Once upon a time I ran a weekly student newspaper. Long story. Suffice to say it was the best of times, the worst of times, and all sorts of strange in-between times that no amount of whiskey or therapy will ever enable me to forget. When I think back now though, few moments seem as surreal as the day a posse of bouncers rolled into my office and threatened to beat the shit out of me.
It was a Friday morning, shortly before noon. I remember because in those days I was a creature of habit: the paper came out Thursday afternoon, which meant we worked through Wednesday night and sent the paper to press late Thursday morning. Then I passed out in the darkest room of my apartment as the paper was printed and delivered and, excepting galactic-scale emergencies, I stayed out of the office until Friday morning. It was my habit to arrive before anyone else so I could sip coffee and examine with fresh eyes the triumphs, failures, happy accidents, curious omissions, and glaring mistakes that marred the pages of the rag I had grown to love and revile the way any man loves and reviles a mistress who has consumed him. I had just finished making notes for the staff when a burly man with rage all over his face brought a pack of five or six misanthropic goons into the office and said, “Who’s the fuckin’ editor of this piece of shit?”
Ah crap, I thought.
For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, I long ago committed to being the sort of man who answers questions honestly. But I’ll admit: as this menacing gang loitered in my doorway reeking of violence and a lengthy stay in the ICU, I wondered if that was perhaps a really stupid sort of man to be.
I sighed—I spent a lot of time sighing that year—and owned up with as much nonchalance as I could muster. “That would be me.”
My desk was in the back of the office in a narrow space that offered a small measure of privacy and quiet from the rest of the normally bustling newsroom. As the man lumbered toward me and stood at the apex of that narrowing, I realized how easily I had been imprisoned: I wasn’t getting out of there without going through him. Fortunately his goons—friends, bodyguards, audience, whatever—remained just inside the office entrance, as though in reserve. I swallowed hard as a faint trickle of fear coursed through my veins and threatened to consumed me.
“What can I do for you?” I said in my most helpful executive editor tone. I hoped my voice carried a lot more confidence than I felt, or that I didn’t sound scared shitless. Which—and let’s be clear on this—I absolutely was.
“Good. I gotta talk to you. You’re an asshole. You don’t know fuck about running a newspaper. How you got this job is beyond me, but I want to know what the fuck you’re going to do about the lies you printed about me and my bar. Are you trying to ruin my business? I’m a taxpayer in this community for fucksakes and I…”
Bar? I wondered. What bar? How was I ruining someone’s business?
I had all sorts of questions for him, but I had the feeling that interrupting just then might have been hazardous to my health, so I pieced things together from what he was yelling. This was easy since he kept at it for about ten minutes and had the decency to repeat each point several times. Gist of it was that we had recently published a review of his bar, which was popular among students. I remembered the article vaguely as being both boring and not particularly well written, but his anger centred on the reviewer’s claims that the bar’s cover charge was too expensive, that the dance floor was sticky from spilled booze, that students treated the place as a meat market for hookups, and that the overall atmosphere of the place kinda, well, sucked. All of which was bullshit, he argued, if for no other reason than his bar placed advertisements in our paper.
“I fucking pay your salary and you’re trying to ruin my business?! What the fuck is wrong with you? My business caters to students. You can’t just fucking lie like that. You’re going to print a front page retraction. This is fucking defamation of character. I should sue you….”
“Libel,” I said at last. “You mean libel.” The presence of my voice in this “conversation” seemed to confuse him.
“What? What’d you just say to me?”
“Defamation of character in print is called libel,” I said. To this day, I have no idea why I felt obliged to clarify the terminology. I guess I figured that if I was going to die anyway, I might as well go out using the correct words. “If you’re going to threaten to sue me, you should threaten to sue me for the right thing.”
“Call it whatever the fuck you want, asshole, but you’re going to retract that article and…”
As he yelled, I kept glancing cautiously—fearfully—at the guys by the door. What I saw there surprised me. They looked… well, bored. Maybe even a bit embarrassed. All at once his menacing gang looked like a bunch of regular guys, just ordinary students working as part-time bouncers so they could pay tuition and rent. They were as uncomfortable with this whole experience as I was. One of them even seemed—in a faint moment of kindness that changed everything—to roll his eyes. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was in no real danger. This man wasn’t going to assault me. They didn’t have his back. He just wanted an audience so that someone would know he had come down to the office and put the screws to the editor and that I had cowered before him. Curiously, this understanding pissed me off. The fear that had nearly immobilized me was dissipating and in it’s place a cold anger began to simmer. Anger at being told what do to. At being bullied. At being berated just so he could put on a show. Guy barges into my office, threatens me, scares the living shit out of me, starts telling me how to do my job…
“You’re a hack piece of shit, you know that? You’re going to apologize to me and print a front page retraction in your next issue—the same size as the original article and not some small-print legalize—and, fuck it, you know what? I want a new review, and…”
“Okay, well that’s not going to happen,” I said as calmly as I could. I explained that first of all I’d have to read the article and get back to him, which I wasn’t going to do while he was here, and that if an apology or retraction was in order we’d certainly grant it, but it wouldn’t be printed on the front page. Newspapers don’t do that. And we certainly weren’t going to rewrite the review.
This prompted more yelling. I repeated that I would look into it and get back to him, which caused him to yell some more. At some point I looked at my watched and realized I’d been scared for over 20 minutes now, and that’s too long for a grown man to sit in his own office and be scared of a screaming maniac. So I said fuck it. Let him punch me if he was going to punch me. There are worse things.
“Okay, look, we’re done here. You need to leave now,” I said. “I’ve heard you and told you what I’m going to do. I’m not doing anything while you scream at me. It doesn’t work like that.”
He regarded me with fuming contempt before finally speaking at something approaching a normal volume. Probably his throat was just sore from all the berating.
“You little shit. I can tell from that smug grin on your face that you’re not going to do anything.”
“Sir, it’s my normal grin. It’s just you’ve been yelling at me for a while now and I really don’t know what else to say except what I’ve already told you ten times. Now it’s time for you to leave.”
During the pause that followed he shook his head and clenched his teeth, like a dog gnawing on something, and I knew for certain that I had just killed myself. Like a stupid smug idiot, I had misjudged everything and was going to die, in agonizing pain, from the crushing blows of a dozen unrelenting fists. I thought about the scissors in the top drawer of my desk and wondered whether I’d have time to reach for them if he lurched at me. I wondered if they would do any good.
“You know what? Fuck you,” he said as, to my immense relief, he turned to leave. I gotta tell you though, I’m not sure anyone has ever meant those words quite as much as he did.
Fair enough, I wanted to say and then thought better of it. He was the kind of man who needed to have the last word. Plus, something else was dawning on me as his goons filed out behind him: Holy shit! I’m still alive! Somehow, I had survived my brush with this ludicrous tyrant.
It was a while before my hands stopped shaking and my heart resumed beating at something like its habitual rate. A double Jack Daniel’s helped. Only then did I read the offending article. It really was a piece of shit.
We never did apologize or retract the review. The worst offence we could be accused of was bad writing, which to my dismay remains entirely legal. And really, what could I say about that? Despite our best editorial efforts, intermittent lapses in quality is a sad consequences of all student journalism. You get used to it.
Fortunately, the defence against libel is as simple as it is elegant: truth. As long as you’re telling the truth, no one can lay a legal hand on you. And the truth in this particular case—no matter what the shouting mad man protests—was that in our opinion his bar kinda sucked. If he didn’t want people saying so, he should have run a better bar. I’m no more sorry about that now than I was then.
I just hope it doesn’t get me killed someday.