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A Corner Room at the Y

Published: December 17, 2012

Even now, after all these years, the sound of a train passing through town carries memories for me of our good friend Chester Milvey. I see him tucked away in a corner of one of those grungy boxcars, typing away on his trusty portable Olivetti like he still had somebody left to beat.

Assuming he’s even alive, it wouldn’t surprise me none if Milvey hightailed it out of his boxcar, made a beeline for the town he’s landed nearest, and entered himself into another typing contest. Another thing, which I guess has to be said, if Milvey happened to land anywhere near Dubuque, he’d probably catch the first train heading in any direction straight the heck out of here. Some folks just aren’t meant to be where they find themselves.

Milvey was short for his age. His face, well it looked like way back when somebody took his or her anger out on it. Milvey’s ears reminded you of nothing so much as sprung earmuffs catching the wind. More often than not they were red along the edges, like he’d just heard something he didn’t want to know.

Where Milvey came from is another mystery. One day he was just there stamping cans in the basement of the Quik-Buy Supermarket like he’d been born for the job.

Milvey hit centers right along with the best of them. He was fast, maybe a little nervous, but mostly he was fast. In fact, he stamped so well in less than four months, Milvey got himself promoted to stocking shelves on the main floor. Less than a month after that, Milvey copped the brass ring. Walter Walinski, Quik-Buy’s assistant day manager, made Milvey express checker, sudden prestige and a spot near the door!

It took less than a week for Milvey to get the hang of the tricky black and silver QAE (Quick-Action Electric) cash register. Folks who frequented the Quik-Buy for six items or less generally agreed, whatever else he might decide to do with his life, like as not, Milvey had found the thing he did best.

Then one day, as fate would have it, and fate always seems to get its way in these things, a stranger wearing a white raincoat and blue sunglasses swaggers into the Quik-Buy. He makes three quick purchases of six items or less. By the time I get to express, he’s back in line, two customers ahead of me, waiting to check out three more bags of six items or less. It got Milvey so nervous after ringing up the guy he asked: “How’s about I pack all your little bags into one big bag, mister?”

“Ever use your dukes, kid?” the stranger replies.

“Pardon me, sir?” Milvey says.

“You got a lightening pair of mitts, kid. Ever do any typing?”

“Any what, mister?” Milvey shoots a nervous glance down to his hands. “Any what?”

“Typing! On a machine! The one with the alphabet!”

Well, Milvey gave a giggle that turned into a guffaw, which tickled most everyone waiting on express.

So we’re standing there, coughing and sputtering, trying as best we can to hold ourselves in when Walter Walinski, fuzzy brown toupee a tad off center as it most always was, skids up to his star employee: “What’s all the ruckus?” Walt asks.

“Kid’s got typer’s mitts,” the stranger explains. “He could be famous.”

“On a typewriter!” Milvey blurts out, wiping his nose on the corner of his brown work apron. “The one with the alphabet!” he chortles.

“Is that a fact?” Walinski says. He follows that up with a nod at the QAE, a squint at the customers, and a brisk, “Ring ’em up, Milv! That’s what we’re here for.”

The stranger stuffs a business card into the top pocket of Milvey’s work apron. “See, Nat,” he says. “Nat breeds champions.”

With that, he turns up the collar of his raincoat, waits for the electric eye to open the door, and disappears into the day.

Before you know it, the fluorescents get back their glare, registers are ringing off the wall, and we shuffle ahead with blank stares, the kind you get waiting in line, knowing sure as shooting you’re gonna be overcharged for something or other.

Well, it didn’t take much for Nathan Margolias, President of the Nathan Margolias School of Typing Champions, to fast-talk Milvey into enrolling in his school. Milvey attended evening classes three nights a week. The other thing he did was buy himself this used lemon-colored portable Olivetti typewriter, complete with leather-like carrying case from Alice Winslow, owner of Elmer’s Office Supplies down on Lake Street.

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