A metal table, headphones on listening to the Red Sox, flying through an early chapter of The Ceremony of Innocence, I was oblivious to my surroundings. For a solid ten minutes before two bags of potato chips, a box of Slim Jim’s, and a bag of Tang landed on the edges of my college ruled notebook.
I looked up at a guy named John – white, short, black hair, always sporting a half grin, “I need ya,’ Counselor,” he rasped – he always rasped, the residue(s) of years of cigarettes and pot and crack and …
Pen down, I surveyed the riches before me – in six months of pre-trial detention (Connecticut’s term of art for keeping men convicted of no crime in 22 1/2 hour a day lockdown) I had lost 40 pounds on the ‘regular’ DOC diet. This stash was impressive, the question was how much time was it going to cost.
“I wanna sue the Waterbury newspaper,” he said, sat down next to me, pushed my papers away and tossed down a copy of the Waterbury Republican American, “they slandered me.”
“They defamed you,” I corrected automatically.
“Yeah, that too.”
I sighed, eyed the salt and vinegar chips and put on a smile, “How?”
He pointed to a headline just beneath the fold on the front page:
Waterbury’s Dumbest Criminals
He was number three. His crime, allegedly? Got drunk, got high, had fight with girlfriend – not necessarily in that order, he was understandably hazy on the timeline – stomped to his car, drove off (badly), went to buy more drugs, was turned away when he couldn’t pay, drove past gas station with mini-mart; decided he would get cash there, stopped, grabbed pair of men’s underpants from the back seat (no explanation), pulled them over his head, walked inside, stood in line, when the people in front of him quite sensibly let him go first, he told the clerk, “this is a holdup.”
As he had nothing in his hand the clerk observed, “You’re not armed.” John claims to have been somewhat nonplussed, apologized profusely, asked if the clerk would mind waiting while he went back to the car for the gun he was pretty sure was in the glove compartment.
With the clerk’s tacit approval, John left. He was arrested as he was rooting through his car looking for the gun that was not there, his search obscured by the underwear he was still on his head.
That was his story. By this point in my ‘detention’, about eight-nine months after being outed as a lawyer, I was able to listen to it without expression or snicker or any reaction, for that matter. I simply said, “You know, John, that the truth is an absolute defense for defamation.”
He took exception to that, “I wasn’t dumb or stupid . . . I was high. And drunk.” He then went on to point out – very smartly, I thought – that by publishing the story on the front page and calling him stupid the paper was potentially polluting his jury pool.
“So, can you help?” His final plea, pushing the chips closer. He was a minute or two away from opening the bag and letting the aroma float over me, so I bowed to his logic and agreed to research the issue(s).
I lost a day or so of serious writing, but the chips, Slim Jim’s and Tang more than made up for it.