I took my typewriters in for a little tune-up and fresh ribbons. Gus, late-50s Lebanese owner, checked the margin levers on my Hermes 3000 while I hovered.
"Have you been back to Lebanon recently?"
- Oh no, it's expensive. So expensive. When I left, I thought it was expensive, but it's so much more expensive now. You wouldn't think so, but it is. The richest man in the world right now is from Lebanon. Carlos Slim. You know him?
"I know who he is. I'm not personally acquainted."
- He's from Lebanon.* So much wealth there. Mercedes and Lamborghinis all over, yacht parking by hotels...Everybody is educated there. Everybody. When you're born, you're constantly having three languages spoken to you: English, Arabic, and French. It's all about languages. So by the time you get to university, you're fluent in three languages. Last time I was in Lebanon was...ten years ago.
"I've been really interested in Lebanon even since reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan several years ago."
He looked up.
- Nassim means "breeze." Yes, definitely Lebanese. And Talib means "student" or "scholar." Perhaps Orthodox.
He wiggled the typebars around, brushing dust and hammering away on each key as he tested letter.
"I really enjoy his writing and his vivid descriptions of Lebanese history and culture. Is there a strong Lebanese community in Portland?"
- Yes. About a thousand families, a couple churches. Good community.
"How'd you end up in Portland?"
- I was in New York first. I hated it. Hated it. I left a war zone behind; I didn't want to live in another one. The Bronx...a bad place. The bad guys had guns and we had nothing. I ran a discount store there. So many shoplifters.
"Lot of shoplifters?"
- Oh yes. And age didn't have anything to do with it. A woman in her '70s stuffing $25 sheets down her underwear...
"I'm not sure I'd want those back on the shelf."
(chuckles and checks the carriage return lever)
- You wouldn't believe what people would do. They'd look around, try to be sneaky and drop items into their bags or their pants or their coat. Ten to fifteen a day.
"Ten to fifteen shoplifters A DAY?!"
- Oh yes. The police finally told us: 'stop calling us.' Just beat them up.
- They said: 'you're wasting our time.' Just take them to the basement and beat them up. And I said 'but what if they try suing us?' And they told me 'if they try suing you, THEN call us and we'll beat them again.'
"That's sort of humorous."
- It was running us out of business. And we had to pay protection money.
"What do you mean?"
- Protection money. Mafia. They called it "garbage money." We'd leave these cardboard boxes outside for them to pick up - "garbage." $250 a month. I finally had to leave in 1989.
"And you ended up in Portland."
- Yes. I took over this business. It was started in 1926 by a very smart fellow. He was IBM's main competitor. He had 15 trucks with benches in the back that he set up with all the tools, compressor, everything, and they'd go around to pick up appliances to repair, fix them in the trucks, then take them back. IBM couldn't compete. I never met him, but his son-in-law was running the business when I took over, and it was almost bankrupt. He just wanted to get the money and be done with it.
He unscrewed the bottom off my Streamliner.
"Do you get a lot of typewriters coming through?"
- Oh yes. I thought they were done for a while back, but we see plenty. And of course we had to start doing printers and copiers a while back because I couldn't keep a business going with just typewriters.
"How did you get into it?"
- When I was younger, the company I was working for sent me to France and Italy for training. I've been working on these a long time. And then I learned the other stuff by taking a few classes at Mt. Hood Community College. Copiers are easy; I don't need a book anymore for any model.
"What do you mean?"
- The manufacturers try to be tricky and put all these screws where you can't find them, make it as difficult as possible to work on so you have to call their technicians at $250 an hour. But once you figure them out...I don't need a book for any of them. They can't trick me anymore.
"Cool. Do you have an all-time favourite typewriter?"
- Oh no. They're just work for me. I don't like them. I just work on them.
He looked up from my Remington Streamliner. Shook his head.
- This is what's wrong: the spring came off. We'll have to figure out a new one.
"I may have to wait on that,"
I said sadly.
"What do I owe you for now?"
He told me.
"Gus, I'm pretty sure I owe you a bit more than that, considering all the diagnostics and cleaning you've done, in addition to ribbon."
- No, no, I want you to come back. I don't like sending out a machine with unfinished work. So you come back when you're ready.
I left, and my heart was light as I paused at the door to wave farewell to my favourite typewriter specialist. And friend.
See you soon, Gus. Thanks for the great conversation.
*note: Carlos Slim migrated to Mexico at 14