Life at the swap meet


It started as a lark: go to the swap meet in Oceanside, California, just to check it out and maybe find some cheap cameras. I had told a good friend about a project involving an alternate take on downtown Oceanside, and she suggested a narrower focus. The project became a reality after a few trips. Doing a maquette for publishers is hundreds of photos and edits away, but the pictures so far have kept me coming back. There is a social aspect to it: most of the vendors are Mexican, and there’s a high level of distrust of cameras in what is essentially a microcosm of the immigrant world. That hasn’t deterred me so far, despite the angry looks (I’ve been confronted several times by people asking why the hell I’m taking pictures), though I’ve settled on a cheap film camera that won’t be a big loss if smashed. I also like the graininess of the images, all of which will be high-contrast black-and-white.












Cut lines

Art of edifices

Fraudulent watches

While compiling my last collection, The Elastic Dome, I began a series of poems titled “The Radio Odes” using various cut-up techniques. Some of those surrealist works were included in the book. They were composed by arranging excerpts from feature shows and news reports from a popular broadcasting station. I wrote down the snippets that struck me, rearranged and tweaked them, and added a few lines of my own. Some turned out well; others didn’t pass muster.


The third mindI’m turning to cut-ups again, and plan a collection further on. Some are traditional, but the majority have my own spin. My source material at the moment is radio, newspapers, magazines, journal entries and excerpts from correspondence. The ones pictured were mined from a torn photocopied letter, a character sketch and a copy of Mark Twain’s On the Decay of the Art of Lying.

The Third Mind is the title of an out-of-print book by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.  It features cut-ups, popularized by Burroughs and Gysin in the ’60s.

Royal KHM





This is a stunning typewriter that exudes elegance. It’s in great cosmetic shape and seems rarely used: the seller’s relatives said the father liked to collect typewriters but didn’t use them. Besides the customary cleaning and a brushing of type slugs, it was ready to pound paper. But it had a glaring flaw: the capitals were misaligned.

rOYALKMH3I was able to fix it after finding the adjustment nuts at opposing sides below the machine. It took a good hour of tweaks and turns which resulted in a busted knuckle. I haven’t done many alignment repairs, and was overjoyed.

A week later, I noticed it was typing lightly at times, which annoyed me. So I tinkered again with the adjustment nuts. Big mistake: while tightening, I heard a slight pop, and then the shift key seized. After two hours trying to make it functional again, I gave up. It’s the first typewriter I damaged during a repair, and the last one I wanted to bungle.

RoyalKMHtypefaceWeeks later, I took it to the shop, already bracing for a call from the German repairman telling me it was “a dead dog.” (He had used this phrase before in reference to an Olivetti Praxis.) I was resigned to selling it on craigslist as a wedding prop. But ‘ole Ott fixed it, though it took him nearly two weeks. I was elated.

However, when I tested it at home (always test a machine at the shop), I found the capitals slightly misaligned. It was an easy fix, requiring only a few quarter turns of each alignment nut. The shift key remains slightly stiff, a small price to pay for having it back in the small writing studio, a luminary among elders.

Olivetti Lettera 36C


This is delightful electric, and my favorite so far. It was Olivetti’s first portable electric, and was made in the ’70s. It was designed by architect Ettore Sottsass. The first versions had rounded keys which which were later determined to be impractical for faster typing, and later models had rectangular keys. It has a metal body and a floating keyboard, and feels light to the touch. This one came with the original black, molded case, which is streamlined and has ridges running along it.Lettera36CLettera36Cc

I find the Lettera 36C wonderfully compact and tidy. I like the sleek design and find it very user-friendly. There are three dials on the bottom front: one is the on/off dial; another is for touch-control; and the other is for adjusting key force when using multiple sheets. The red button at the top left of the keyboard is a key dejammer of sorts: when keys strike each other, the keyboard function disengages. Pressing the button returns it to typing mode.

Lettera36CdOne thing I really like is that the spools don’t have nuts, something I’ve always found irritating because lacking one can render a manual useless, at least in my experience. I also like that is has a correcting function, though I haven’t bought a ribbon for that. I’m afraid prolonged use of correction tape will result in fine dust that can  cake on key parts with time.

I’m a big fan of uprights from the ’20s through ’50s, but this charming machine is enjoyable and efficient. It’s attractive, and one feels like touching it, humming along as the sentences snake forth.

L.C. Smith No. 8


Shortly after a renewed interest in older standards, I retrieved this L.C. Smith from the garage, where it had lain dormant since last year. Newer machines held my interest since then, and only a fascination with an Underwood No. 5 drew me back to the venerable standards I had long ignored.

I ignored the No. 8 because I remembered s typeface as being too grungy for my tastes. It had a special place in my heart, though: it was given to me in a dire state, and the shop wouldn’t take it, saying it would be too much work. I had more rudimentary skills then, but through sheer persistence I managed to get it working. I was so thrilled that I wrote a 12-page letter with it. It must have been treasured by someone, since that person took the time to weld metal strips with where the body had cracked in the front and left side.


On a whim, I took it out last week and discovered that my prejudices against it were unfounded. It’s a great machine, and I have been using it almost daily. It has some “character”: the carriage sounds like an old coffee grinder when returned, and the keys sometimes skip, albeit for half a space, if I type too fast. Now I find the inky typeface appealing and, well, full of character.



lcsmith8typefaceAll of which makes me wonder that initial impressions of a machine are best put aside until one has given it time for more substantial assessments. This has happened to me before, most recently with a Woodstock 5 I initially considered over-hyped. I was wrong about that one, too.

I gave short shrift to these older L.C. Smiths and now find myself coveting them. My cherished Olympias have receded into the background. Some things truly get better with time.

Underwood No. 5


This is the machine that renewed my interest in older American standards, specifically those of the ’20s and ’30s. I’ve had it for a few weeks and can’t put it down: it fascinates and excites me. I love its feel, which I find unique. It’s a great typer, and the pica typeface is stunningly neat.

It came to me in the most unusual way. I bought an Underwood Four Bank portable from a craigslist seller in L.A. and he offered to deliver it to San Diego. When he arrived, he had a big box on the hood: it was the No. 5. He apparently got confused and thought that was the one I purchased, since he had others online.

I was delighted. I had been looking for one at the time on eBay. It was in very good condition, and its feel sealed the deal.


Five days later, the drawband snapped. It was the first time that happened, and I was crestfallen. A friend from Texas, however, guided me on the repair, which entailed making a new belt out of fishing line (I used 50-pound test). But I couldn’t hook it up to the other side of the carriage, opposite the drum. After nearly two hours, I took it to the shop, where the German repairman completed the repair.

underwood5cIt was my most enterprising repair, and thanks to my Texas friend I learned key things about how a typewriter works. If I had been told I would have attempted to repair a 90-year-old machine, I would have laughed. The extent of my know-how regarding repairs is limited, though I can do basic fixes and cleanings.


I love the sound the keys make on paper: it transfixes and invites writing.  It’s a spectacular machine, and I wouldn’t hesitate to snap up another. I have resumed using my Woodstock 5 and L.C. Smith Silent-Secretarial, which are great machines, but this Underwood is used the most. Every typewriter collector should have one.




Olivetti Lettera 35


This one ended up in my hands because of a misunderstanding. A friend wrote to me with a Lettera 31, and I was so impressed by the elite typeface that I ordered one–a 35, that is. Only after the purchase did I realize I had confused the two.

It turned out to be a happy accident.


The 35 is a stunning machine with a crisp feel, much unlike other Olivettis with a softer touch. Its sleek design invites stroking its lean sides. It has a solid, meaty body with plastic keys.The keyboard may seem a bit crowded, but I find my fingers glide along it effortlessly. I find the elite typeface beautiful; then again, I have a penchant for 12-pitch.

jarrellquote1This is at my 7th Olivetti, and is my favorite so far. The return lever is a bit too stubby for my tastes, but I don’t struggle with it. This compact portable, which came with a sturdy molded case, can hammer out a manuscript as well as its beefier counterparts.

Oz has a wonderful post on the Lettera 35 here.

Olympia SM4


This machine is like a bad addiction: once you get your hands on it, you can’t stop. It has the same crisp, cushioned feel of an SM3, though for some reason I find the carriage shift on the SM4 heavier; in fact, it feels like my SM5. I bought this one from a young lady who it was a gift but didn’t use it anymore. The white body has age-related stains which resemble big freckles, and the labels on it show it was serviced a few times. It came with the original instructions and a cleaning kit, and the case is in good shape. I really like the keyboard tab system, which make setting tabs a cinch. Unlike my SM3s, this one has pica Senatorial typeface, which I have come to like very much. Like my two SM3, this one is never far from the desk. You can read more about the differences between the SM3 and SM4 here.