I treat computer keyboards like they’re wooden baseball bats, burning through a new one every twelve weeks or so. At the slightest sign of irregularity, I’ll unplug it and bring it to the I.T. office. “There’s something up with the space bar on this,” I tell the I.T. guy, who then tests it on his system.
“Works fine for me,” he says with a shrug. “What was wrong with it?”
“Look, you’re the scientist. All I know is it doesn’t feel right. End of discussion.”
I have assumed the role of “Test Pilot”, while the I.T. guy has been unwillingly assigned to play “The Engineer”. In this situation, he’s supposed to say: “You’re in luck, Danny. I’ve been working on something special, just for you. It hasn’t been tested yet, but…” Instead he stares at me, shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and hands me another forty-dollar keyboard from the stack on the shelf behind him.
This behavior is an attempt at elevating my ordinary office job to something sexier and more dangerous. Only eccentric geniuses are this particular about their instruments, so if I act the part, then perhaps one day I’ll be mistaken for one.
On a typical day, my coworkers sit at their desks, upright in their chairs, typing delicately into their laptops. Walk through my office and you’ll hear a soothing chorus of finger taps, the workplace equivalent of crickets. Once you arrive at my desk that steady patter is replaced by a disruptive staccato hammering, somewhere between Morse code and the sound a toy xylophone makes when attacked by an aggressive toddler. And there you’ll find me, agonizing over my keyboard like the Phantom of the Opera, groaning and cursing at the monitor, pulling my hair, my body twisted into some inhuman position, one leg folded under my ass while the other is draped over the chair’s armrest.
“Argh!” I yank the keyboard out of its USB port and carry it down the hall to the I.T. office. As soon as the I.T. guy sees me in his doorway, he extends his hand out to receive the damaged property.
“The control key…I don’t know what happened.” My voice is quiet and severe, like a detective who recounts to the police captain an ill-fated raid, one in which his partner was killed.
“Yup,” the I.T. guy says, scratching the back of his head. He hands me a replacement keyboard. As I carry it back to my desk I notice a tiny grease smudge on the R key, and I remember a similar smudge—nearly identical, in fact—on a keyboard I had a while back, a keyboard I couldn’t work with because I found it “strangely aloof”.
The Coca-Cola mishap was undeniable, though. “This is toast,” the I.T. guy told me after testing it on his system. He reached behind him, pulled a new one off the shelf and handed it to me. “Here you go,” he said. “Still in the package and everything.”
The box was sleeker than usual, even for an Apple product. “What is this?” I said, “a three-pack of panty hose?” I opened the box and removed the keyboard. It was approximately one foot in length, less than a millimeter thick and weighed no more than a geisha fan. The keys barely even protruded from the board’s surface, reminding me of the Speak & Spell I had as a child.
I cleared my throat and tucked the keyboard back into its box. “Um, thanks, but I’ll just take one of the older ones. It’s okay if it’s used.”
“Sorry, man. You went through them all. These are the new Apple keyboards.” I brought it up to my face and studied it, imagining how this waifish thing could sustain my blunt force trauma.
“Just try it out and see how it feels,” the I.T. guy continued. This is his response to everything. Once when I complained about a mysterious sunspot that appeared in the corner of my monitor his advice was “Just don’t look at it.” I tried that, but every fifteen minutes my eyes would wander over to it and I’d become entranced. I’d lean my face up close to the screen, hearing a faint dissonance, which could have either been electrical currents or a choir of supernatural whispers, beckoning me to join them on the other side.
“Please help me.” I stood in the I.T. guy’s doorway, my arms slack, my face pale. “I can’t not look at it…I won’t not look at it…” I folded my arms across my chest and slid down the doorjamb until my ass hit the floor.
The I.T. guy looked away, rubbed his chin, and nodded. It was as if he too had heard the voices from the computer screen, and knew exactly what I was talking about.
From a safe distance, I watched as he swapped my monitor with an older model he dug out of the storage closet. “Just destroy that one,” I said, pointing unsteadily at the damaged monitor. “Walk it down the block and throw it in a Dumpster. Better yet, throw it in the church Dumpster on Washington Street. We’ll see how talkative it is in the presence of God.”
The replacement monitor was a different brand and size, and didn’t line up uniformly with the other two monitors on my editing suite. It reminded me of a discolored tooth, or those cars that come out of the body shop with front panels or passenger-side doors that are a darker shade than the rest of the paint scheme. Inconsistencies like this annoy me to no end, but I made my peace with it, reminding myself that it was only temporary.
“We’re gonna order a new one, right? One that matches the other two?”
“Let’s just take care of one thing at a time,” he said as he plugged in the replacement monitor under my desk.
I remembered this as I plugged my sleek new Apple keyboard into its USB port. I typed a few successful emails, but the passion was gone. Instead of hammering away at the keys like a hard-boiled crime novelist, I gently prodded them, my lower palms flat on my desk while my fingertips did all the work. I recognized this hand motion as that of the wealthy widow who lived up the street from my parents. Whenever she waved to passersby or beckoned one of her servants she did so with the least amount of effort possible, keeping her hand and wrist still and moving only her fingers, as though common folk didn’t require the effort of a full hand wave. That’s how this keyboard made me feel: haughty and superior. That would be fine if I was writing a teleplay for a BBC drama, sitting in my sunroom next to a steaming cup of Earl Gray, but since most of my time is spent crafting angry emails it’s important that I’m in attack mode when sitting at my computer.
After a couple days of this I began to lose sensation in my hands. “My fingers are cramped,” I said, standing in the I.T. guy’s doorway, the keyboard wedged under my arm, my cupped hands held in the air as proof.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know what to tell you. Everybody else uses those keyboards.”
“Well, everyone else is an asshole. I need something more substantial than this. It’s like typing into a dried flower.”
“You know what?” He stood up and pulled a keyboard down from his shelf. “Take this one.” He set it on his desk and blasted it with an air gun. “I’ll even clean it up nice for you. I’ll spit shine each fucking key, okay? How’s this?” He handed me the keyboard. It was thick and rounded and ergonomic. The keypad had a wave-like shape, which is somehow more conducive to human hands. It looked like it had melted and begun to slide off one side. There was a hinge in the center, enabling it to fold into a steeple, and built-in cushions where the user could rest their palms. It may have been ergonomically advanced, but it looked about as modern as my first computer, a Commodore 64.
Though it had the heft I needed, this keyboard was made for a PC, so the layout of the keys was different. Plus there were several keys I had never heard of, like Numbers Lock, located conveniently in the same place as a Mac’s Shift key. Thus, most of my sentences began with letters but ended with numbers. And there was a new arsenal of shortcuts, none of which made any sense to me. While I quickly discovered four different ways to restart the entire system, it took me fifteen minutes to find the equivalent of the Eject button (CTRL + SHIFT + F12).
My plea to the I.T. guy was short and sweet: “Twenty-five years of typing experience for nothing.”
He nodded, sensing my desperation. “Okay. I have a few of those old Mac keyboards in offsite storage. The ones you like. We’ll take a ride there this week. You can have all of them.”
“You mean that?”
“Yes. I’ll bring my car in on Friday.”
“What if I bring my car tomorrow? Can we go then?”
“I’m out tomorrow. And Thursday.”
That was that. I’d be typing with my index fingers for another two days.
“When do you want to leave?” I said, leaning into the I.T. office. It was eleven o’clock Friday morning, and I had a project due by the end of the day.
“Twenty minutes. I just need to finish something,” he said, staring at the fantasy football roster on his screen.
An hour later the I.T. guy walked into my office twirling his car keys on his finger. He wore a matching Adidas tracksuit and wraparound sunglasses. “You ready?”
His Toyota Camry was filled with youth sporting equipment: football pads, soccer balls, muddy cleats, athletic socks. He tossed a pile of blue and red basketball shorts from the front seat to the back, just so I could get in. As soon as he started the car he rolled all four windows down. “Sorry about the smell in here,” he said. “I coach two of my sons’ teams.”
Before exiting the lot we stopped next to the parking attendant, Billy, and talked to him for five minutes about the upcoming Patriots game. Two blocks later the I.T. guy pulled over, leaned over and shouted through my window “Get to work, fuckstick!” It was a former colleague, walking to lunch. They talked to each other through the passenger-side window for a few minutes while I sat there, staring straight ahead. I thought the conversation was wrapping up until the former colleague announced that a mutual acquaintance of theirs had just died. “Holy fucking shit,” the I.T. guy said, shutting off the engine. We sat there for another fifteen minutes and got the full story.
A block later we stopped at CVS, where the I.T. guy bought a tube of Neosporin and a value pack of AAA batteries. After that he stopped at the Comcast office to pick up a new cable box. “The line looks small,” he said. “Might as well take care of this now.” We drove for another block before taking a last-minute swerve into a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, and then another stop for gas after that. It had been an hour and we had driven five blocks. At the rate we were going we’d be back at the office just in time for the Nightly News.
Due to heavy traffic on 93 we took side roads into Charlestown. The I.T. guy took this opportunity to give me a tour of the area. “Best Cuban sandwiches in Boston,” he’d say, or “my buddy used to get handjobs there, every day.” When he wasn’t pointing out the local haunts he was calling someone a “fucking ass clown”, alternating between the other drivers and the deejays on his sports radio station.
We got to the storage facility at 12:30. He punched in a key code that got us through the outer door. Once we got to our storage area he unlocked a padlock and opened up a retractable metal door. I expected to find mason jars filled with human organs, and was disappointed when all I saw were stacks of banker’s boxes and wire racks lined with external drives and dusty computer parts. The I.T. guy tore open a few boxes and started handing me keyboards.
“These are the newer ones. We have these at the office. These are the ones I don’t want.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m still looking. Hold your fucking horses.”
Five minutes later the I.T. guy stopped looking and rested his hands on his hips. “I thought we had some of those older ones, but I guess not. No worries. We’ll just take a ride to Best Buy and buy a couple.”
“Are you sure they sell them? I thought they were out of date.”
“They sell them,” he said, pulling down the retractable door. “And there’s a great pho restaurant nearby. We’ll grab some lunch while we’re at it.”
I checked my watch. “Okay, but I have something due by the end of the day, so we really gotta be quick.”
“Relax. We’ll take Mass Ave, be there in ten minutes.”
Construction and lunchtime traffic had turned Mass Ave into a one-lane parking lot. We watched each traffic light switch from green to red while our car sat motionless. Every time we made it through an intersection the I.T. guy gunned the engine and then slammed the brakes as we fell in behind another line of cars. Forty-five minutes of this before we reached the light at the South Bay Shopping Plaza, home to Best Buy, Home Depot, Target, Linens n’ Things, and an Olive Garden.
“I could fucking live here,” the I.T. guy said, nodding toward the Olive Garden. “Those breadsticks?” He sighed as we pulled into the left-turn-only lane. There were a dozen cars ahead of us. It was a five-way intersection, and every time the left arrow turned green a stream of pedestrians crossed the street, allowing only one or two cars to go before the light turned red again.
It was 1:30. “Shit, I’m gonna miss my deadline,” I said, shifting around in my seat. “Should I just get out and walk from here?” The light turned green, then yellow, then red. We moved forward a car length. “Jesus Christ, what is going on here?”
“Just sit back a relax. We’re here. There’s nothing we can do. Listen to the radio.” He turned up the jabbering of Sports Talk, which, when combined with the jackhammer and ambulance sirens from outside, did little to calm my nerves.
“Spare change?” said a homeless man who appeared at the driver’s side window.
“I could give you some money,” the I.T. guy replied, “but how about a much more valuable piece of advice, instead?” I got nervous. He continued. “This is not a good place to panhandle. People are stressed out and angry, like my friend here. You want to make money, go to Copley Square. They’re all tourists. They don’t know any better.”
“God bless,” the homeless man said, walking on.
“See? People appreciate it when you treat them with dignity,” the I.T. guy said. I sensed an undertone directed at me, but dismissed it and nodded along.
Finally we arrived at Best Buy. My anxiety was temporarily relieved at the sight of the new Star Wars trailer being simultaneously played on thirty high definition screens. We walked straight to the Mac section and started to browse. It wasn’t long before we realized they didn’t have any of the older Mac keyboards. Everything was thinner, lighter, and more fragile—an apt representation of so many things these days. I started to get emotional when the I.T. guy waved me over to the PC section.
“How’s this one?” he said, holding up a black Hewlett Packard wireless keyboard. It was similar to the old Macs in size and bulk. I set the floor model on the shelf and typed a bit. The keys felt flimsier, and I’d still be dealing with a new command key, but it was acceptable.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
At the register line, the I.T. guy turned to me. “You in the mood for pho, or what?”
I shook my head and grabbed a bag of pizza-flavored Combos from a display rack.
For the most part, my new keyboard is reliable, but the rapport is not the same. True, I can now type a full sentence without inadvertently opening a Help window, and I no longer have to worry about sending half-written emails whenever I hit the Tab key, but absent are the small, reassuring details. Take the sound of the keys, for example. The older Macs made a dull and confident click when my fingers hit them. I felt like Daniel-san from The Karate Kid, practicing jabs on Mr. Myagi’s chest protector, knowing that, for every punch, I gained a small amount of his wisdom and experience in return. These new keys rattle cheaply when I type, and that comes off as hollow and insincere. Today’s keyboards, and most new products in general, lack the grit that I need. It’s as if they’re saying “Go easy, or you might break me.” And I can’t go easy. Certainly not when I’m typing, anyway.
The I.T. guy showed up at my doorway this morning, a box under his arm. “I got a present for you.” He opened the box and removed two older Mac keyboards, and proceeded to swap one of them for my wireless HP model.
“Where’d you get those?” I said.
“Amazon,” he said. “I ordered them yesterday. Enjoy 'em, ass clown.”
I thought about the last few weeks: the palsied hands, the ergonomics, the mistyped sentences, the accidental restarts, the storage facility, the Mass Ave traffic, the near-blown deadline.
Then I smiled, placed my hands on the keyboard, and hammered away.