card at night, and there was no way to stop her.
“What the hell is wrong with the television?” my father shouted up the stairs. I was typing a homework assignment while listening to the new Eagles album I’d bought at Korvettes on my Radio Shack headphones, but his booming voice cut right through the music.
“How should I know?” I shouted back, much louder than necessary.
“How am I supposed to watch the ball game with all this static? I can’t hear or see a thing. Take off those headphones you’re probably wearing and get your butt down here to take a look.”
I removed the headphones, turned off the typewriter, and stood up. “Okay, okay, my butt and me will be right there.”
“Wait a minute. Never mind. It’s working again.”
I sat down and turned the typewriter back on.
“Shit, it’s doing it again.”
“Really? That’s weird. Wait a minute, I have a theory.” I turned off the typewriter. “How is it now?”
“Perfect. What did you do?”
I stood at the top of the stairs. “I turned off the condemned typewriter.”
“I told you it’s not really condemned. Turn it on again, I want to see this.”
The same thing happened: static when on, clear picture when off.
“Go figure,” said my father. He looked thoughtful. “Why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air for a while so I can watch the game? You can do your homework later. Here’s a few bucks. Get yourself some ice cream at Friendly’s.”
I happily obliged.
I learned late that night why my father had looked so thoughtful. I was not quite asleep when he crept into my bedroom and turned on the typewriter. But I was wide awake when I heard my mother’s frustrated sigh from the living room downstairs.
My crafty father had finally found a way to limit my mother’s Home Shopping Network purchases. He was jamming her television signal.
This creative strategy might have worked if the typewriter had continued to do so. Unfortunately it was condemned for a reason and died just two nights later.
“Nonsense,” my father said. “It’s probably a circuit breaker. Just plug it into a different outlet.”
“I tried that.”
“Oh. What about shaking it?”
“I tried that, too.”
He paused, considering. “Okay. Let’s go get it fixed.”
“I’d like to ask you an honest question,” said the bearded technician at the Smith Corona repair center in Montclair. He had just emerged from the back room after assessing the typewriter. He looked very serious.
“Sure,” I said.
“Did you buy this typewriter from a man named Charlie Cheese?”
“Actually, my father bought it for me. On a street corner in Bloomfield. It’s condemned. Right, Dad?”
My father checked his defunct watch. We’d been waiting for a while. “What difference does it make? What time is it? And how much to fix the unit?”
The technician, whose name was Mike, scratched his beard. “It makes a big difference. Charlie used to work here as a sales rep. He was fired after salvaging close to sixty of these machines from the dumpster and selling them.”
My mother was going to love this story.
“The dumpster?” I asked.
“Yes. The typewriters were all beyond repair so we were disposing of them. Charlie came up with some crazy story to convince his customers they were getting a bargain and sold every last one of those typewriters. As I understand it, he’s currently facing fraud charges.
“Regarding the repair, we charge $40 an hour and it would take at least 8 hours to get your typewriter working again. Throw in the bench fee and parts and you could buy three new typewriters for what it would cost to fix this one. And we couldn’t even warranty the repair. I may work in this place but I’m a consumer, too. My advice is to forget about the whole thing.”
Even my father had to agree that this was sound advice.
In the parking lot, he started up the engine of his Plymouth and looked at me as I climbed into the passenger seat.
“Don’t even think about mentioning any of this to your mother,” he said.
But there was no need to say a thing. My mother had put it all together at record speed.
“Sometimes condemned means condemned,” she said.
My father grunted.
“I’m thinking now might be a good time to throw out that condemned cheese,” I added.
My father glowered at me but my mother agreed.
The real issue was how my mother the family conscience would address these troubling events. The Home Shopping Network provided an appropriate solution.
My mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of Sanka in her left hand while she wiggled the fingers of her right hand in the air to dry her nails. I had just come home from school. Today was her day off.
“Yes, dear?” she said.
“There’s an electric typewriter in the living room.”
“I know, dear. Isn’t it nice? I ordered it a few nights ago from the Home Shopping Network. It arrived this morning. It’s for you, or will be.”
I stared at her. I couldn’t believe it.
“Really? For me? Does Dad know?”
She set down the coffee, picked up her nail polish, and started polishing the nails of her left hand. “He’ll know soon enough. I used his credit card. It serves him right for jamming my television signal.”
I laughed. “You knew?”
“Of course I knew. I’m a nurse. I’m trained to identify cause and effect.”
I mentally rewound. “Wait a minute. Or will be? What does that mean?”
She blew on her nails. “It means you’ll be renting the typewriter for a while with an option to buy. But once you’ve used your allowance to pay off the other half, it will belong to you. Take care of it and you’ll have it for a long time. Consider this a lesson in responsibility for you and in ethics for your father. Agreed?”
I didn’t have much choice. Besides, I wanted the typewriter. So I made a buying decision.
I carried the typewriter upstairs just as my father arrived home from work. I’m sure the conversation downstairs got very interesting when my father heard the sound of me in my bedroom typing. But I was busy writing a story and didn’t bother to listen.
Robert Douglas Friedman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.