Claes Oldenburg's Typewriter Eraser is the partial subject
of Max's tangential ramblings in this essay. Find out more about
You say you know all about Oldenburg and think anyone not aware
of him is an uneducated peon? Well, bully to you.
By Max Burbank
In 2004 my daughter will go
to our nation's capital with her fifth grade class. If they visit the
sculpture garden of the National Gallery, they'll see a fourteen foot
tall red rubber wheel with a colossal nylon brush attached to it by
a tin attachey thingy.
I'm sure there's an informative
plaque. I'm also sure my daughter will already know what it is. There's
no way that between now and then I'll resist the urge to fill her head
with the pertinent triviata, which she'll then spill before her bewildered
peers as was demanded by the same genes that once required I sing Tom
Lehrer songs my father taught me to my math class. But that's not my
point. The point isn't
that these children will have no idea what they're looking at. The point
is, they won't know it's giant. Big, yes. Giant, like it were a fourteen
foot tall penny, no.
It will not make them feel
tiny, it will give them any new perspective on their parent's desks,
it will not function as a visual Koan of the mundane made monumental.
It will do absolutely nothing intended by Claes Oldenburg when he first
thought of it because a typewriter eraser commonplace. It is an antique
so esoteric it has utterly vanished. It's like the Anasazi or those
multi spout jug things dug out of Roman ruins, placed in museums and
labeled 'ceremonial', which is archeologist talk for 'shit if I know'.
It's a typewriter eraser.
You probably knew that, despite the smug self assurance with which I
assumed I knew all sorts of things you didn't, such as the name Claes
Oldenburg. That's why I always got beat up and why my daughter should
probably have adult influences stronger than mine. But again, that's
beside the point, I don't give a little tin crap what you know. Like
me you'll be dead in less than fifty years and you won't be able to
tell anybody that the thing in the sculpture garden isn't some humongous
abstraction, it's a friggin' huge typewriter eraser!
Oh, fine, sure, the little
plaque will tell future kids what the damn thing is, but what's it going
to say when one of them pipes up 'What's a typewriter?'.
If the Cartoon Channel is
still on (and that's a mighty big if), and still showing Warner Brother's
cartoons, what will tomorrow's youth make of the pig eating the ear
of corn? The one who gnashes his way along the side until he hears a
little 'ding', rotates the corn slightly, slams it back to the far left
of his mouth and begins chewing again? In what way is it supposed to
be funny as opposed to bizarre and unsettling?
|An Olivetti manual typewriter, the typewriter of
My first typewriter was a
portable manual. These days they mostly make copiers, fax machines,
and computers but they still offer three different manual typewriter
models for sale. I can't imagine who buys them. They probably sell them
at Renaissance Fairs. 'I'll take the ceiling wax, the studded leather
jerkin in extra fat and the Olivetti manual.'
I got it for my birthday
the year I was in fifth grade. Using silver ink and a brush from my
Man of Steel Punching the Crap out of a Wall model kit, I lettered its
name. 'The Cosmic Keyboard of Communication". How would I even explain
to my daughter what the hell it did, let alone what made it 'Cosmic'?
'Well, let's see... it was sort of like a computer and printer combined,
but with only the word processor and printed in real time whether you
wanted it to or not, it had no memory, no spell check and its power
source was you poking it.' Eventually some of the keys got bent and
I gave it to a neighbor's retarded kid.
"Do not give your past away
to a retarded kid!" I routinely shriek at my daughter in moments of
stress. As a consequence her room is so stuffed with the jetsam of her
little life I have to carve a pathway through it just to empty her trash,
which I am then compelled to sort in case she's disobeying me. Plus
she doesn't bring her friends home much.
They put Pop Tarts in Mylar
bags now. My daughter will never know what it's like to tear the corner
of the old paper and foil bag, the pull, feeling that blood red string
tear through the side of the package, the crushing feelings of failure
when the string won't cut and just slides uselessly out the top. She'll
never blow gum dust off a Sir Walter Raw Leaves sticker, or a Band Ache,
never risk cutting up the inside of her mouth trying to get that petrified,
cardboard thin Wacky Pack gum to chew. She won't sit through 'The Little
Rascals' because it's the only thing on between 'Speed Racer' and 'The
Brady Bunch', and I am not nostalgic for 'The Little Rascals', I hated
'The Little Rascals', especially Alfalfa, especially that episode where
he sings in class after accidentally eating some soap and bubbles come
out his damn mouth and most of all I hate myself for having that memory
engraved on my brain stem so when I'm lying in a nursing home growing
bed sores I won't know my own name but I'll remember the bubbles coming
out of that brilliantined bastard's clam snatcher! My daughter will
never have any of that!
She won't build a fort out
of scrap lumber stolen from a local construction site because that's
not the sort of thing you do under adult supervision. She won't disappear
into the woods with her closest friends and a dog because there's a
leash law now and kids who disappear into the woods are followed by
copter shots of the whole neighborhood looking for them on the evening
news. She won't ride her bike to her friends house across town because
when everyone goes from school to the Y to dance class to home, no one
rides their bike to anybody's house and if you do see some kid riding
their bike by themselves you call DSS. My kid will not be a wild New
England Yard Ape and unless we vacation in some poverty stricken section
of upstate Vermont or sections of Maine traversable only by logging
roads, she won't even know what one is.
In my memory, my friends
and I look like some yellowed photo from the dust bowl. Between school
and when our parents came home we were filthy, scabby kneed, primate
kings of the afternoon, our cheeks crammed with Fritos from a ten cent
bag and individual Recee's cups that had a God damned paper wrapper.
We fell out of treehouses, stepped on rusty nails, brutally terrorized
each other and told our moms our clothes were all torn and our faces
swollen because we 'fell off our bikes'. We smoked and broke our arms
and tried out curse words and read 'The Outsiders' like we were tough
instead of bound for college, faggotry, parenthood or some combination
thereof, and I'm well aware it's a wonder we didn't all die. And on
my mothers desk, right next to the two ton olive drab IBM Selectric
with the type ball, the futuristic engine of the workforce that shook
the table and made a noise like a Harley when you fired her up, there
were typewriter erasers. Not some pansy ass bottle of Whiteout, a good
honest red rubber wheel with a nylon brush and a tin attachey thingy.
And oh, there was also the
Bee Gees, Platform Shoes, Fonzie, Bell Bottoms and Kissinger, but I
hated all that shit, and you know what? It comes back for my daughter
to peruse with the appalling regularity of stomach flu, as do totally
un-yellowed photos of me wearing velour.
When I was ten my dad took
my brother and me to Coney Island which smelled like urine, was mostly
boarded up and where a gang of youths roughed us up and took our bumper
car tickets. On the other hand it was still one of the only places to
get a Nathan's hot dog. Getting one at the mall food court is a mortal
sin and can only be expunged by throwing it up in the naughty novelty
section of Spencer Gifts. I can't take my daughter to endless unsupervised
afternoons and assume she won't get her bumper car tickets swiped. I
know that. And honestly I don't want to. 'The Little Rascals' sucked.
Except for Froggy.
But where do I take her?
And where will she go to escape me? It's all foreign territory. I want
to take some commonplace object off her desk and make it giant but I
don't trust any of them to hold still long enough. I'd like to get her
a typewriter eraser before 2004 but I haven't even seen one at a flea
market since I was a kid. I suppose I'll have to go on E-bay.
'E-bay?' her unborn offspring
will ask her, 'What the hell is that?' ###