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Mt. Lebanon native Karl Smith needed stress relief, so he started pounding out strangers’ stories on an old typewriter, explains Jim Mandelaro
10-cent tales: The Mt. Lebanon native who types out your story for a mere dime. ....
When Karl Smith attended Mt. Lebanon High School a decade ago, he ran crosscountry, pole vaulted and earned his Eagle Scout badge. He also had another, more unusual hobby. “I was very into the idea of doing things for the sake of the story,” he recalled.
Mr. Smith once strung a hammock between the high school stadium football uprights and slept in it. He built a jet pack that shot real plumes of fire out of the bottom. And he froze ice blocks to the bottom of a pair of sneakers and then reverse ice-skated around his high school’s central court.
He graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 2007, and he’s still creating stories. Only these days, he does it on a 90-year-old typewriter in locations around Rochester, N.Y. Strangers give him topics, and he bangs out 500-word stories on the spot, charging a mere 10 cents for each.
“It’s not just a hobby; it’s a passion,” said Mr. Smith, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in biophysics at the University of Rochester.
• Mr. Smith, who majored in physics and English at Allegheny College in Crawford County and received a master’s from Rochester in 2013, came to his craft this way:
He spent four summers working at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M, 140,000 acres of wilderness owned by the Boy Scouts of America. The last two were spent working as a historical interpreter.
“I played a logger in the year 1914,” he says. “And I discovered I was a storyteller.”
It was in September 2013, early in his path to a doctoral degree, that his love of storytelling became a passion. He studies glass filters 10,000 times thinner than a human hair as part of Rochester’s Nanomembranes Research Group, and the rigorous schedule became too much.
“I needed a stress reliever,” he said. “Something that would keep me sane when I left the lab. I had always loved writing, so one thing led to another.”
On a whim, he purchased a 1986 Montgomery Ward typewriter for $5, drove to a pier in Rochester and put up a sign: “10 cent stories. Typewritten while you wait.”
He has written about lost loves, lost dogs, evil Lego wizards and frogs jumping over the moon. He has written for men, women and children. One woman asked for a story in which she could finally tell the man of her dreams she loved him. “Why can’t you just tell him?” Mr. Smith asked. The woman smiled. “I’m married.”
His stories run about 500 words. Writer’s block is not an option.
“I have to produce,” he said. Liquid Paper is not an option, either. When he makes a typo, he can’t just delete it like on a smartphone or tablet. Instead, he backspaces and blots out the misspelled word with big X’s.
He now uses a 1926 Underwood typewriter, which he purchased on Craigslist for $30. Strangers give him a prompt, and he starts pecking away.
• Why a typewriter? “I collected typewriters in college at Allegheny,” he said. “I write physical letters. I don’t like emails. The thing about a typewriter is, you can type as fast as you can on a computer, but you have a physical object at the end and you know it hasn’t been copied and pasted. It’s unique.” The typewriter also is convenient. Mr. Smith has written in various locations around Rochester, including The Strong National Museum of Play, the Rochester Public Market and a cocktail lounge. He brings a wooden folding chair and his black sign.
Last summer, he lived in New York City and wrote for Scientific American through a fellowship. When he had any free time, he set up his typewriter in Battery Park and wrote stories there.
In an ironic twist, he uses a 21st-century product — a smartphone — to catalog his works. When he is finished writing a story, he takes a photo of it with his phone. So far, he has written more than 1,000 stories.
Mr. Smith said he needed to set a price for his work, no matter how minimal.
“There had to be some value,” he said. “If I just said ‘free stories,’ people would think there’s a catch.” So, why 10 cents? “When my dad was in second grade, his brother told him that he needed to collect dimes,” Mr. Smith explained. “Pennies are worthless, and nickels are too heavy. Dimes have the best value-to-weight ratio. And my dad took it to heart. He began collecting dimes. When he asked my mom to marry him in the early 1980s, he paid for the engagement ring with dimes.”
Mr. Smith’s dad, also named Karl, is an office manager for the Allegheny County treasurer’s office. His mother, Robynne, was a physical education teacher for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District before retiring a few years ago. They still live in Mt. Lebanon.
Writing 10-cent stories has given Mr. Smith an identity and a purpose. He puts some of his work on his website, 10centstories.com, stories with titles such as “The Medievalist and the Mobster,” “The Greatest Tree House in the World” and “What The Ghosts Said.”
He sometimes struggles in his role as creative artist. He’s only 27, and many times the people asking for stories have experienced much more than he has.
“This woman said her husband had just died, and she was finding it difficult to find joy in life,” he said. “I’m just a 26-year-old dude at the time, and she’s in her 50s. Who am I to speak to that? But what can you do? You have to write a story. So I had this great line about ‘seeing the world through coal-colored glasses’ that I was really proud of. I wrote about her concentrating on the things that brought her joy, like her grandchildren, and how she needed to focus on that. “She was very appreciative.” One man asked him to write a story about unrequited love.
“He had told another man he loved him, and it had fallen apart,” Mr. Smith recalled. “I said, ‘Do you want a happy story? Does he change his mind?’ He said, ‘No, I want you to write the story the way it happened. I want this to be a sad story.’ So I did.”
Mr. Smith doesn’t always make a dime per story. If someone doesn’t have money, he writes it for free. One customer left him two $20 bills in his jar. Another man, this one in New York City, stole $15.
“I wrote him a story and he wanted to give me 5 bucks,” Mr. Smith recounted. The man showed him “a 20, so I gave him the $15 change. He just took it and walked away. He claimed he gave me the $20. I didn’t want to make a scene, but it was infuriating.” And sometimes he’ll rewrite a story. “I was at a farmers market last year, and I was cold and hungry,” he said. “A woman wanted a story about her grandson, Iggy, who’s a good mosquito and a paragon of citizenship. Iggy gets zapped by a bug zapper and dies. Then, the grandmother changed her mind. She said, ‘Can you change the story so that Iggy doesn’t die?’ I’m glad she gave me the chance.”
Mr. Smith remains a huge Steelers fan — his family calls him “Bubby” after former Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister.
“I love Pittsburgh,” he said. “My favorite thing about the city is the way it suddenly, gorgeously pops out of nowhere when you come out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.”
Mr. Smith will defend his dissertation in May. He plans to move back to Pittsburgh and will bring his typewriter and 10-cent business with him.
“I need to write,” he said. “It’s a part of me. And it will always be 10 cents. If I charged more, it wouldn’t have the same effect.”
He has visions of bringing his 10-cent story project to television one day, using it to teach science concepts to children.
He said there’s a reason he sits there in very cold and very hot temperatures, sometimes typing until his fingers ache.
“I want to make the world a more whimsical place,” he said.
Jim Mandelaro (Jim.Mandelaro@rochester.edu) is a communications officer at the University of Rochester. For more on Karl Smith, go to 10centstories.com or facebook.com/10centstories, or follow him on Twitter at @10centstories.