A Typeface for Senior Citizens

Hilary Leichter

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Say that you built it with your bare hands and you’ll win their hearts. Don’t bother with words like font or computer. Present your audience with enlarged charts of glyphs and diacritics and digits, an elaborate eye exam. They’ll crane their necks, and switch to stronger pairs of glasses, and stay for a spell, and give an ear to your pitch. Then they will take a vote on your typeface. Be honest from the start: you’ve mastered the lowercases but the capitals, the ascenders, require fine-tuning. The man in the front row with the goiter will raise his hand and encourage you to use these, what, ascenders whenever possible: louder is better. Not everyone has the ears of a teenager, are you having a nice conversation with your shirt collar, speak up every now and then, would you kindly? There’s a bit of laughter. Counter his argument by noting the strengths of your italicized alphabet, how the tilted grooves convey depths of volume. Last time I checked, italics have got more whisper than shout, he says, and the woman sitting next to him coughs in agreement. Highlight how the contours of the italics lean into the margins, like hands on canes, and you’ll steal a few folks back to your side.

When they can’t recall your name, and they implore you to start over from the top, don’t get cross. Contemplate the senility of punctuation, the way brackets forget their contents. Contemplate your mother’s signature, how easily it forgot its maiden name, then not so easily remembered it again. Don’t get distracted by the man in the back of the room who needs to leave suddenly, intravenously hooked into a capital T. Have a cookie. Regroup. Show them the scoliosis of the comma, the exaggerated loops, the bowls of other letters: that old cradle below the g, that new bedpan in the u. The hammock that lazes in the lowercase y. The woman coughs, the one sitting next to the man with the goiter. She changes her glasses, puts on a disastrously purple pair. Takes an exaggerated loop in the discussion, tells everyone about the yellow hammock where she used to sit and wait for a cloud to bring an axe of lightning down on her old lemon tree. The hammock where she fell asleep outside by accident and wet herself by accident, where she once waited for the homecoming of someone we never even knew, not you, not anyone, not anymore, not ever. The lenses in her glasses grow a bit foggy. Don’t ask her about the hammock or the letter y, but instead, lean over your Formica podium and playfully inquire about her lemon tree, if it ever got axed by that rain cloud. She says no, I chopped it down myself; I chopped down everything in that old house, even the armoire, even the hammock, nothing is left. She takes off the purple glasses and replaces them with the thicker pair, and looks up at your charts.

When there is dissent in the crowd over the shape of the counter space in the center of the letter a, take the pause and notice the shape of your surroundings. The white space between these characters in your audience. The different typefaces plastered on the walls of the senior center. Fleshy, pink curlicues advertising theme parties involving aquatic life and the tropics. And there are fonts that resemble the words that they build: frogs, cocktails, bagels, et cetera. They wrap around the sterile meeting room like a brightly colored ACE bandage, puffy letters padding some sort of unwritten, broken bone. Your personal typeface for senior citizens is a touch extravagant in spots, but mostly straightforward. It doesn’t always look the way it sounds (everyone will like the sound of that, when you say it).

Forget to dot the i’s. Misplace the cross-strokes for the t’s. Cut out those extra pieces, those wilted organs. Leave the dots in storage, in a drawer, like the one your grandmother told you about, where rabbis hide the Hebrew vowels from the Torah. Forget the location of the drawer, like Grandma did, and then forget what a drawer is for.

Put the charts of letters aside and encourage everyone to take a break for a cup of Lipton Tea. With Splenda. With some sugar-free cookies.  The group breaks up like soggy bread, reluctant and messy. Some people stay in their chairs, confused about where everyone has gone. At the snack table, find the man with the goiter. He’s got the air of a ringleader. Ask him if you have his vote, and don’t get nervous when he says he’s unsure and declares himself typographically libertarian. Say, oh, me too! Ask about his family, his children, and repeat your question when he says what, and repeat it again when he says what again, and repeat it again when he adjusts his hearing aid and says his children are biding their time elsewhere, there were no vacancies at the senior home. Ask him about his wristwatch, why there are no hands on the face of the clock, how he can ever know the exact time. And when he says that no one gives him a hand with anything these days, and why should time be any different, you should just nod. He reaches to pour a cup of hot water, and you say, can I help you with that. He leans against the back of a folding chair, tells you that his grandson will inherit the watch someday, someday soon, if the kid ever comes to visit. You remember the uncashed check for fifteen dollars from your grandmother, accruing interest in your underwear drawer, the check that arrived from Fort Lauderdale by mail a week after she’d been cold dead. Remember your grandmother’s handwriting on the check. Block letters, marching along. Your name: spelled wrong. Give him his hot water and a tea bag. He asks if you’re OK, puts a hand on your shoulder, and you say you’re fine, have a cookie, fine. He says he’ll give you his vote if you quit looking so pale in the cheek. Notice the typeface of the numbers tattooed on his skin, on his forearm, when he rolls up his sleeve. Especially the eights, exposed breasts, the nine, a howling fetus. He rolls up his other sleeve too, and grabs your arm. Asks you in an italicized whisper, what the hell you think about those gothic kids at the bus stops? You sip your tea and burn your tongue. Asks you whether or not you’ve acquired the new Macbook Pro. Don’t act surprised; instead, respond with a question about his preference in operating systems. He releases your arm, and his fingertips leave a little, red ellipsis stamped on your skin.

The woman with the lemon tree and the hammock and the cough and the purple glasses comes over carrying a Dixie cup brimming with juice, and asks if you could see to it that the s’s are sans serif, please, she’s survived without doilies and niceties for ages, not spoiled like some other generations she knows. The man with the goiter nods. Tell her that it has already been taken care of. You introduce purple glasses lady to goiter man, and fantasize about playing matchmaker to the elderly. You know, pairing a q with a u, coupling and kerning the glyphs until they overlap and touch. They harrumph: they have already met, and seem to playfully despise one another. Recall the time you set up Doug and Michael, simply because they were both gay. Contend with the problem of generalization. Introduce yourself to the woman’s friend who is shorter and has brown skin with browner freckles and a reddish-brown wig. Don’t wait for her response; she won’t say anything, not ever again.

The woman with purple glasses spills a little juice on the linoleum, says, now would be a grand time for an old, yellow hammock. Asks, did you know: ten percent of what someone says is what she actually says, and ninety percent is how she looks and sounds when she goes about saying it? She sets an unsteady hand on the edge of the snack table and taps a fingernail. Admit that you didn’t know, and ask her if she believes it. She says she’d believe it if someone would say it better. The man says he’d believe it if someone would go get him a goddamn cookie with real sugar. In the back of the room, there is a dilapidated stump of a man sitting down with his head cocked to the side, yelling, there are no teeth in my head, there are no teeth in my head, you’ve taken all of the teeth out of my head. Someone comes and wheels him away, and the man with the goiter says that there’s a lot of that teeth-stealing going on around here and it’s about time a fellow spoke up about it.

An attendant flicks the lights on and off to signal that the break is over. Try and round everyone up again. Try and secure a few votes from the five or six gentlemen who never left their seats. Check your phone for messages. A text message from your friend Lucy, in speedy, little Times New Roman. She is designing a Typeface for Living on the Moon. Your other compadres are designing corporate typefaces, Typefaces for the Apocalypse. Eco-Typefaces. Lucy set you up with her competent and very screwable friend who cranked out a typeface for one of those social media websites. He took you out to a restaurant where there were no light bulbs and very few candles, where there was a little doodle of foam on your BLT, and the BLT was a tenth the size of your plate. He asked you how you liked your meat and you replied, usually, more solid than foamed. He said that he preferred his meat unslaughtered, living, and in prairies. Asked you what your handwriting looked like, like a kid asking to see his girlfriend’s tits. Didn’t wait for you to answer. Took out a pen and wrote his own name on the napkin in a snoozy cursive. You drew a heart over the i to be cute and ironic, and he sighed, said he never quite found an appreciation for the concept of Word Art, no offense. He told you he would pay for the meal, unless, of course, you had already decided not to see him again.

In Lucy’s message, she wants to know if the big vote has gone down yet. The screen on your phone is cracked a bit, and her words ooze out from the center like pus, an insult waiting to happen. The truth is, your typeface for senior citizens is sort of lousy. When Lucy’s friend didn’t call back last week, you hunkered down at your desk to work. Decided to leave a comfortable distance between letters, no kerning of t’s and w’s, no ascenders hanging over and creating intimate cuddle-nooks. This is not a typeface where the o’s bleed into the m’s, bleed into the n’s. A distance between letters, between responses to letters from your grandmother, between unanswered letters from other family members, between unanswered phone calls. You feel yourself extending yourself from your extended family, from the world, inserting hyphens left and right. I bet you haven’t got any folks, the man with the goiter says to you, as you head back to the podium. Because otherwise why would you be here with us? Don’t answer him, but stick up your poster of the ascender Q, with its lengthened, descender tail. A string on a fugitive balloon for everyone to use in a great escape. When you present the poster, keep your back facing away from the crowd, because you are the type of woman whose dress is never zipped up all the way, who cannot reach the zipper on her own and who has no one to help her reach it.

When it is time for them to vote on your typeface, don’t pace around the room. They pull the chairs into a circle and start debating. There is a lady who smells like menthol cough drops who is uncomfortable with the way the w looks like nothing more than an m that has taken a spill, whoopsie, and fallen flat on its back, and why isn’t anyone helping it stand up again. A man with a very long moustache and no hair on his head says if that’s the case, then sometimes he sure feels like the letter w. Everyone agrees, OK, maybe someone should help the w, but aside from concerns of klutziness, it is an aesthetically pleasing letter, all the same. Someone in the back of the room says he doesn’t like the way the inside of the e looks so very different from the outside. A woman leans forward onto her walker and says that it suits her just fine; sometimes she herself feels quite different on the inside.

There is a prolonged discussion about each individual’s name, about how each name will look in the new typeface. The woman with the purple glasses says that everyone should close their eyes and picture in their heads the images of their names. You should close your eyes, too. Picture the way you would’ve written things on the napkin, had Lucy’s friend waited to see your handwriting. You would not have written your own name, the way he did; you would have written his name, given him attention. How strange it must feel to sign someone else’s name with your own hand. You probably would have still included the hearts and squiggle lines for irony. But your handwriting has never committed any forgeries, never turned any heads. You mostly practice illegibility as a way of maintaining a certain extent of privacy. Picture the scribbled letters to your grandmother, written on trains and leaning on mailboxes, with haste, without care or spell check. Certain longer words avoided and replaced with less fitting words, all for fear of misspellings. Picture how you’ve gradually and lazily forgotten how to make things with your hands.

The man with the goiter clears his throat, interrupts a debate on how the typeface will translate into sign language. Says, folks, let’s keep things fair and square and neat and clean, and do a good old blind vote. Everyone agrees, and they all take off their glasses. The woman clutches her purple frames and says, all those in favor of this nice young girl’s alphabet, please raise your hands.

You remember a day with your grandmother, the last time you saw her. She told you a story that she had told you a hundred times before, said, did I ever tell you about . . . but your heart did not have any heart to tell her that you knew it by heart. The story involved a girl who kept appearing outside of the condominium in fabulously retro outfits. Your grandmother made alterations to the dresses each time the story was told. There was a morning the girl sat on the bench in a black knit flapper dress, with a beret and a long strand of pearls. There were bonnets involved, sometimes A-line shirtdresses from the 1950’s, with orange, Bakelite buttons sewn to the pockets. But the woman always wore flip-flops. No matter what. Your grandmother always ended the story by saying, I don’t know what made me think of that. You remember thinking, aggravated, if you’re always thinking about something, you’d think that you’d stop and think about why you’re thinking it. Now, you’re just aggravated with yourself. On this last visit, your grandmother added that the girl looked a lot like you, although you have a much prettier punim, a nicer tuchus, no doubt, eh, you take a little bit after your grandmother, after all.

The lights in the senior center flicker, and slowly, everyone raises a hand. Some people raise two. The decision is unanimously affirmative: no one wants to hurt your feelings. They ask you if you will visit but know that you won’t come again. They smile a little when you say that you will. They ask if you will stay for dancing, for the aquatic tropical party at night. Say that you have plans with a boy, even if there is no boy. Give him a Jewish last name. Answer questions about him enthusiastically to detract from the lack of content. Promise to send a letterhead with the new typeface. On the way home, work on stringing the letters into words, sentences, et cetera.

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