I am older than I once was, but every now and then something happens that reminds me that I’m still a bit of a bad-boy. A wild one. I walk my own path and make my own rules. The fear of authority is a fear for lesser men. Not me. “The Man” can’t hold me down. I’m a rebel. A rebel with a rapidly growing bald spot, but a rebel none the less.
It happened again the other day. I had a run in with the authorities. I was hassled by “The Man”. My crime? I was reading the newspaper. In a supermarket. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really reading it so much as glancing at the headlines, but I broke the cardinal rule. I turned over to the second page. Like a striking cobra, a nearby security guard ambled across and told me I wasn’t really allowed to do that.
Rules. Apparently you can look at the headlines and even read the articles on the front page, but the moment you turn over to page 2, you become an outlaw. A rulebreaker. An unpaid article-stealer.
This was all explained to me rather politely, but I wasn’t fooled. There was an undeniable edge to the guard’s voice, as if at any moment he might whip out his little walkie-talkie and call for backup. Years of living outside the bounds of the law have left me with a fine-tuned instinct for when the game is up. But I refuse to be intimidated. I glanced down, quickly taking in two more free headlines (Hah! Take that, Johnny Law!) before looking the guard straight in the eye and slowly closing the paper without breaking eye-contact.
I popped a toothpick into the corner of my mouth, narrowed my eyes, hooked my thumbs into my belt and moseyed on out of the shop like John Wayne with a tiny pebble in his boot (It’s my “gangsta rapper” walk. I copied it from a Texan line-dancer with a torn groin muscle). “Maine Lobsterman Catches Rare Blue Lobster”, I muttered under my breath, rolling the stolen headline off my tongue like a lump of chewing tobacco as a small boy clung nervously to his father’s leg and an attractive young woman behind me gasped and swooned. It is a hard, lonely path I walk, but I know no other way.
Newspapers are tricky. There is a rule of retail so basic that no-one bothers to write it down; don’t let your customers consume your products for free right in front of you. But remember how I feel about rules (It will help if you whistle the tune from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly while reading this). We sell papers here at Exclusive Books in Clearwater, but we do so more as a service than anything else. We make enough profit from selling newspapers every month to send a small family out to a modest restaurant. If there’s a special on. And they’re not very hungry. So if you steal a glance at the headlines on page 2, you’re not exactly speeding us down the path to financial ruin.
We don’t mind. Read our headlines. All of them. You can even come in, take a paper over to a chair, and read it, cover to cover. “The Man” isn’t going to leap out and wave a walkie-talkie at you.
So why do we let you make off with our page 2 headlines without so much as a by your leave? It’s because we are pure of heart and generous of spirit. It has nothing at all to do with our eternal hope that you will pop in to glance at the Mail & Guardian and somehow find yourself unable to walk out without a R2000 cookery book and the entire Mr. Men collection despite not knowing any children. I promise.
Our motives aren’t really at issue here, anyway. We like you. We miss you when you don’t come and see us. We want you to visit more often, and to be happy spending your time here. We want you to feel at home here. And if letting you sit back and glance through a newspaper is what it takes to make you feel at home, we’re all for it. Speaking of homes, here’s a little decorating tip. Did you know that if you buy the entire Mr. Men series and line them up in the correct order, the black ink marks on the white spines form a picture? It’s really quite striking, and would look fabulous on a prominent shelf next to a R2000 cookery book. Just saying.
You can read our papers. But you might be wondering why, in this age of instant information, you should read the papers at all. There are other, easier ways of finding out what is happening in the world.
But here’s the thing; knowing that something happened does not make you well informed. When it rains, everyone gets wet, but not everyone understands the complex interplays of elements like humidity and topography and temperature and season that cause the rain to fall in that place on that day.
Listening to the news on the radio or watching it on TV is like knowing that it rained because you are feeling a little damper than before. There are time-slots to fill and advertisers to slot in. The news is blared out in bite-sized chunks and any analysis is both superficial and brief, unless it happens to be Very Big News Indeed, in which case it is over-analysed to the point of obfuscation. If you listen to the news, you are merely informed, not well informed.
Then there’s the internet.
You feel that reading the news on the internet is the same as reading a paper. It isn’t. A newspaper is a thing. You can hold it in your hand It has a finite number of words in it. Depending on the amount of time you have, you are going to read most, if not all of them. You will read articles about things that interest you. But you will also read articles about things that would not necessarily interest you. You will read opinion pieces by columnists who make you nod. And ones who set your teeth on edge and make you want to spit your coffee all over the cat. You glance over letters to the editor by breath-takingly uninformed and opinionated members of the public whom you will immediately hate. Newspapers have their biases and their slants, but despite that, by the time you are done reading one you will have been exposed to a variety of worldviews, not just reflections of your own.
The internet isn’t like that. It is not a thing. It is a portal; a gateway to all the words in the world. You will never read them all. That even applies to individual news sites. There’s too much stuff on them. There’s no way to read all of the articles, so you choose only the ones that grab your attention. The ones on subjects that interest you and the ones by columnists you like. You skip past all the other stuff, and your world gets a little bit smaller. And even if you don’t, content for the internet is governed by an iron law; TLDNR. If you’re not familiar with it, it stands for “Too Long, Did Not Read.” If it’s on the internet and there are too many words in it, no-one bothers to read it. There is no room for depth or insight in cyberspace.
Read the newspaper instead. People who read almost any newspapers are better informed than those who don’t. Almost. There are, as is the case with most things, exceptions, but when these exceptions boast such notable headlines as “TOKOLOSHE MAKES MY 4-5 ITCH!” they are not to be set aside lightly themselves.
And does being well informed matter? It most certainly does. I live at one end of Witkoppen road and work at the other. I drive it every day, twice a day. It’s a boring road. This one time there was a little frisson of excitement when I found that the robot on Paul Kruger was working, but it was broken again the next day and everything went back to normal.
This is not a problem for me. When it comes to driving, boring is what I strive for. But a few weeks ago, I had a trip to work that was not boring. I met someone new.
I was sitting quietly, minding my own business at a busy robot, when a rather volatile little chap introduced himself to me. I’m not a particularly sociable sort, but I have no objection to other people as long as they are not huggers or the sort who hold onto your hand for just that moment too long while being introduced. I would prefer, though, if they didn’t come into my life by driving their scooters into the back of my car.
It wasn’t that big a deal, though. I drive an old Land Rover, and it’s quite hard to tell whether any particular incident has resulted in any damage or not. Still, one must do the right thing, so I hopped out of my car to go and get to know my new acquaintance a little better.
This was a mistake. He was, you see, a little busy. He had hopped off his scooter, climbed into the passenger seat of a taxi, and was attempting to beat the driver into submission with his crash helmet. This sounds like a terribly violent sort of scene, but in truth in was more than a little comedic. Trying to beat someone into submission with a crash helmet in the front seat of a taxi is a little bit like trying to skip in a portaloo. There isn’t enough room to get any momentum going and odd bits of equipment keep getting in the way.
My new little friend gave up and decided there was more to be gained by leaping out of the taxi and screaming at me about how the ****ing ****er had cut him off and driven him into my car and how he was going to **** him with a ****. I smiled at him and asked him if he ever read the news. He stopped screaming at me and looked at me a little uncertainly.
“Haven’t you heard”, I asked, “about the Porsche guy?”
He had. Everybody has. A little of the colour drained from his cheeks. But here’s the thing. He hadn’t heard enough. He clearly hadn’t read the papers. He was not well informed.
Just in case you have been living off the grid out in the Kalahari somewhere, about a week before this happened to me, a pair of teenagers in their forties had woven their way through traffic along Witkoppen Road until someone in a golf had looked at them skeef, at which point the passenger had jumped out, kicked the golf’s door, broken the rear-view mirror, and punched the driver through the window as if he was auditioning for the role of the school bully in an 80’s coming-of-age movie.
Everyone with a TV or a radio heard about it. It was, for a little while, Very Big News Indeed. But if you picked it up on the radio or TV, you would have picked up the bare bones of the story. And you only heard about it because someone filmed the two wide streaks on their little rampage, and the story went viral. By the time my little friend decided to single-handedly take on the taxi industry, the name of the Porsche driver had been given out and he had been picked up by the police.
This information obviously wasn’t enough to discourage my little friend.
He might even have watched the video of the incident that popped up on various internet news sites. I would like to think that watching a pair of grown men embarrass themselves in front of an entire country by acting like a weak minded little school bullies would discourage me from getting involved in any similar sorts of shenanigans, but you never know.
What I read in the newspapers, however, would have stopped me cold. First of all, it wasn’t just the police who found the driver. I read about how his name, his number, and the details of his employers had been passed around on the internet, and how his boss was fielding calls from self-appointed vigilantes out to set the world to rights as well as the expected packs of journalists. The same thing happened to the passenger when his name came out.
If my little friend had been aware of these things, he might have stayed out of that taxi. Companies seem to find it a little easier to get rid of scooter drivers than Porsche drivers. But if he was a newspaper reader, he wouldn’t have needed to know about that incident at all. Because he would have a better idea of what happens to skinny little scooter drivers when they try to beat taxi drivers into submission with crash helmets. I tried to explain these things to him as he stood there on the side of the road, but I think he got a little distracted when the taxi driver jumped out of his taxi and started to advance on him.
He got a little more distracted when I pointed out the row of nine or ten taxis swooping toward us through the busy traffic with their hazard lights on. I don’t think he even heard me explain that whichever police arrived to break up what was starting to look like a rather severe beating would, at the very least, be on a first name basis with the taxi drivers, making him a “them” to the taxi driver-police “us”.
Oh, well. I stepped back and tried my best to look like an innocent bystander so that no-one would think my new friend and I were connected as he became a little better informed the hard way. And then the universe stepped in to preserve his state of blissful ignorance. The vehicle immediately behind us as this all unfolded happened to be an ambulance. They saw which way things were headed, and switched on their lights and their sirens. They kept them on for just a second, but it was enough to break the tension.
Men in uniforms who emerge from vehicles covered in flashing lights are clothed with a certain amount of authority. The taxi driver took his turn to start screaming at the ambulance guys that the ****ing ****er had hit him with a crash helmet, and that he was going to **** him with a ****, but the wind had been taken from his sails, and it seemed a mere formality. The crisis was past. I checked that no-one had sustained any damage, and then hopped back into my car and left.
I drove away thinking that, while it had all been a rather entertaining diversion, things could have gone very differently indeed. And all because a silly little man on a scooter had failed to understand the situation he was getting himself into.
We would hate for you to find yourself in a similar situation. And it’s so easy to avoid. Just come in to Exclusive Books in Clearwater and read a paper. They’re easy enough to find. They’re in a great big stand up at the front of the shop, right next to the Mr. Mens and the R2000 cookbooks…