by Joe Linker
Manual typewriters contained a bell that rang to signal the coming of the end of a line. The typist could adjust where along the line the bell might ring. Shorter lines…Longer lines. The faster typist increased the frequency of the bells one heard. When the bell rang, the typist had but a few strokes left before reaching up with left hand to push the typewriter carriage return lever to the far right to reset the type guide at the left margin of the paper to begin a new line.
I got a new job, in a large, corporate office, flying paper airplanes. During the day, the three story building housed around 500 employees sitting at grey metal desks. There were a few managerial secretaries with typewriters. The rest of us used the typing pool. All you had to do was pick up your phone, dial the typing pool extension, and, when you heard the bell, begin dictation. Finished, you could let the piece fly, or ask that it be delivered to your desk via the office mail to proof and return to the pool or place in the outgoing mail.
There was a procedure for just about everything. New procedural bulletins arrived regularly. Some updated older bulletins or clarified procedural details. Others introduced new procedures. Sometimes, a section meeting would be devoted to reviewing a new procedure before its effective date. In short order, most procedures were memorized, but employees also stuck notes around their desks to remind themselves of key procedural steps. For procedures that never became part of routine, one referenced a procedural manual, which was an encyclopedia of procedure bulletins, collected by category and number. Employees also made notes in these manuals, and flagged the most frequently referenced pages.
The mailroom was located in the basement. The mailroom employees were also heavily burdened with procedures. The cafeteria was located on the top floor, and afforded views of the surrounding area, which included a freeway interchange. There was a patio on one side of the cafeteria, with tables with chairs and umbrellas, where one could take a coffee or sandwich and enjoy the fresh air.
There were procedures for evacuating the building, in case of emergency, initiated by the ringing of signal bells over the public address speaker system. These bells also controlled the start and end of the work day as well as the start and end of break and lunch periods. The workday started at 7:30, signaled by the single ring of a bell. Employees were expected to be seated and working at the bell; otherwise, they might be considered tardy. This was explained in the Personnel Procedure Manual. Employees took breaks in shifts, so that no section or department was ever completely idle. Morning breaks ran from 9:30 to 9:45 and from 10:00 to 10:15. A bell signaled the beginning and ending of each break. Thus four bells would ring at fifteen minute intervals. Lunch break was 45 minutes, and ran from 11:30 to 12:15 and 12:15 to 1:00. An efficient three bells sufficed. In the afternoon, four bells rang again for breaks, beginning at 2:30 and ending at 3:15. A final bell rang at 4:30 and the building quickly emptied, faster than for a fire drill.
By procedure, the secretaries placed dust covers over their typewriters at the end of the workday.
A half mile walk from my house up to the church, up Center Street and across the train tracks to Pine, across to Bungalow Drive and up to Holly Avenue, then up to Maryland Avenue and past the swimming pool and through Hilltop Park, and across Grand Avenue, where you could see a sliver of the ocean where the road cut through the dunes a mile off, and into the church. The morning remains a fragmented run-on I frequently recall.
But I could not see the ocean that morning, the morning of the caper of the bells, because it was still dark out. I was altar boy for the week at the 5:15 AM mass. The church was still locked. I went through the gate between the rectory and sacristy entrance of the church. But the sacristy was also locked. I didn’t see any lights on in the rectory. I did not know exactly what time it was. Dad had rousted me from bed, and I got dressed and left without a word between the two of us. I sat down on the church porch and with my back against the sacristy door, fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping when the priest woke me up, unlocked the door, and in we went. I put on my cassock and filled the water and wine cruets and took them out to the table beside the altar. Meanwhile, the priest went out to unlock the doors to the church and came back in to put on his vestments, quietly saying his prayers while dressing, not a word between the two of us.
I led the way out the sacristy side door to the altar, the priest behind me bearing his chalice in two hands, stopped and backed up to allow him to pass to the center. Only the front of the church was lit with lights, the back kept dark, because there were only a few people scattered in the front pews: a couple of nuns in full regalia, a high school student no doubt doing penance for some heinous sin, a couple of old women wearing hats and holding rosaries, and Mr. Mulligan, in for his morning pick-me-up.
The congregation rose as the priest and I walked to the altar. I took up my position at the bottom of the stairs, he climbed to the altar, and the magic show went live. The mass was still being said in Latin, and I completed the dialog with the priest with my responses in Latin, although I understood little of what I was saying. But I liked the sounds of the Latin words, like magic incantations.
There was no sermon in these early morning masses, communion went quickly with so few communicants, and the whole affair was over in 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the mood of the priest. The priest kept his back to the congregation. And while we said the prayers of the dialog, we kept our voices to a near whisper, as if afraid we might awaken the statues of the saints, and by the time of the hush that settled in at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was sound asleep on my knees.
The priest was clicking with his thumb and finger at me, trying to get my attention. I awoke stupefied and grabbed the bells and starting ringing them. But it wasn’t time for the bells. It was time for me to get up and go to the side table and get the cruets of water and wine and carry them up the steps to the priest so he could wash his fingers and take a drink of wine. I realized my mistake, put down the bells, and carried on. The ringing of the bells at the wrong place in the ceremony must have awoken the entire congregation from their prayerful morning slumber.
I gave my bell experience to Isaac, one of Henry Killknot’s younger brothers, in “Penina’s Letters.” Henry shares Isaac’s ringing of the bells at the wrong moment to Salty, Penina, and Puck, who have driven over to Saint Gelda Church in Venice to attend Isaac’s First Holy Communion ceremony. Henry finds the story hilarious, and creates a local ruckus around their pew as he tells it to the others. Salty smiles, but Penina and Puck don’t really understand what it’s all about.
We should probably be wary of statements beginning with the pronouncement, “Never before, in the history of the world….”
Nevertheless, given our current world predicament, we might find ourselves in need of some relaxation – seemingly, like never before.
In his little book titled “How to Relax,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh begins:
You don’t need to set aside special time for resting and relaxing. You don’t need a special pillow or any fancy equipment. You don’t need a whole hour. In fact, now is a very good time to relax. (page 6, “How to Relax,” Parallax Press, 2015).
The same might be said for writing. You don’t need a fancy machine, a special desk or pen, or even a purpose. What you need – is a bell.
There is tranquility, peace, and joy within us, but we have to call them forth so they can manifest. Inviting a bell to sound is one way to call forth the joy and tranquility within (page 100).
Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a poem to remind us of the bell we want to listen for, to hear, to send out to others:
Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of this bell.
May all the hearers awaken from forgetfulness,
and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow (page 100).
And we don’t need a fancy blog template or website to write. Again, nevertheless, here at The Coming of the Toads, I’ve experimented with a few of the WordPress templates over time. But what did I want, if not simply to write? This isn’t the only place, the only way, I write. I keep a pocket notebook in the left rear pocket of my pants (detail for readers in need), unlined because I like to doodle and wander. I keep a spiral notebook in a desk drawer. I started The Coming of the Toads, after a few hesitant starts, in December of 2007, and have posted something at least monthly since. Why then, lately, have I been having thoughts of ending it?
I wasn’t “inviting the bell.” Not Poe’s “the tintinabulation of the bells,” nor his “anger of the bells,” nor his “moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But the bell of the muse. I like this etymological note from Oxford: “Middle English: from Old French muser ‘meditate, waste time’, perhaps from medieval Latin musum ‘muzzle’.” Writing involves a good amount of self-muzzle, or should. First, we might want to relax. Invite the bell. Then take up the pen and notebook, or open the blog.
Essay originally published (in three parts) at The Coming of the Toads