Robert Neuwirth, who taps out the first draft of his books on a manual typewriter, crouched in the yard of a former car-repair shop, trying to fabricate a metal push rod to activate the “A” key of a 1920s Royal Model 10 typing machine.
The occasion was Royal Road Test Repair. It was an homage of sorts to 1967’s Royal Road Test, in which the artist Ed Ruscha and musician Mason Williams tossed a Royal 10 from a speeding 1963 Buick Le Sabre and then held a noir-like crime scene investigation into the wreckage.
For Neuwirth and his partner, the exuberant Swiss-born artist, choreographer and performer Andrea Haenggi, here was the challenge: Repair the machine by 7:30 p.m. And then, in a historical inversion of the original Road Test, bury it.
“I guess you could call it conceptual art with typewriters,” he had explained in the note inviting me to attend.
With less than an hour to go on a sticky recent evening, the deadline was looking a bit unrealistic. Mostly it was the fault of the visitors who got Neuwirth talking about a lifelong love of typewriters that explains why today he has dozens crammed into a 76-square-foot Manhattan office.
“I’m actually the nut who has about 40 or 45 manual typewriters,” said Neuwirth, 54, whose white lab coat, white pants and bald pate gave him the air of a mechanically minded monk. “It’s become a sort of weird private fetish for me.’
Three of his typewriters, all Royals and all dating to the 1950s or earlier, were on display in the repair yard that Haenggi uses as her artist’s studio, which sits on the border of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.
“I got this typewriter because instead of fractions, it has the male and female insignia,” he said, pointing to one and noting that it may have been used by a psychologist’s secretary.
It’s not as if Neuwirth shuns electrical devices. He owns a computer, which he uses to write articles more quickly when facing a deadline. Neuwirth also has an iPhone. He says he’s got so few apps that friends tell him he doesn’t deserve to have a smartphone.
Yet typing got to him early. When Neuwirth was a child, his next-door neighbor was also the school’s typing teacher, so he couldn’t cut class without his mother finding out. He graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in the 1980s, when typewriters still reigned and students had to sign in to use a newfangled computer laboratory.
He’s also lived for years in squatter communities around the world as research for his books about the global shadow economy and those who run it.
“I prefer the typewriter,” he said. “You can’t erase, and it’s exactly that, it’s just out there. If it’s mediocre, it’s mediocre, and I can’t change that.”
As to why he likes fixing them, he said it was like “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the George Clooney movie. He’d never fixed anything before, and one day opened up a broken typewriter and stared at it until he figured it out.
The clock was ticking, and Haenggi, who says she’s in her 40s, was noticing. So it was back to the Royal 10, whose black hulk sat upon the piece of gray felt that overlay a blue tarpaulin and the bare earth.
Neuwirth rummaged through the underside of another busted typewriter and wrenched free a likely looking push rod. Together with Haenggi, he cut it to size, held other keys out of the way, and began bending an end into a hook. Success proved elusive. They managed to attach the rod, only to despair as it fell off almost immediately.
Seven-thirty had come and gone. Now it was time to type a final message on the Royal, whose carriage Neuwirth had to manually pull along after each keystroke.
One visitor typed, “Worldwide Typosphere,” which doesn’t need the “A” key. It came out unreadably truncated, letters atop letters. Another typed “X marks the spot,” a phrase that was not only readable but was declared the winner.
Satisfied, paper still in the typewriter, Haenggi and Neuwirth wrapped the Royal 10 in the gray felt.
“I wish I’d been able to get that ‘A’ working,” Neuwirth said.
Then he placed it in the shallow grave they’d dug earlier. A bit of spadework and the machine had vanished. Flowers appeared, and were placed on the earth atop the machine. Hugs were exchanged. The Royal 10 was no more.
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton and Richard Vines on dining, Greg Evans on TV.