Here comes Maya Stein on her bicycle, gliding below the historic clock tower at Dearborn Station. Stein is a writer and turned 40 in May. She has the lithe figure of someone who routinely takes transcontinental treks on her 10-speed. Yet this is her first trip of such ambition, a 1,300-mile, 40-day ride from Amherst, Mass. to Milwaukee.On day 36, she arrived at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. It's 9 a.m. on Saturday, the heat already in the mid-80s and climbing. When a million books around you are baking in the sun, it smells like the library section with all the historical hardcovers, a musty scent of erudition.
Stein parks herself underneath the information tent. Someone figuring she works here asks where the portable bathrooms are located; she doesn't know. Stein props open a wooden chair and knee-high table, and takes out the aqua-colored Remington Ten Forty typewriter she has hauled for 1,200 miles. She scrawls "Write Yourself Here" on a blackboard. Then she does nothing. She doesn't solicit, doesn't make any initiation. It must happen organically. So she waits.
An American community narrative
In the house where Stein grew up, her father placed a typewriter on a small desk against the wall of a foyer where all the bedrooms linked. On the sheet of paper would be a sentence — a writing prompt — and 12-year-old Maya Stein and her sister took turns adding a line at a time. The great American novel was safe for another day; the stories they composed were free-forming and often nonsensical.
"It wasn't about making sense or tying up loose ends," Stein said. "What was so great was it stretched us to think of impossible things, come up with impossible scenarios."
The idea of facilitating a community narrative stuck with Stein. What if the community was America? She could re-create her childhood foyer in communities across the country and eventually publish it in a book. And so on the occasion of Stein's 40th birthday on May 5, she took off from Amherst with a $400 typewriter she bought for its retro color. She decided Milwaukee was an end point, because 1) the first commercially successful typewriter was invented in Milwaukee, and 2) the Pacific coast was way too far. Plus: 40 years of age, 40 days on the road, so 40 miles between each town seemed manageable. Stein took to Kickstarter, the online fundraising site, and raised $15,000 in donations in two months.
Why by bicycle? Stein, who's from San Francisco, wrote on her web page: "I love the idea of slowing down enough to really see where I am, to go at a pace that allows for a deeper engagement with my environment. It also feels important to make the experience of participating as accessible as possible to others, and by riding my bicycle I believe there'll be natural, spontaneous and rewarding connections that will open the project to a wonderfully diverse collection of writing that's created at the typing booth."
Trailing Stein is an RV driven by a woman named Grace Moore. They met through a mutual friend five months ago. Stein always envisioned her road companion would ride down the freeway wearing a black cowboy hat. When she found out Moore owned a black cowboy hat, Stein knew she had found the one.
People will believe what they want
On day 3, outside a coffee shop in New Milford, Conn., a burly construction worker stopped by Stein's typewriter setup. He said he was reading a biography about Emily Dickinson. He always dreamt of becoming a writer. Stein said there was a mournful quality in his tone. It took 30 minutes of conversation until the man felt comfortable to sit at the typewriter. When he did, he was struggling to type, critical of his misspellings. They decided it would be easier if he dictated the words while someone else typed. There was a woman coming out of a nearby bookshop, and she agreed to be his surrogate. When they reached his last sentence, Stein remembered, the construction worker's head lifted, almost an air of transcendence to him. He walked away and looked happy. The writing prompt that day was, "People will believe what they want." The man wrote, in so many words, that you just have to believe what you believe.
Some days there'd be a few dozen people who'd sit down and type, other days there'd be none. No one stopped when they were set up outside Comerica Park, where baseball's Detroit Tigers played. In smaller towns, Stein was front page news in the daily paper. "Poet cycles, types way through city," proclaimed The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. With the curiosity of a San Franciscan writer biking halfway across the country with an old typewriter — a "type rider," as she calls herself — the towns want to put on their best face. In Michigan, a fellow cycling lover gave her bicycle a free tune-up. A 5-year-old boy and his grandfather in Indiana read about Stein in the morning paper and greeted her with a quart of fresh strawberries.
Maybe it's not about what's being written. Having a typewriter is like walking into a park with a puppy. It's an automatic conversation starter. Perhaps it wouldn't be the same with a laptop; a typewriter just seems less intimidating. A bicycle, too. Then they'd start talking, and maybe that's really the point of the trip.
To tell you the truth
There was another burly man. Johnstown, Penn. He looked like a ruffian — a tattooed, muscle-bound man wearing a backward baseball cap and a muscle shirt. He sat down and typed that he was grateful for everything happy in his life.
If there's one recurring theme, it's that many mention their family. Parents write about their kids and how they recognize this wonderful promise in their lives. Something's coming down the pike that's better.
In Collinsville, Conn.: A teenage girl stood up from the typewriter and began sobbing. When she was younger, the family dog ran into the street and was killed by a car. She wanted to say that it wasn't her fault, yet the guilt lingered. "I've been carrying this around with me my whole life," the girl told Stein.
In Chicago: A security guard approached Stein on Michigan Avenue. She thought they were being kicked out. Turns out he wanted to sit down and type. For most of his life, he wrote, he worked the 3-11 p.m. shift. A lot of important milestones were missed. And now, with his partner's 20th anniversary coming up, he really wanted to celebrate, to go out and do something special.
A few hundred people have contributed to Stein's project. Some pieces have been profound, other streams of conscience.
At the Printers Row Lit Fest on a hot Saturday morning, the prompt is "To tell you the truth ...." An older lady who looks to be in her 70s is the first to contribute. She writes, "February in Chicago is rough as taffeta." Another lady about the same age submits: "I don't know what truth is exactly."
Then a younger woman, 20-something, sits to type. She declines to give her name. "Because what I wrote was secret," she says. She and Stein talk about their mutual love for typewriters, how they both used to play secretary when they were younger.
After that 20-something girl is long gone, Stein reads her contribution.
She wrote: "I have a secret. don,t tell. to tell you the truth, i got married on saturday. we,re fighting already."
Stein covers her mouth with both hands and gasps.
Kevin Pang is a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune.
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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