“You will never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”
— Julia Child
Eight years later, I am smearing fluorescent orange ink on the roller of the letterpress. I nervously hold down the large blue metal button: On.
Immediately, I hear and feel four different rollers turn methodically, mechanically, creating a soundtrack that mimics a mix of television static and metronomic tongue clicks. The spotless, silver surface grades to the shade of construction cones. I think of KitchenAid mixers; bicycle gears; keys turning; that day in the driveway.
In the photo, I am blonde, 16, pink-cheeked and smiling from the window. I had never been happier. I had never been more scared. The car I would later name Darth definitely weighed two tons and went on for days. He housed five seatbelts, but on the night of my senior prom, seven of us would cram inside. Driving Darth was exhilarating — like piloting a jumbo jet in a high-speed, airborne race.
I do not realize that this feeling has ever been catalogued until I lunge ahead with the steel crank and turn my first sheet of paper through the press. It too, feels illegal. Thrilling. Powerful. I cannot discern the pedal of the press from the pedal of that car.
In the studio, I work under self-imposed, happily un-safe conditions. Early on I relinquish ideas of perfection. Unlike writing I am less focused on the outcome — or being completely understood. I sift through my mental catalogue and cannot recall another recent physical experience with words. These weeks with the letterpress are mentally filed as love/hate — in one moment the slow, tangible process is languid, refreshing, metallic. After lunch the tiny letters transform into painful, leaden, dead weights.
The studio is a vista of connected disconnect. Metal pieces make little sense in their singular, backwards-upside-down positions. The cases are divided into nooks. I note letterly neighbors. Each one requires attention. Each metal block is there for a reason. Time does not allow for empty language. There is time, though — in the meticulous preparation and routine — for thinking and drifting.
The room in the building on Coronet was a forest: There were letters — so many of them, in boxes and on desks; hanging on walls and printed on artworks. This was a forest so dense with letters it was difficult to make out a single one. Cases of haphazardly labeled uppers and lowers were stacked to the ceiling. The wooden shapes grazed our arms like tree branches. In the center of the forest was the press. Though I had seen many letters and words on paper and screens, and had thought of many ways I could use them, only one word ran through me: machine. The press was heavy and grey and must have weighed two tons. In a hundred years its lustrous muscles had pressed thousands of phrases. I wondered if it had a brain. Its weight excited me. Suddenly, the laptop in my bag felt light. I wanted to touch its cool metal skin but I couldn’t shake the image of scratching a Rolls Royce.
Inside the South London studio I try to sketch and plan. I think about the quote I am printing. About how it might look. About how Julia Child might've sounded when she said it. She is a serif, I decide. She would use italics, too — purposefully like butter, but discriminately, like Herbes de Provence. My mind drifts in the in-between world of food and mechanics and engines. I daydream about appliances and drive-thrus. I can’t visualize without my computer. When I open Adobe Illustrator, I feel guilty for falling on my crutch, but Sheena says there’s no right or wrong. Julia would say, “Never apologize!”
The French Chef weighs on me as I scour typefaces — Garamond, Bembo. Before I see it, I am seduced by the sound of Lectura. In my mouth its name feels like three courses I’d like to taste in summer: chilled cucumber soup, red snapper, lavender ice cream. But this is an impulsively fantasized glottal interpretation. In my hand, the letters are small and weigh nothing. Yet they are carved, forever and permanent. Their homes are so heavy. I carry a set to my workspace and try to assuage the paranoid image of 18-point bits sprinkling from the cases, scattering across the floor like lead candies.
Time is wicked. I make four lines, made of ten words, made of sixty-six characters, and two hours pass. Words form slowly like dough that rises from a recipe meticulously followed. They take on new meaning. They transcend definition. They are clauses of carefully crafted shapes.
Then, I ink and print in 15-minutes. A stopping point presents itself. I pack my things. A week passes.
The days away from the press are difficult to cope with. When I return, the space and equipment are familiar, but the first hour of every week for the past five Saturdays has been a game of getting-to-know-you. I think of December, when I drove again for the first time in months, and my old car’s foreign familiarity. I find my forme and trace my fingers over the phrase I’ve memorized — one that I now hear Julia Child say clearly, as if she has told it to me herself. But the cool metal surfaces of the letters remain backwards, three-dimensional strangers.
In our first meeting, Sheena paraphrased A.J. Liebling when she said, “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.” I never owned Darth. He belonged to my parents. I won’t own a letterpress. The words I print are Julia Child’s. But in a way I have never experienced as a writer, I own these letters. When they print, I think of first times — that first drive; that first crash; the realization that these letters have never been used in this way. I think about how strangely and unexpectedly relevant my quote has become. No matter how long you’ve done something, the something that you do never reveals itself completely. There are flashes, though, of that something realized. And although you’ve prepared, you’re never completely ready — it’s exhilarating — because it all happens so fast.