Queens Writes! Tales of the Queens Traveling Typewriter

photo 3By Gabriel Cabrera

How do you get an entire borough to write? That was the challenge. Newtown Literary decided to host write-a-thons all throughout Queens. Some site managers set up shop in cafes, Flushing Meadows Park and even on the 7 train. After gaining some inspiration to take more of a “guerilla-style” approach (from mentor poet Kristen Gallagher, a professor at LaGuardia Community College), we came up with the premise of the Traveling Typewriter.

Step 1: Buy a vintage typewriter.

Why, you ask? Because it’s freaking cool looking, but also because the typewriter itself tells a story. It’s a link back to the good ol’ days, when writers got their fingers dirty with ribbons, when you heard the cha-ching at the end of each line, when you marked an actual page with something you created. The scroll and typewriter, the typewriter and scroll, a sort of homage to the great writers before us, a Jack Kerouac On The Road allegory, typing his final lines of a masterpiece in… where? That’s right, his mother’s basement in Ozone Park, Queens (if rumors are true).

Step 2: Location. Location. Location.

I wanted to reach the most of Queens. How do you do that? You get your ass out there and bring the paper to the people.

Step 3: Get a donation can.

$1 a line. Ask people to write a line, either by writing whatever line comes to mind or follow the line that came before it.   

The first day of the event took place in Klapper Hall in Queens College, on the sixth floor by an elevator. I brought with me a folding table and chair, a Spiderman tin can for the $1 donation, and of course, the 1970s Super G tangerine Smith & Corona typewriter. Cesar Bustamante, a multimedia journalist, filmed me as I placed the scroll into the typewriter. As I typed the first line, given to me by Kristen Gallagher, “ It is 9:08 in New York a Wednesday in the early 21st Century” my hands shook with nervousness.

I waited. A few MFA students and undergraduate students heard about the event and stopped by soon after, writing amazing, funny, and thought-provoking lines. Then I brought out my inner Queens hustler. I stopped everyone who made clear eye contact,  even those who pretended to suddenly receive a phone call when they saw the typewriter and me.

“Hey, would you like to write a line?”

“A line of what?”

“Anything that comes to mind. You can follow the line before or come up with your own. I’m with Newtown Literary; we are a Queens-based journal, publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays and interviews. I am going all around Queens asking people to write a line, maybe donate a dollar or dime, or just to spend some time. We will publish the entire piece in our next issue.”

They sat, contemplated, smiled at their brilliance, and began typing.

“You have to press the keys hard and fast,” I would say with a knowing smile. “It’s not like a MacBook, you have to let the typewriter really feel it.”

And so my voyage began. So far I have even received lines from well-known authors, such as Roger Sederate and Maaza Mengiste, with more to come.  A few lines turned into more lines and more lines turned into about three feet after  three days of legwork.

We had people as young as three years old whisper lines into their parents’ ears. I had a Vietnam veteran in Bayside write, “The Native Americans should be given more consideration,” as he began telling me about his research on Native Americans and their lack of body hair.

“Have you ever seen a Native American with facial hair?” he said,  pointing to my own beard.

“I can’t say that I have.”

“You see it’s from God.”

He reached into his pocket, revealed a roll of twenties, and gave me a ripped one-dollar bill. It was moments like that which made my day so much more entertaining.

After Bayside, I drove to 179th street near Jamaica Avenue and Hillside, by the F train. We rarely receive  submissions from there, which is funny to me because it’s where I was born and raised, and still live. My fiancé and I set up shop right by the exit of the F train. There was a woman in her twenties smoking a cigarette.

“Would you like to write a line for a literary journal?”

She smiled. “Well, I don’t know what to write.”

“It can be anything.”

“I don’t know.”

“You can say I am sitting here smoking a cigarette.”

And so she did, dropping ashes into my typewriter, pounding each key like a professional, no need for explanation.

Without reading the line before, a nurse walked by, and gave her line: “Donate to cancer”.

It is this amazing cohesiveness that links all these lines together. Like people—we’re all connected.


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