Politics & Policy

The Barbarous Relic

In an age of thumb-typing, the end of penmanship

I was baffled by Nils Parker’s much-remarked-upon jeremiad against Whole Foods, or, more precisely, against Whole Foods’s customers. “They are across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable,” he wrote. “They’re worse than miserable, they’re angry.” That has not been my experience, though my experience is largely confined to the Whole Foods in Tribeca, a neighborhood where the characteristic sin of residents is not anger but a level of self-absorption like some sort of inverted Eastern mystical ecstasy, the ladies and gentlemen in Kaffe 1668 like variations on the Amitābha Buddha as reimagined by Ayn Rand.

Their obliviousness is well-suited to the marvelous check-out process at the local Whole Foods. Like every modern supermarket, Whole Foods is a collection of wonders — economic, technological, and agricultural — but the check-out process is pleasingly simple. There are six or eight color-coded lanes and 28 (I think) registers. Customers fall into whichever line seems shortest to them, and then an overhead display and speaker run through the lanes in order, directing shoppers to registers as they come open. There is no beady-eyed calculation about which lane is going to move the fastest, because they all move at the same reasonably brisk pace. The process is predictable, orderly, and efficient, and therefore low-stress.

But there is an odd little ritual at the climax of my paying for my nearly identical weekly provisions: I swipe my credit card through the machine, verify that the (always sobering) price is correct, and then am asked to sign the screen as though it were a paper receipt. I am forever curious about the utility of that signature: I am a longtime admirer of Whole Foods and of its libertarianish CEO, John Mackey, and I lived for some years in the company’s hometown, Austin, so it is entirely possible that I have crossed paths with a few Whole Foods executives at some point in my life, but I am entirely confident that neither Mr. Mackey nor any of his colleagues knows what my signature looks like.

What it looks like, incidentally, is nothing — my penmanship is, to use a mathematical term, a random walk. (Which was also the name of National Review’s wonderful Wall Street column for years, penned, or more probably typed, by a fellow writing under the pseudonym Gekko.) My signature, like practically everything else I write by hand, is an act of fury signifying nothing, at least so far as you can tell. One newspaper colleague used to refer to me as “dysgraphic,” though I do not suffer from actual dysgraphia.

I began learning to write when I was very young, I suppose in the waning days of the Ford administration. I was very fond of those big Bic four-color pens, which I gripped in my fist in a manner that suggested I intended to do somebody bodily harm, possibly sequential bodily harm in black, blue, red, and green. I later modified my grip somewhat, holding the pen between my index finger and the rude one, with counter-pressure from the thumb. That grip stuck. Thirty-odd years later, I have not been able to break the habit. If you have seen Full Metal Jacket, know that I write like old people do what R. Lee Ermey talked about them doing. 

Junior high school was a life-changing three years for me, for a number of reasons. I had some wonderful teachers: an incredibly sexy blonde just out of college who taught seventh-grade biology, which included the requisite sex-ed unit (suffice it to say that our attention was rapt); a number of fine science teachers; and an English teacher who helped me to my first publication, which was in a junior-high grammar textbook. (My payment for that, an American Heritage dictionary-and-thesaurus set embossed with my name, sits on my desk at National Review; the foreword to the dictionary was written by William F. Buckley. If you were wondering what kind of nerd I am — that kind.) But the class that changed my life truly and well was Mrs. Hill’s typing class. Computers were still a decade away from ubiquity, and so we drilled on IBM Selectrics with the letters removed from the keys: You can’t peek if there’s nothing to peek at. It was liberating. Not for everybody — one student before me, later a famous musician, confessed years after the fact to having hurled his typewriter out the classroom window in frustration.

Ironically, the one thing that might have prevented me from ever seeing the inside of Mrs. Hill’s classroom was my terrible handwriting. Lubbock, Texas, my hometown, had a very highly regarded magnet-school program, and for about as long as I can remember, it was assumed that I would enter it, first at J. T. Hutchison Junior High and then at Lubbock High School. Interestingly, that seemed to have been settled long before it even occurred to me, much less to my parents, for whom such things were frankly not on the parental radar. My elementary-school teachers seem to have decided that without consulting me, and for that I bless those presumptuous — dare I write bossy? — women. Other than a temporary crisis involving long division, which baffled me until it suddenly didn’t, grades and standardized tests were pretty easy for me in elementary school.

Except for handwriting.

My handwriting had already assumed its brutal, barbarous final form by my late elementary-school years, and beginning in fifth grade I began to dread the possibility that my penmanship was going to result in a C on my report card, and thus derail my academic career. In retrospect, I doubt very much that a C in handwriting, or even a year’s worth of C’s, was going to encumber my academic aspirations, but everything seems like a very big deal when you are eleven. In sixth grade, the critical year for admissions to the magnet program, I was saved by a policy change that might as well have been designed specifically for me: Handwriting and spelling were to be combined into a single grade, with spelling counting for 80 percent and handwriting for 20 percent. I was already a certified spelling-bee champion (line forms on the right, ladies!), and, even with nothing more than future-English-major math, I could calculate that handwriting could be blown off entirely without bringing my combined grade below a B, and that even a pathetic 70 on the handwriting side of the ledger would not be, at 20 percent of the grade, enough to bring me down to a B. 

Thus passed the Great Handwriting Crisis of 1984. When President Reagan asked that year if I was better off today than I was four years ago, I had the pristine report card to prove it.

After I learned to type properly, handwriting became a largely theoretical concern. Typing was, after all, the family profession. My mother was a secretary and a fearsome typist, well over 100 words per minute. This was especially remarkable given the fact that her right hand and arm were partly paralyzed. Always susceptible to infections, my mother had suffered the tiniest of scratches from her pet poodle, Pepe, and the resulting infection very nearly cost her her right arm. There was a horrific hospitalization, skin grafts, and more, after which she could neither quite open her right hand nor quite close it into a fist, though I must have made her want to on many occasions. (She never really learned. Some years later I witnessed her feeding a bear — as in a wild bear from the woods — gingersnaps out of her hand. If I had nearly lost my arm to a poodle scratch, it would never have occurred to me to feed gingersnaps to a 500-pound wild beast whose natural diet does not include gingersnaps but does include the occasional arm. But she loved animals.) With her fully functional left hand and graphospasmic right one, she flailed away at several generations’ worth of typewriters, and later computers, with terrible energy. She looked a little like a drunken virtuoso at the piano, her right hand clawing out some wild fantasia, her left hand keeping up a precise counterpoint. She also had the remarkable gift of being able to tear through a document, typing it perfectly, and afterward having no idea what the document said — a typist of pure technique and focus. I once brought home what I thought was an impressive score on a typing test, maybe 70 words a minute, and she looked at me as if she was wondering whether I would ever amount to anything.

A few years ago, I found myself in a classroom with those perfective-cursive charts that adorned the walls of elementary-school classrooms in the 1980s, and I discovered, to my surprise, that I could execute perfect cursive — albeit a schoolkid’s cursive — if I concentrated and wrote at the rate of about one letter every five seconds. It became a subconscious tic. Other people sometimes doodle in meetings; my version of that is writing very precise cursive, sometimes nonsense words, sometimes words that are simply enjoyable to write in cursive, the prince of which is “Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg,” my old address on New Delhi’s version of Fleet Street.

At the Whole Foods, though, my signature is a sort of slash that approximates more the hurry I am in or imagine myself to be in than the letters in my name.

Why do we bother to sign for things at all, though? Clerks sometimes ask me to see my credit card, and then ask to see my identification when they notice the card is not signed. What if it had been signed? What, exactly, would that tell the people at Barnes & Noble, who have no idea what my signature looks like? As a technology, the signature is long past its time of effectiveness. If I make a questionable purchase on my credit card — and God and American Express know I do — I get a text message inquiring whether I have just spent $X at shop X. I occasionally even get a telephone call inquiring whether I have really and truly just made some purchase that is so irresponsible that the suspicious algorithms that run silently beneath the information architecture of the retail world flag it, and some exasperated call-center person in some low-rent jurisdiction has to call me up and ask about my new sneakers. They always sound a little disappointed in me.

Signing for a purchase is, I suppose, intended to be a way to prove that you really did make the purchase, in case you later regret it and claim that it was somebody else using your credit card. That seems to me redundant in an age of omnipresent cameras. It is more of a ritual: A man’s word is his bond and a deal is done when you sign on the line that is dotted, as David Mamet says. “That is your pound-and-a-half of grilled salmon, Mr. Williamson — and here’s the signature that proves it!” You know what would happen if I should try to beat the Whole Foods bill for my weekly ration of Stumptown Cold Brew coffee (which comes in little brown bottles that look rather like the ones that Red Stripe beer comes in and consistently pique the interest of MTA police officers during my morning commute)? There would be 10,000 pictures and videos of me making the buy: Video of me coming into the store, video of me pretending to think seriously about buying organic Boston bibb lettuce, glossy color photographs of me clicking “ACCEPT” with that weird little stylus at the register, a closed-circuit television feed of me cracking open a bottle of coffee for the walk home, time-stamped footage of me jaywalking across Greenwich Street. Whatever the powers that be wanted to charge me with, there’d be ample photographic evidence for their case.

And God only knows how many signatures would be involved in dealing with that.

Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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