In one fell swoop during the fall of 1987—a swoop for which I’d been saving for more than a year—I bought my first computer, my first monitor, my first surge protector, my first floppy diskettes, and my first printer. None of this equipment was inordinately expensive, with the exception of the printer, a Hewlett Packard LaserJet Series II that cost $1,795. There was no such thing as a cheap printer in those days. A run-of-the-mill dot-matrix model, noisy as a toy locomotive and dependent on tractor-fed paper whose imperialistic billows annexed half your desk, could easily set you back $800. But $1,795? I didn’t even own an electric pencil sharpener. What possessed me to shell out that kind of money for a printer?
I was gearing up to pitch some stories to The New Yorker, for which I had longed to write ever since I was old enough to know the difference between Wolcott Gibbs and Alexander Woollcott (in other words, given the family I grew up in, about, oh, age ten). My pitches had to look perfect, of course. Any fool could see that my Olympia electric typewriter, with its dorky sans-serif font, was not up to the task. A dot-matrix printer? Nah. The type was fuzzy. Daisy wheel? Nah. You had to snap in a new wheel every time you changed the font.
My printer was unrepentantly beige and so brazenly plastic that it made fakeness look like a form of authenticity.
But the HP LaserJet II—whose technology, involving a laser beam that bounced off a six-sided mirror onto a rotating photosensitive drum, was so cutting edge that I hadn’t the faintest clue how it actually worked—now that was a printer! I wasn’t the only one who thought so. (According to Printerworks.com, the HP LaserJet II “was a stunning success from the start and seemed to appear on the front page of every computer magazine... There were always more new dealers lined up at HP’s door eagerto carry the most successful printer product ever made.”) Its type was so crisp! Its fonts—up to four accessible at the same time, two ”resident” and two in cartridges that plugged neatly into slots in the front—were so numerous! Its speed—eight pages per minute—was so zippy! Its two-hundred-sheet paper tray was so capacious! Best of all, the LaserJet II was, according to its brochure, ”whisper quiet”—a stage whisper, perhaps, but far closer to pianissimo than any other printer I’d ever heard, and thus manifestly conducive to the distraction-free lucubration upon which great writing rested. My printer was not an extravagance but an investment: in typography, in literature, in me. It was a fifty-pound version (53.6 with loaded paper tray) of Dumbo’s feather, a talisman guaranteed to protect me from failure, if only it actually worked by the potency of its placebo effect. (The talisman worked, but only temporarily. The New Yorker did assign me a piece (onan epileptic Hmong toddler), and it was accepted, but the editor was replaced bysomeone whose enthusiasm for epileptic Hmong toddlers was – not to put too fine apoint on it – limited. She informed me of her decision to kill the piece in a (beautifully printed) letter that misspelled both my first and my last names.)
This was more than a decade before hipster black and fishbelly silver began their hostile takeover of once technology. My printer was unrepentantly beige and so brazenly plastic that it made fakeness look like a form of authenticity. Square and squat and fat and forthright, it took command of my desk as soon as I wrestled it out of its box, just as it dominated the ”Read Me First!” poster that depicted the LaserJet II’s entire kinship group in a dignified four-color tableau: the broad-shouldered paterfamilias surrounded by its adoring family of toner cartridges, fuser roller cleaning pads, paper trays, power cords, and instruction manuals. These accessories flustered me at first, but eventually, just as I would later learn to diaper a child when I was half asleep, I learned to change the toner cartridge—gently rocking it back and forth to distribute the ink evenly, inserting it in the printer, swabbing the fragile corona wires with a cautious Q-tip, wiping the residue from the fuser roller with the fuzzy end of the cleaning pad, firmly seating the cleaning pad beneath the lime-green fuser assembly cover—without consulting pages 2.11 through 2.17 of Getting Started with LaserJet Series II.
My favorite font cartridge was P. It contained a clean-lined, heavily-inked iteration of Times Roman (I have expended untold bytes, in both online font forums and plaintive e-mails to Hewlett Packard Customer Service, attempting to find a downloadable version of FontCartridge P that I could use if, heaven forbid, I were ever to face LaserJet II widowhood.Everyone tells me that CG Times or Times New Roman is close enough, but everyone is wrong. My printer is like the last speaker of Pongyong or Twendi or !Kung. When it dies, my font will die with it.) the perfect match for my equally unfussy word-processing program, WordPerfect 4.2 for DOS. (WordPerfect did not employ icons, praise the Lord. My brain was apparently not wired to process words and pictures simulta- neously.) I hated using my friends’ computers because they didn’t have WordPerfect, and I hated using their printers because they didn’t have Cartridge P. I couldn’t wait to come home to my own desk, where the positive feedback loop of painless composition and comely printouts awaited me, exerting a Pavlovian pressure that urged me to write another word, or a hundred words, or a thousand.
Over the years, several computers came and went. Their departures occasioned few tears. I copied the entire contents of each hard drive onto the next one, so that, in a digital version of endocannibalism among the Fore, each new computer incorporated not only its immediate ancestor but all its ancestors. Actually, cannibalism isn’t quite the right analogy, since it suggests that the swallower and the swallowee are about the same size. My current Lenovo ThinkCentre M52 has four thousand times as much disk space as my original Wyse 1400, so it’s more like a blue whale casually inhaling a two-centimeter krill.
I know what you expect me to say now: ”But I still have my old printer.”
Well, sort of.
Scott did his customary physical examination and shook his head. My printer needed a new fiber-optic scanner. This sounded serious, like a heart transplant.
In its late teens, after it had printed a few hundred thousand pages, my LaserJet II began to suffer the inevitable aches and pains of old age: paper jams, ghost images, toner smears. It needed medical attention, but, like a patient too obese to be lifted from his bed, it required house calls. There was only one technician in our area who was willing and able to minister to it. (Few computer geeks are drawn to gerontology.) Scott visited our house so often that he brought biscuits for our dog, Typo. (My daughter, who has inherited the family proofreading fetish, chose the name not because there was anything erroneous about Typo but because she had read that dogs respond best to two-syllable names ending with a long vowel, like Fido and Toto. (A friend of ours suggested that if Typo had puppies and we kept one, we could call it Stet.)) He treated the patient the way an old-fashioned G.P. might have treated a former pillar of the community who suffered from arthritis and constipation and, if truth be told, was also getting a little senile, but whose decades of service had earned him lasting respect. As Scott tenderly replaced a separation pad or a paper pickup roller or a transfer corona assembly, he never failed to compliment my printer’s work- horse temperament or its ability to outlive its younger rivals, which, we agreed, could do a ton of things but were nonetheless pieces of crap.
One day, Scott did his customary physical examination and shook his head. My printer needed a new fiber-optic scanner. This sounded serious, like a heart transplant. Scott said the cost would be prohibitive. Why not see if there were any reconditioned Laser-Jet IIs on eBay?
There were several, starting at less than a sixth of their original price. My heart thumped with the tachycardia of the faithless spouse. I ordered one on the spot.
It was delivered by UPS. I set it up. It looked exactly like my old printer, only cleaner. Cartridge P popped right in. I expected my innards to be gnawed by guilt, but they weren’t. This was my old printer.
I know it sounds weird. It’s like Salvador Dalí’s parents believ- ing that Salvador #2 was a reincarnation of Salvador #1, his dead older brother, or like a dotty old lady owning a series of identical Dandy Dinmont terriers and calling them all Fifi. But my desk looked just the way it always had, and I kept forgetting that anything had changed.
After a year or two, LaserJet II II, so to speak, began to suffer paper pickup problems. I called Scott and learned that his company had been swallowed by a larger company (another whale/ krill interaction). HP LaserJet IIs were not on its repair list. Scott’s supervisor informed me that the Whale Co. was unable to obtain the necessary parts.
”That’s okay!” I exclaimed. ”I have a whole closetful of parts!” This was only a slight exaggeration. I owned a small but choice collection of pickup rollers and separation pads, purchased online for peanuts so that whenever Scott made a house call, I’d be poised to hand him the requisite part, like a well-trained nurse handing a surgeon a pair of ligature scissors.
”I’m sorry,” said the supervisor. ”We can’t repair your printer. Most of our business is now corporate. By the way, you should know that if any of our technicians do freelance work, that constitutes grounds for immediate termination.”
So I bought Laserjet II III.
Laserjet II II now rests under the bed in the guestroom. Like a cadaver coerced just before death into signing an organ donor card, it has potentially harvestable parts. But with Scott out of the picture, who will perform the transplant surgery?
We are hard to upgrade. We are not adaptable. Our memories are short on disk space. We are good at doing a few things well instead of many half-assedly. We are all HP LaserJet II printers.
Me, perhaps? Just in case, I’ve started to frequent Web sites like fixyourownprinter.com, which, as far as I’m concerned, might as well be called doyourownbrainsurgery.com. One such site, wb6nvh .com/Laserjet/Laserjet.htm, is maintained by an endearing technoatavist named Geoff who is also the proprietor of a Web page on vintage California Highway Patrol radios. Geoff suggests that anyone who repairs an HP LaserJet II procure a long-bladed Phillips screwdriver with a magnetized tip; a muffin tin to hold the ”innumerable screws of the same thread but different length and heads”; a special model of needle-nosed pliers called a PinPal; a digital multi-meter; a Shop-Vac with a good air filter; a can of QD Electro-Kleen; a digital camera ”to take photos of the assembly before disassembly and during disassembly to make sure you get everything back correctly”; and, if you wish to refill the toner cartridges, a pair of rubber gloves, a face mask respirator, and a clean crew sock that can be filled with drum padding powder, knotted above the toe area, and patted against the cartridge drum.
I don’t need to refill the toner cartridges. There are six HP 92295A’s under the guest bed. I purchased them for $9.99 apiece on eBay. They used to sell for more than $100. They cost next to nothing now because I’m the only person in the world who buys them.
The rest of Geoff’s advice, however, turns my blood to ice. I have the sinking feeling that if LaserJet II III gets sick, LaserJet II IV may lie in my future. (A LaserJet II is currently available on eBay with a minimum bid of $15.00. Its seller writes: “This printer has been sitting in a closet for nearly 20 years and was working fine before being mothballed...Please note that this is one of the heaviest printers I have ever lifted.”) Which, of course, is lunatic—but how else can I use up all those toner cartridges? It’s as if I’m still beavering away to reduce the extravagance of my original investment. Even though my husband lugged my first LaserJet to the town dump on Bulky Waste Day, even though I haven’t laid eyes on it for more than four years, even though it’s dead, I still feel somehow that every page printed by its replacement’s replacement—or that some day might be printed by its replacement’s replacement’s replacement—amortizes that original $1,795.
And I can’t do that with a modern printer. I do own one—the kind of all-in-one machine (fax, scanner, printer, toaster oven) everybody has these days. I use it primarily as a fax, though when my LaserJet II is ailing—or when I want to print in color or from a Web page whose RAM-hogging graphics overwhelm my old printer’s pea-sized memory—I confess I boot up the Canon PIXMA MX860. It’s a comparatively lightweight, curvy gamine, sheathed (of course) in black and silver, with thirty-nine buttons on the front. I didn’t actually buy it, though I could have for a hundred bucks. When its equally cheap predecessor broke, Canon sent me this one for free (And when this one breaks, Canon will probably send me another – a newer, even sexiermodel. Planned obsolescence is a sensible business strategy. Why build a machine that outlasts its technology?) like a crack dealer handing out samples in the expectation that a lucrative addiction—in this case, to those damn little colored ink cartridges—will soon repay his generosity. Printing a page on the PIXMA costs thirty-four times as much as printing a page on the LaserJet II. (That figure is based on averaging the costs of a PIXMA page of monochrome text (4.6cents) and a page of mixed text-and-color grapics (12.4 cents), as compared with thequarter of a cent I pay for each page printed by one of those LaserJet cartridges under theguest bed. This calculation, of course, betrays my favoritism by being egregiously unfairto the PIXMA, since the LaserJet II can’t print color. If I printed only black-and-whitepages, the PIXMA would be a mere 18.4 times as expensive. I tried pinching pennies by buying knockoff cartridges but gave up after their leaky carapaces left me with cyan or magenta hands one too many times.) The PIXMA has all kinds of features I don’t understand and don’t need, like a wired LAN interface and PictBridge and Gutter Shadow Correction Copy, but I dislike the way it blinks at me, constantly urging me to buy a new ink cartridge (and trying to connect me to the Canon Web site to facilitate the purchase); its print quality is nothing to write home about; and of course the printouts don’t look right to me, and never will, since it cannot accommodate Cartridge P.
My devotion to my LaserJet II has a domino effect. For the first time, I find myself attached to my current computer, because it belongs to the last generation of computers that use Windows XP, and XP is the last generation of Windows that can handle DOS, and if I replace the computer I won’t be able to use WordPerfect for DOS (Because it’s more easily translatable to a form other computers can read, I do haveWordPerfect X3 for Windows. I admit that it’s not bad. (I also have Microsoft Word,which I execrate.) But WordPerfect for DOS is my first language, and I will never speakanother dialect quite as naturally. I empathized with William F. Buckley, who developedan analogous attachment to WordStar, a word-processing program even more ancientthan WordPerfect for DOS that he had learned in 1983. In Losing Mum and Pup, his sonChristopher wrote: “Loading WordStar into his up-to-date Dell computer was akin to installing the controls of a Sopwith Camel on a F-16 fighter jet, but Pup could not be budged from his WordStar.”), and if I can’t use WordPerfect for DOS I can’t use Cartridge P.
But I can see the sun nearing the horizon. Sometimes I wonder if I should just call it a day. Why can’t I treat my printer the way I’d treat an aged relative who, if spared the indignity of intubation, would succumb to a painless bout of pneumonia? Why can’t I just let nature take its course?
It’s because I and most other people over fifty are cumbersome ourselves. We are hard to upgrade. We are not adaptable. Our memories are short on disk space. We are good at doing a few things well instead of many half-assedly. We are all HP LaserJet II printers.
Surrounded by the light-footed young, who skitter effortlessly from task to task, we cling to our obsolete equipment because we are afraid that we will be discontinued, that we will be hauled away on Bulky Waste Day, that we will end up so devalued that we will be available for a song on eBay, but, because we’re so much trouble, no one will bid.
I just printed out a draft of this essay. My LaserJet II wheezed. The delivery roller squeaked. The pages trembled slightly as they slid into the output bin. The print quality was excellent.
Anne Fadiman is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale and the former editor of The American Scholar. She is the author of two books of essays, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small, as well as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
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