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Authors: Suzanne Rindell

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

The Other Typist

BOOK: The Other Typist
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Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Publishers Since 1838

Published by the Penguin Group

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Copyright © 2013 by Suzanne Rindell

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Published simultaneously in Canada

“Amy Einhorn Books” and the “ae” logo are registered trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rindell, Suzanne.

The other typist / Suzanne Rindell.

p. cm

ISBN 978-1-101-62108-0

1. Typists—Fiction. 2. Nineteen twenties—Fiction. 3. Women—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 4. Police stations—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 5. New York (N.Y.)—History—1898–1951—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3618.I538O84 2013 2013000995


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

For my parents, Arthur and Sharon Rindell.
I owe you everything.


hey said the typewriter would unsex us.

One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force.
Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.

I don’t suppose I know much about the business of forgiveness, either, as my job has so much to do with the other end of it. Confessions, I mean. Not that I extract them—that is for the Sergeant to do. Or for the Lieutenant Detective to do. But it is not for me to do. Mine is a silent job. Silent, that is, unless you consider the gunshot clacking of the typewriter that sits before me as I transcribe from a roll of stenotype paper. But even then I am not the originator of this ruckus, as after all, I am only a woman—a phenomenon the Sergeant seems to observe only as we are exiting the interrogation room, when he touches my shoulder gently and says with great and solemn dignity, “I am sorry, Rose, that as a lady you must hear such things.” He means the rape, the robbery, whatever it is we have just heard confessed. At our precinct, located in the borough of Manhattan in what is known as the Lower East Side, we are rarely left wanting for more crimes to hear.

I know that when the Sergeant uses the term
he is being kind. It is 1924—soon to be 1925—and I am somewhere between what passes for a
and a
these days. The difference, of course, is partly a matter of education, which, in having matriculated at the Astoria Stenographers College for Ladies, I can—to a very modest extent—claim, but is also partly a matter of breeding and affluence, which, as an orphan with an income of fifteen dollars a week, I cannot claim. And of course there is the question of employment itself. Tradition holds that a lady may have
but never a
and I, preferring a life with a roof over my head and regular meals to one without such things, am obliged to maintain the latter.

That is most likely what they meant when they said the typewriter would unsex us—it would deliver us out of our homes, not into the sewing factory or the steam laundry, but into law offices and accounting firms, where previously only male steps have fallen. That we would unlace our apron strings and instead button ourselves into the starched shirts and drab navy skirts that promise to neuter us. They feared the perpetual state of being surrounded by all those technological contraptions—the stenotypes, the mimeographs, the adding machines, the pneumatic mail tubes—would somehow harden us, and our soft, womanly hearts would grow rigid in an envious imitation of all that iron, brass, and steel.

I suppose it’s true that knowing how to type has brought the fairer sex into some rather masculine work environments—like the police precinct, where we typists constitute a feminine minority. True enough, one has probably heard about or even glimpsed the occasional police matron in Manhattan—those stodgy old grandmothers employed to save the men from the false accusations of impropriety that all too often come along with having to herd prostitutes like so many sheep on a daily basis. But the Sergeant does not believe in police matrons and refuses to hire them. If it were not for the fact they need so much typing done and cannot do it themselves, there would be no women employed at our precinct at all. The typewriter is indeed my passport into a world otherwise barred to me and my kind.

Typing is not a brutish, masculinizing sort of work, mind you. In fact, one might even go so far as to argue that the work of a typist—the simple act of taking dictation, the crisp dance of fingertips with their dainty staccato over the shorthand keys—is perhaps one of the most civilized forms of work our modern world has to offer. And they needn’t worry about the rest of it; a good typist knows her place. She is simply happy, as a woman, to be paid a reasonable income.

In any case, if typing were truly a masculine activity, you would see more men doing it, and of course you don’t. It is always women one sees typing, so it only follows that it must be an activity more suited to them. I have, in all my time, only met one male typist, and that particular gentleman’s delicate constitution was even lesser equipped than my own for working in a police precinct. I should’ve known from the first he would not stay long. He had the nervous carriage of a small bird, and his mustache looked as though it was trimmed daily by a barber. He wore a pair of very well-kept white spats over his shoes. On his second day a criminal expectorated a large stream of tobacco juice on them. The male typist, I’m sorry to report, turned very pale and excused himself to go to the lavatory. He only stayed one more week after that.
White spats,
the Sergeant had remarked, shaking his head. The Sergeant’s clucking is often his manner of confiding in me.
White spats have no place here,
he said, and I knew he was probably glad to be rid of such a dandy.

Of course, I did not point out to the Sergeant that the Lieutenant Detective also wears white spats. The Lieutenant Detective and the Sergeant are two very different sorts of men, but they appear to have long ago struck an uneasy alliance. It has always been my distinct impression that I am not to outwardly tip my favor in the direction of either man, lest it upset the tenuous balance that allows for their cooperation. But if I am being honest, I will tell you I feel more at ease around the Sergeant. He is older and perhaps a little fonder of me than a married man ought to be, but I feel it is a fatherly sort of fondness and that he became a police sergeant in the first place because he is a righteous man and he honestly believes it is his mission to uphold the proper order of our great city.

Moreover, the Sergeant likes
things to keep proper order and takes great pride in following all rules to the letter. Just last month he suspended one of the officers, sentencing the man to a whole week without pay, because the officer had given a homeless waif who was waiting in the holding cell a ham sandwich. I could see why maybe the officer did it; the vagabond was such a sad spectacle—the outline of his ribs whispered indiscreetly against the thin cloth of his shirt, and his eyes rolled like haunted marbles caught in two deep, dark sockets. No one accused the Sergeant of being unchristian, but I believe he could tell some of the other men were thinking it.
Feeding such a man only sends the message that there is no profit in hard work and following the rules

and we can

t afford to bankrupt these ideas,
the Sergeant reminded us.

The Lieutenant Detective outranks the Sergeant, but you would never know it. While he can certainly intimidate others at will, the Sergeant is not a tall man, although he is large in other ways. The great bulk of his weight sits around his waist, just over the rim of his uniform trousers, giving him a reassuringly paternal paunch. His handlebar mustache has taken on a sprinkling of salt and pepper in recent years. He wears it curled and also lets his sideburns grow long, which is no longer in keeping with the latest fashion, but the Sergeant cares little for changing fashions, and he does not go in at all for the newest shocking ones. Once while he was reading a newspaper, I heard him idly remark that today’s modern fashions are proof of our nation’s degeneration.

By way of contrast, the Lieutenant Detective has no mustache and keeps his face clean-shaven, which happens to be rather in fashion these days. Also in fashion is the haphazard style with which he combs his hair back using hair cream. Almost always, a lock or two comes loose and falls quavering over one eye, only to have him run a hand through his hair and push it back up. On his forehead is a sizable scar that runs from the center of his brow toward one eye and has the strange effect of enhancing his features. He is young, perhaps no more than one or two years my senior, and because he is a detective and not a patrolman he is not required to wear a uniform. His clothes are quite smart, but he wears them in a peculiar manner; he always looks as though he slid out of bed and just happened to fall into them. Everything about him has a jaunty slack to it, down to his spats, which have never once appeared nearly as white or as clean as the male typist’s did. This is not to imply the Lieutenant Detective is unhygienic, but rather that he is simply not tidy.

In fact, although he appears perpetually rumpled, I am fairly confident the Lieutenant Detective’s hygiene habits are regular. He used to lean over my desk frequently to talk to me, and I noticed he always smelled of Pears’ soap. When I asked him once, wasn’t that brand of soap generally preferred by ladies and not men, he colored up and seemed to take it very roughly, even though I hadn’t meant anything by it. He left my question unanswered and avoided me for almost two weeks afterward. Since then he no longer smells of Pears’ soap. The other day he leaned over my desk—not to talk to me, but rather to silently retrieve one of my transcripts—and I noticed now he smells of a different soap, one whose perfume is meant to imitate the aroma of expensive cigars and old leather.

One reason I dislike working with the Lieutenant Detective and prefer working with the Sergeant is that the Lieutenant Detective mainly investigates homicides, which means if I am asked to go into the interrogation room with him, it is most likely to take down the confession of a suspected murderer on the stenotype. There is no apology in the Lieutenant Detective’s voice, as there would be in the Sergeant’s, when he requests that I join him. In fact, sometimes I think I detect a hint of challenge in his voice. On the surface, of course, he is all very brisk and businesslike.

They think we are the weaker sex, but I doubt the men have considered the fact that we women must hear every confession twice. That is, once I’ve taken dictation on the stenotype, I must type it all over again in plain English on the typewriter, as the men cannot read shorthand. To them, the marks on the stenotype rolls appear like hieroglyphics. I don’t mind typing and retyping these stories as much as I know I’m
to mind, but it
a bit off-putting to go over the details of a stabbing or bludgeoning just prior to, say, the lunch or dinner hour. You see, the trouble is once they’ve abandoned the notion of denying their crimes and they’ve decided to go ahead and come clean, the suspects are frequently very specific about the mess that results from such acts. As a moral person, I do not relish hearing these gruesome details, although I would be loath for the Lieutenant Detective to perceive my discomfort, as he would surely see it as evidence of my weak and womanly stomach. I assure you, my stomach is
weak on this score.

Of course, I’ll admit there is something indirectly intimate about hearing these confessions along with another person, and I can’t say I enjoy sharing such moments with the Lieutenant Detective. Quite often the suspect being questioned by the Lieutenant Detective has killed a woman, and more often than not in such cases the suspect has done some rather wicked things to his victim first. When taking the confession of a suspect who has attacked a young woman in the most brutal way, it feels as though all the air goes out of the room. Sometimes I am aware of the Lieutenant Detective glancing at my face when the confessor recalls the most violent parts, observing me impassively. During such moments I feel like a science experiment. Or perhaps like one of those psychological studies that have become all the rage these days. I sit and type and try my best to ignore him.

And yet—unlike the Sergeant, who worries out of consideration for me—the Lieutenant Detective doesn’t seem particularly concerned that I’ll hear something that will violate my supposedly pure feminine mind. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what he’s searching for in my face. He is very likely wondering if I’ll faint and crumple face-first over the stenotype. Who knows—he may even have a betting pool going with the other officers. But we live in a modern age now, one in which women have enough to do without having to trouble themselves with the obligation of fainting all the time, and I wish the Lieutenant Detective, for all his other modern manners, would stop glancing at my face like a curious puppy and simply let me do my job. Which, by the by, I’m quite good at. I can type 160 words per minute on the regular typewriter, and can get up to nearly 300 on the stenotype. And I am largely indifferent to the content of the confessions I must take down and transcribe. Like the typewriter itself, I am simply there to report with accuracy. I am there to make the official and unbiased record that will eventually be used in court. I am there to transcribe what will eventually come to be known as the truth.

Of course, I have to be careful not to let my pride over these facts get the better of me. On one occasion, as we emerged from the interrogation room, I called out to the Lieutenant Detective in a voice that was perhaps a bit louder than I’d intended and said, “I’m not a ninny, you know.”

“Pardon me?” He stopped and spun around, his eyes traveling up and down the length of my person, that scientist-observing-an-experiment look on his face again. He took a step or two toward me, as though we were being confidential, and I breathed in another soapy hint of cigars and leather. I straightened my posture, gave a little cough, and tried to make my stand again, this time with more poise.

“I said I’m not a ninny. It doesn’t frighten me. None of it. I’m not a hysteric. You can forget about having to fetch the smelling salts.” I said that last part for effect; we don’t really keep smelling salts at the precinct, and I doubt anyone travels with them in their pockets anymore these days. But I immediately regretted the exaggeration. It made me sound too dramatic, like the hysteric I had just claimed I wasn’t.

“Miss Baker . . . ,” the Lieutenant Detective began to address me. But the rest of the statement trailed off. He stared at my face for several seconds. Finally, as though someone had suddenly pinched him, he blurted out, “I have every reason to believe you could take the confessions of Jack the Ripper himself and not bat an eye.” Before I could formulate an appropriate rejoinder, the Lieutenant Detective turned on his heel and strode away.

BOOK: The Other Typist
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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