She’s collecting postcards with an edge

Times Staff Writer

Sheryl Oring sat on a folding chair on a downtown street corner, her fingers poised over the keyboard of her classic Rheinmetall typewriter. Sitting across from her, Maria Theren dictated a message to the next leader of the free world:

“Dear Mr. President,” she said as Oring typed. “When you’re down and unsure of what to do, ask yourself, what would George Bush do? And then do the opposite.”

It was just one of many pieces of advice for the future president that Oring has collected while traveling with her typewriter across the country. For three hours in Oakland last week, she typed the words of dozens of people wishing to send a message to Washington.


The sound of typewriter keys clacking on the corner was oddly reassuring. She used carbon paper to make two copies -- one for herself, one to send to the White House.

“It’s a fantastic idea,” said Janelle Giangerelli, after urging the next president to revise the nation’s immigration policy.

“So often, we really don’t feel like we have a say after the president is elected.”

A New York-based performance artist and onetime California journalist, Oring is visiting more than a dozen cities and college campuses collecting missives to the next president, whoever he or she might be.

She calls her project “I wish to say...” and posts the letters on her blog. She has published one book of postcards from the project and hopes to gather this year’s collection in a second book. She began collecting the postcards four years ago.

“I’ve thought a lot about the postcards as a way of recording history over time,” she said. “I’m thinking I should do it every four years, which is a bit frightening in terms of my personal life.”

For her work, Oring dresses the part of a secretary from the 1960s, wearing a red dress with matching fingernails. A good listener, she keeps her opinions to herself. Once clocked at 90 words a minute, she records verbatim what people say, with only the occasional typo.

“I listen very intently,” she said. “Some people have described it as being like a therapy session.”

The typewriter itself draws people to her. Some young people have never seen one in use.

“People will come up to me to see what I am doing. It would be different if I went up to them with a notebook,” she said.

Sitting at a small table on loan from a nearby restaurant, Oring offers postcard senders half a dozen rubber stamps to add an emphatic “Final Notice,” “Urgent” or “Past Due” to their messages.

She said she will send all the postcards to whoever wins the White House. Still, a few senders indicate a favorite, addressing their thoughts to “Dear Obama” or “Madame President.”

She and her typewriter will be at Venice Beach today.

“I like the idea,” said Monica Walters, after urging the next president to take the time to listen to all sides of an issue. “It facilitates talking to the federal government. We’re so busy in our lives, it’s hard to feel like you are saying something significant even in an e-mail.”

Oring, 38, who once worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, gave up a career as a journalist in 1997 and moved to Germany, where she began to combine her interest in art with what she calls her “obsession” with typewriters.

In Berlin, she staged “Writer’s Block,” an exhibit of 600 antique typewriters in metal cages. She arranged the cages on Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazis had held an infamous book burning 66 years earlier.

She got the idea for the postcards as she sought to reconnect with her homeland after her return from Germany in 2003. Two years ago, she collected birthday postcards for President Bush, which she mailed to the White House and published in a book.

Oring said she has seen a significant shift in attitude in the two years since her last tour. In 2006, the war in Iraq was the main concern. This year, it’s the economy, especially on campuses.

“Students are concerned about what they are going to do and that their education has been so expensive,” she said. “Some are graduating $100,000 in debt.”

In Oakland, as elsewhere, she typed up a wide variety of messages, from the trivial to the global.

“Dear President,” wrote Blake Aarens. “I would like you to find out who it is that’s making money off this war and make them pay every penny back into the U.S. Treasury.”

Woody Johnson’s postcard was brief and to the point: “I hope that you manage to stay alive.”

Damian Haseler urged the next president to take a stand in favor of gay marriage.

“This feeling that it gives you where you feel like a non-person or non-citizen despite being raised in this country and pledging allegiance to the flag in school -- it’s got to stop,” he said. “Because pretty much it kills your soul every day.”

Maria Deck urged the president to make raw milk legal in Oregon. “P.S.,” she added, “I hope you’re Obama.”

Leora Weber had a broader message: “I hope you will lead with our children in mind for peace, environmental stability and kindness, as opposed to being swept away by power, greed and their enticements.”