“That’s a great book,” said the dark haired stranger sitting across the hall. Dylan looked up from his copy of I, Claudius, literally holding together its three distinct parts by the binding that had all but fallen apart. Robert Graves would have shrieked in panic to see his masterpiece as loosely bound as if it had spent a New York winter on the windowsill over a radiator.
“Yeah,” Dylan said, not wanting to stir too much conversation, and tried to go back to his reading of the Roman imbecile.
“Robert Graves is a bit effusive with his plot, though,” continued the stranger. “I trust historical fiction much more to the capable hands of Gore Vidal than the verbose rantings of an English poet, know what I mean?”
Dylan heard banter but he didn’t look up. “He’s a doozy, alright,” he said, with a hushed exhale that reeked of gin to the old lady sitting on his left of the waiting room bench. He tasted it in his own breath, even at eleven in the morning.
Who cares? he thought. I’m a freelance political columnist and I’ve been up writing about horrible things since 2 in the afternoon yesterday. Of course I reek of gin.
“You here to see Mr. Rabban?” The black-haired man asked, interrupting him a third time. Dylan looked up this time and brought his book to his lap. The vinyl chairs made a lot of noise when he moved so he wasn’t in the mood for any unnecessary shifting in the cramped heat of that dingy basement in the Lower East Side. He answered softly, hoping it wouldn’t go beyond meaningless chit chat.
“Aren’t we all?”
“I guess,” the stranger replied, thrusting his chin down and his shoulders up like Dylan had asked him the most bizarre question. “Short stories?” the guy added.
“Freelance political commentator,” Dylan fired back, still holding his book open. It seemed they were both there to see the same person, but for different reasons.
“Nice,” said the stranger, “no competition, then.” Dylan nodded.
“Are you from around here?” the stranger asked, sitting back in his vinyl bench now, making all kinds of ugly squawking noises. Dylan cringed a bit.
“I’m from a lot of places,” Dylan responded, seeing that this was going to go on until they called out his name to see Mr. Rabban, the editor of the small magazine based out of a basement office in the East Village that he was there to showcase his articles, hoping for a staff position.
“Anywhere in particular?” The guy asked.
“I don’t really like to talk about it,” Dylan said. “I’m a man without a country.” The guy across the way smiled a coy smile.
“That must serve you well as a political commentator,” he said.
“Of course” Dylan said.
“Never seeming biased – it must be a good thing for unbiased commentary.” the stranger said.
“Yeah,” Dylan thought for a moment, “I guess it is. I don’t know. I’ve never given it much thought why I don’t like to talk about it but that must be close to it, I guess.”
He thought some more.
“I’m always moving around so much. I think I just never had a chance to call anywhere home, and I’m not sure I have much of a yearning for it. Quite the opposite, actually,” he finished.
“I know just what you mean,” the stranger said. They looked at each other for a moment, Dylan checking out the stranger’s handbag at his feet and the stranger looking down at Dylan’s, both wondering what this other guy had to say for real…
“Dylan Cormack,” the secretary’s voice could be heard resonating through the hallway. Dylan arranged his things and got to his feet, the stretching vinyl making ugly sounds.
“Good luck, mate,” the stranger said from his seat.
“Cheers,” Dylan replied.
The door opened in Tor Rabban’s office, the weather stripping on the bottom of the door rubbing against the short carpet the whole way. Dylan Cormack walked in and stood motionless for a moment, taking in the editor’s decor.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Rabban said, motioning to the only other chair in the cramped room. The desk was an old one, made of sheet metal and reminiscent of the computer labs at Dylan’s old university. Something definitely out of NASA from the 70′s, when pencil sharpeners were still bolted to office walls. There was no decoration on the bare white walls save for the gold-plated plaque with Arabic inscribing, which Dylan had never learned to read. The off-green desk offered most of the color in the windowless room aside from the calendar of cats sitting by the door and still turned to February of ‘92.
“Thanks,” Dylan said, sitting slowly, wanting to make his presence in the room very much felt.
“Sorry about the wait,” Mr. Rabban said. Dylan noticed his darker skin and large nose, the protruding bridge screaming of Syria or Lebanon. The truth, though, is that he could’ve been from anywhere between Istanbul and Baghdad. “We’ve had so many people show up today with articles on the Middle East that I feel like exhuming Yasser Arafat’s rotting corpse and giving him this job.”
“I hope you’ve sent them all packing,” Dylan said, smiling but with all of his confidence. He still sounded condescending and he knew it. Oh, well, he thought. Keep up the appearances.
“Yes, well,” Mr. Rabban said. “We’ll go through the motions, yes?” Dylan didn’t like how that sounded. It was commanding but it still had a hint of patronizingly methodical bureaucracy that made him uncomfortable, as if the room had just become smaller and the fluorescent lights had been dimmed. Also, he sounded unerringly foreign, which made Dylan very self-conscious in a local magazine office in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“Are you from around here?” Tor Rabban asked Dylan.
“Well, sir, I’m really from a lot of different places…”
“Doh, I’ve heard that before,” Tor Rabban cut him off. “Journalists are just like consultants,” he said. “You never want to commit to either a fixed location or a specific point of view.”
Dylan looked at Mr. Rabban straight in the eye now, as he’d read so much about doing from his interview books.
“Which is exactly what people hate about reading the papers,” Mr. Rabban continued, “they want to see and understand what the reporter who was there was thinking at the time. Facts aren’t enough – they can get facts from CNN. We offer them something more.”
At this Dylan pounced without thinking, heading for the strategic angle he’d planned on from the beginning, “But that’s biased and unprofessional,” he said, sounding much like his professors. “It’s like…” He paused, wanting to be steady on the topic, “…it’s like Gonzo journalism,” he said. “Trashy narratives that veer from the topic at the writer’s pleasure.”
“True, true,” Tor Rabban said, nodding gravely. “But people eat it up. And besides, there’s a lot of gonzo out there. Shitty, yes, but that increases the volume of good stuff that comes in every now and again. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because the good doctor is dead that it doesn’t mean that the style doesn’t deserve credit in other worthy hands.”
Dylan didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected the editor of a non-political magazine to like Hunter S. Thompson’s work, let alone advocate for it in his publication. He’d spent his entire journalistic education learning that Gonzo, though fun for the writer and entertaining for the reader hadn’t been an acceptable form of journalism since Hunter Thompson tasted the steel and gun powder of the bullet he put through his head. He’d learned that the only people who even tried to emulate the style had been eccentric bloggers and unemployable correspondents, to say nothing of doing well.
“I’ve seen people come and go in this business,” Tor Rabban continued, “but the most consistent piece of knowledge that I’ve learned from this line of work is that the general public is at the reading level of the New York Post – a vocabulary of 6th graders.”
“Yeah,” Dylan agreed, smiling genuinely for the first time, “that sounds about right.”
“Look, remember that bit about the Danish newspaper that published a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad?”
Dylan nodded, “Why not? Danish flags burning in Damascus? It was a fiasco. Everybody remembers it.”
“Right,” said, Tor Rabban. “I remember it well. I was part of that Danish paper and…”
“Really?” Dylan asked suddenly. “What were you doing at a Danish newspaper, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m half Danish,” he said, “and for all the ridiculous arguments that were made at the time, including my own in the defense of my paper, it occurred to me later that the whole thing was unavoidable.”
“Why?” Dylan asked, despite himself. Mr. Rabban leaned back in his chair, putting his fingers together in meaningful thought as he spoke.
“Because the people who want the drama are the ones that are buying the newspapers. We can never get around that.”
Dylan sat motionless again for about ten seconds, digesting what Mr. Rabban had just said. But Tor Rabban didn’t give him too much time to ponder.
“So,” he said, shall we get to it?” he asked, rhetorically.
“Yes, let’s,” Dylan responded with confidence, snapping out of his reverie.
“I’ve looked at your piece on the Middle East,” he said, looking down at the clippings in front of him on his desk. “It has a lot of balls, I must say, and I admire that. Have you been to Iraq?” he asked Dylan, point blank.
Dylan raised his shoulders and filled his chest. “Yeah,” he said, “I have. A friend of mine, an Army Captain in the Rangers…” Dylan recalled the face of the Captain, the tall, broad shouldered human torpedo that stormed into many a firestorm with pure courage and no brains at all. “I spent a month with his battalion stationed just outside of Fallujah and later in Rutbah, near the Jordan Junction.” Tor Rabban nodded but didn’t show any signs of being impressed. Dylan continued.
“I did most of my data gathering under the guise of a CNN reporter who’d been shot in the neck while standing next to a humvee. He unknowingly left me his credentials. I spent a lot of time under fire and I have a renewed sense of faith in our troops after it all but…” Dylan took a deep breath.
“But what?” Asked Mr. Rabban, still leaning back on his chair.
“But I still have a lot to say about this war,” Dylan said while exhaling.
“I see,” Mr. Rabban said, and Dylan saw his lips purse a bit. A moment passed while Mr. Rabban considered his next move. Then his face straightened out into a serious tone. “To be honest with you, it needs a lot of work.”
Dylan had seen this coming. This was, after all, a local magazine that featured one or two political commentaries as a way to diversify the reader’s knowledge a bit and he would not be a focus of the publication. But his in, he thought, was going to be to offer Tor Rabban political articles that he would normally have to pay syndicate fees to get from the likes of the Washington Post or the Boston Globe, and instead, he’d have an exclusive on these major stories. Dylan, in turn, would get his own political column in a magazine he believed would soon have a complete New York audience. He did his best to remove all signs of expression from his face. Tor Rabban continued.
“Your experience is interesting, and your facts are impeccable as they are thorough. But you don’t take the reader anywhere. Your articles don’t make me want to know how the story ends.”
Dylan sprung into his rhetoric. “Mr. Rabban, if what you want is a story that leads the reader to a predefined position, then there are a couple of old ladies outside your office who’ve been talking local politics incessantly in the hallway. Across from them is a short story writer who looks like he’s been out of work for long enough to have read all of Joseph Heller’s books, including the ones he didn’t steal.” Tor Rabban’s left cheek showed the faintest sign of a smile, but Dylan didn’t catch it and went on.
“What I’m offering you is exclusive access to Boston Globe and Washington Post quality, unbiased political columns for your magazine.” Dylan leaned forward in his chair, looking for a response, and Tor Rabban’s smile grew all over his face.
“What makes you think I like the Washington Post?” He teased Dylan, whose shoulders sank a bit. “Look, kid, like I said, it’s got balls, and your experience is interesting. I admire your stamina for coming in here like this today, with no credentials and a hell of a fish-story about Fallujah and some town I’ve never heard of. I’m just telling you I can’t publish any of this kind of thing you’ve given me. It needs a lot of work.”
Dylan’s deep breath left him slowly as his hands fell to his lap and his swollen chest deflated. But he had a plan B.
“Look, Mr. Rabban, with all due respect, I’ve heard these words of rejection before – develop it further; try us again some time; it needs more content and all that – but that’s not why I came here today. I’ve been writing about politics for a some time now, enraged, furious and still managing not to froth on the page and turn out decent, unbiased and logical journalism that can be digested and discussed. But nobody seems to want that anymore. Editors tell me left and right that their readers don’t have the attention span for what I’m writing, that people want to read things they already agree with, that they’re not interested in being presented both sides of the issue and that that’s why we have FOX news and MSNBC.
“And there have been the occasional few outlets that still publish news in a raw enough format that an intelligent person can imbibe it without throwing up all over the page. But I’m not experienced enough for them. I need to start out small, they say. So here I am. And you need someone good. I think I’m your guy. You want me to rewrite it? Fine. You want me to put more juice in the words, moisten them up a bit? Sure.
“But I need to know that some part of this is worth it. I need to know that you’re the slightest bit interested in any of these words. I’ll develop it, I’ll toss them around, I’ll starve over the words, rolling them about in my head if you want me to. But I need to know that there’s some valid reason I’m even trying. I need to know that someone in the industry thinks that I can hack this. That I shouldn’t give this up.”
Dylan lied. This was only the second magazine he’d gone to with his articles, but he’d heard the stories from other writer friends and he reasoned that his imagination could go farther than most, and he tried to imagine what a veteran out of work journalist would be saying, hoping to snag Tor Rabban’s attention with another angle.
“Is it interesting to you?” He asked Mr. Rabban one more time.
Tor Rabban thought silently. Who am I, he thought, to tell this kid what to do with his life? If he said no, the kid might quit, and fewer writers is never good for business. No, the more shit is out there, the more it becomes a buyer’s market, and that meant easier dollars. Fewer agents. God, I hate those lawyers, Tor Rabban thought. Besides, the kid wasn’t hopeless. He just couldn’t tell a story.
“Yes,” he lied, reasoning that more effort on the kid’s part would cost him nothing. “Yes, it’s interesting to me. Send me someplace with this story of yours. Come back next week with more – ahh, juice, as you say.”
“Fine.” Dylan said. “See you next week, then.” He stood up and leaned over the desk to grab his clippings, figuring the editor would offer to shake his hand when he did so. But instead of reaching for his hand, Mr. Rabban put his open palm face down on the papers on his desk.
“Leave these here,” he said calmly, and then added, “if you don’t mind.”
Dylan looked down at the Mediterranean-looking man square in the eyes. “First we try, then we trust,” he said with a coy smile. “You don’t think you’re the only editor I’m querying about these articles, do you?
Tor Rabban lifted his hands slowly and Dylan took his clippings and started to turn for the door. “Do come back next week,” he said, and as Dylan’s hand touched the doorknob he added, “and Dylan…” Dylan stopped. “The biggest mistake people make when discussing the Middle East is trying to stay on the fence. Take me to one side, or take me to both. but don’t try to stay in the middle. There is no middle.”
Dylan nodded, and opened the door.
Dylan walked out into the white hallway, his steps muffled on the blue carpet. He pulled the door shut, almost closed, stopping it just before it clicked.
“See you around?” came a voice from near the doorway. It was the guy from before. Dylan turned around and looked at him, really looked at him for the first time. Newly enthused by the recent good news that his stories had interested someone he let his excitement get the best of him and he smiled at the stranger.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, standing at the doorway still. “Say, what kind of stories do you write anyway?”
“Travel pieces, mostly. But not travel writing. That’s the lowest form of literature, man.”
“Yeah?” Dylan asked, not remembering the last time he even bothered reading a travel article.
“Yeah. I like to write about the stories as I travel, guide the reader a bit into my own adventures, you know? Especially when they’re not entirely factual. I guess it’s kind of like Gonzo writing, in a way,” the stranger said. “Have you read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72? That fucker will knock you on your ass. Twisted piece of work man, and heavy.”
“No, I like to stick with facts. No raving for me – it clogs the arteries. There’s enough weirdness out there in politics to nearly drown a man. I don’t need the drug-induced distortions of some out-of-control journalist who just couldn’t get a grip, know what I mean?”
“I guess so. But you’ll have to delve into it sooner or later in your line of work, man.”
Dylan thought about it. “Why not? The pigs will stuff me with bullshit one way or another, right?”
“Right. You might as well have a handle on it.” Dylan chuckled and the stranger put out his hand. “I’m Oscar, by the way” he said. “Oscar Bjørne.”
“Dylan Cormack,” he said, shaking it, then turning towards the exit. “Good luck with your stories, Oscar.”
“See you in another life, brother,” Dylan heard his voice echoing down the empty stretch of fluorescent lighting and drywall. Sure, he figured. Why not?