Typewriters in a Time of Smartphones

Filling out forms on a typewriter is not the hipster-style job you’d think it was.

Originally published May 16, 2016

I sat down with Jairo under a rainbow colored umbrella in downtown Cali, Colombia. His typewriter sat idly on the desk in front of him as he organized his things: plastic chair with pillow, loose papers of various sizes, a large stick – his ‘crazy-tamer’. “As far as I know,” he said, “in Germany and over there in Moscow, they’re going back to typewriters because the computers are going to crash. I don’t know when or anything, but the typewriters are, I don’t know, more secretive.”

The most notable thing about Jairo was his typewriter: a Brother 1350, a compact japanese job, in perfect working condition. The presence of a typewriter in most places is a novelty, but in a public park, out in the open, it becomes something more. Jairo is a scribe, or escribano in Spanish, one of 24 men who work in the Park of the Poets, filling out forms for their clients.

German (pronounced hair-MAN), who types out documents on his 60 year old Facit, is the President of the TRIBUCALI Association, the group of men who also go by the name Legal Advisors of the Plaza Caicedo. He has been working for 41 years as a scribe, and he explained that the reason for using typewriters is not an apocryphal collapse of technology. “We work in the street, exposed to the elements. There aren’t any electrical outlets to plug in a computer around here. Really, only about 70% of the men who work out here know anything about computer systems.”

It is possible that the sight of men in public squares, seated at desks in front of typewriters, formally dressed and helping clients fill out official documents was more common 30 or 40 years ago – maybe many years before that. But in today’s world of smart phones and high speed internet, it’s understandable if the clackity-clacking of a typewriter is unrecognized to a pedestrian’s ear. A great number of people born in the mid to late 1980s may never have actually seen a typewriter in action, except, perhaps in old movies or episodes of “Mad Men”.

German is the president of the TRIBUCALI Association.

For the scribes, there is no sense of nostalgia in their work. These typewriters are the source of their bread and butter. Both Jairo and German have bought houses, sent children to school and provided for their families through the use of these archaic, people-powered, form-filling machines. But because this job is considered informal – no office, no secretaries, no walls, no taxes are paid, no health care is provided, no retirement funds are set up – there are difficult times. The men wait for clients to appear with their documents or their letters to be written. Some days are slow. “There was one day when I only made $2000 pesos (about $0.75 US),” recalled Jairo when I asked him about his income.

“The idea is to not charge too much, or charge too little,” explained German. “No one gets a fixed rate. That guy over there might charge you $2000 pesos or $3000; I might charge you $5000. It all depends on how deep your pockets look.” Billing according to flexible rates is possible because of the great disparity between the social classes in Colombia. In some studies, it appears as the Latin American country with the greatest gap between the rich and the poor. “Our clients cover the whole range. We get from the lowest of the low, to the most privileged.”

And just what do these men do on their typewriters? “We respond to letters, letters of resignation, legal processes, bills of sale, rental contracts. We know all about legal formalities and can help people in their paper work,” answered German.

Colombia has its share of dirty laundry when it comes to corruption, and there is one thing that typewriters do that computers have a difficulty with: they fill out forms without any record other than the paper document. German explained, “We’re not the Office of the Registry. We don’t do anything but fill out forms here. You don’t see computers or printers, do you? We don’t produce any documents here, we just fill them out. If somebody wants me to fill out a check they have, I fill it out. What that guy does with it is his problem. Let me be clear, if the banks are doing it, the businessmen are doing it, and the politicians are doing it, then are we, a guild of poor workers on the street, not going to do it? There are crooks all over the world, Brazil, Peru, and whatever we do here is small change. But if you’ve got a cow that has eight tits, you’d be a fool to keep on milking just the four that everyone else milks.”

Being a scribe is work. They have rules: you keep yourself clean and treat people with respect, that way they keep coming back; you don’t draw attention to the scribes by coming to work drunk; if you mess up, you face the consequences on your own. They don’t have working hours; you can call it a day at 3:00 p.m. and shoot pool with your friends through the afternoon, but if you don’t show up, you don’t make any money. By sticking to these rules, it seems that this group of men have managed attain different levels of success.

This job doesn’t seem to be disappearing any time soon, however, since 2006 their numbers have dropped from 58 to 24 registered scribes. It’s doubtful that many people would miss them if their work did come to an end. But in this time of wifi and smartphones, instant messaging and touch screens, it’s good to know that they’re out there poking away at whatever forms and documents that get thrown their way on their Brothers and Remingtons and Facit typewriters.

The Facit typewriter is ideal. Because it’s heavy, it doesn’t let the desk move when it’s windy.