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Last New England Yard Ape Dies In Captivity

Sculptor, Claes Oldenburg's Typewriter Eraser is the partial subject of Max's tangential ramblings in this essay. Find out more about it here.

What's that? 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 Champions.

My first typewriter was a little Olivetti 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?' ###