I’d never imagined I’d be a party to any kind of court case. But there I was, in a San Francisco courtroom, clutching a McDonald’s bag that I’d found in the restroom and suing a newspaper owner over a bunch of typos.
It had all started on Thursday, January 28, 1982, when – according to my diary – I’d spent a good portion of the day entering a “Spot-the-Blooper” contest in the Sunset Independent, a now-defunct local newspaper covering San Francisco’s Sunset District, the largest neighborhood in the City (about 80,000 people). The contest’s rules stated that entrants should look for errors over four issues of the paper and submit a list of them on a postcard. The winner who found the most errors would get $1 per “blooper.”
Well, I loved reading my Sunset Independent with great fervor every week, and I already knew that it was always absolutely fraught with mistakes. I also happened to be making my living as a freelance proofreader at the time. So I figured I had this contest in the bag.
I found 359 errors.
Imagine my excitement. In those days I made so little money that I couldn’t even afford cheddar cheese.
Diary entry, January 29: “I found so many mistakes yesterday that I had to type it all up on paper and it took me 5 hours, taking time out for dinner.”
I sent in my entry. But on February 11, before heading off to work, I opened that week’s issue of the Independent and could not believe my eyes. The paper declared the winner to be a man who had found 41 typos.
I was, to put it mildly, royally incensed.
February 11: “Today was Sandy’s going-away luncheon at ICS. We went to MacArthur Park, and I had grilled gulf shrimp and tons of their ‘onion strings’ and two glasses of wine. I was fairly useless afterwards, so I came home and drank a bunch of rum so I could call the Sunset Independent. They were really nervous and hemmed and hawed and said the contest judge wasn’t there and would call back on Friday, but I never got a call. So on Pam’s advice I’m going to write them a letter. It ain’t the money with me, it’s the principle.”
Pam Pecora was a friend of mine who had finished law school a few months before, and she was my go-to source for legal advice. So I proceeded to angrily pen a scathing letter to the newspaper, demanding that without a reasonable explanation within a week I would either go to court or pursue my case with the Consumer Fraud unit of the District Attorney’s Office.
The paper then employed an odd strategy.
February 18: “Today we got the new Sunset Independent. And oh how they must have scurried around after getting my letter yesterday, ’cause they PRINTED IT along with a stupid ‘explanation’ that said many of my bloopers had to do with spacing, whereas in fact maybe 3 of my 359 did. Amazingly ludicrous. I tried calling the editor again, but she rudely wouldn’t answer my questions. All she kept saying was that it was the judges’ decision. Finally she said, ‘They didn’t agree with some of your errors.’ I said, ‘So, in other words, they didn’t agree with even 41 of my errors.’ All she said was, ‘I don’t know, it’s all in a file somewhere, and I don’t want to dig it out.’ Boy, was I burning and churning.”
Apparently I burned and churned for only a couple of hours before calling the Consumer Fraud people and asking them to send me a complaint form. It arrived two days later. Imagine a government agency responding so quickly today. Two days! That hardly gave them time to get it into a mailbox!
At any rate, I filled out the form forthwith, and on March 4 a representative from the Consumer Fraud unit telephoned me. (By the way, I’m going to call the editor Laura Silva rather than her real name, for reasons I will make clear later on.)
March 4: “Well, hey, Consumer Fraud called, and the woman there – named Sydney – told me that I have an open-and-shut case, even in the opinion of the D.A.’s men there. She tried twice to talk sense into Laura Silva, the Independent’s editor, but she said Silva was rude and a real ‘schmoo.’ ”
“The D.A.’s men”? I think I’d been watching a little too much Karl Malden in “The Streets of San Francisco.”
March 8: “I talked to Sydney again. She said she’d had a message from Laura Silva (the famous editor), and when she called her back, Laura only repeated that she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. So why had Laura left a message to call her? She must really be nuts. Anyway, I guess her latest excuse for my not winning is that I didn’t send my entry in on a postcard. First of all, can you see me writing 14 pages on a postcard? Secondly, the second issue of the paper stated that we could send in letters! It looks, anyway, as if I’ll be going to small claims court.”
Sydney had done all she could for me. Typo fraud was just beyond her purview. So I called the Small Claims Legal Advisor at the San Francisco Municipal Court and girded my loins for battle.
The first thing I resolved to do was find an expert witness. Because I’d been in the publishing biz for a few years, I had a squad of word nerds around me. I decided on Kathy Reigstad, a production editor and former colleague of mine from my days at Harper & Row. As it turned out, she’d gone to law school for about a year and had always fantasized about being in court, so she was ecstatic at the prospect. Her role was to determine how many of my “bloopers” were legitimate errors. I would sue for that number of dollars in addition to – per the guidance of the Small Claims Legal Advisor – punitive damages of $100. I could soon be rolling in it!
The next thing I had to do, according to the Advisor, was determine who was in fact the owner of the newspaper. To accomplish this, he suggested that I go down to City Hall and attempt to look it up in the Fictitious Names Index. Instead, I enlisted the help of my girlfriend Cynthia, who came up with the ruse of calling the paper’s office pretending to be a journalism student doing a project on newspaper ownership. The office clerk who answered the phone bought it, and he told her that Laura Silva was indeed the owner.
All I had to do now was wait for Kathy’s evaluation, then send a letter to the Independent with a demand for the exact amount.
A week later, Kathy called me down to the Harper & Row offices to go over my entry, and we came up with 249 valid errors. That sounded fair to me. So I sent the newspaper a certified letter and, as soon as the receipt came back to me, I went down and filed the small claims case. Cynthia served the warrant. My day in court would be April 28 at 8:15 a.m. Things were moving quickly.
April 13: “I’m sitting here tonight watching ‘People’s Court,’ one of my favorite new shows. It’s interesting to me to hear the variety of situations in which people shaft each other, and to hear the judge’s assessment of right and wrong in each case, I am especially getting more and more interested now that my own case is coming. And I am starting to realize that it is easy to sue, and that as they say on the show, it’s much better to go to court than to take the law into your own hands; maybe more of us can strike back at the myriad of people who rip us off.”
Obviously I was feeling righteous about the situation. But as the trial approached, I got more and more jittery.
April 27: “Tomorrow morning’s court date looms larger and larger, and it’s practically consuming me. My stomach was ulcerous – burning all day, in fear of my having to speak in court.”
Kathy Reigstad and I arrived in Small Claims Court (Dept. 1 of City Hall, at the time) extremely early on the 28th. I was so extraordinarily nervous that when I emerged from the women’s room I absent-mindedly picked up a stranger’s McDonald’s bag and carried it with me into the courtroom!
As you might expect, the bailiff smelled that breakfast sausage sandwich and handed me a mild reprimand. I scurried back to return it to the restroom.
Kathy amused me with her asides as we were waiting. “I don’t know if this is the right time to tell you,” she said, “but when I had to be in moot court in law school I cried.” Meanwhile we were trying to determine which person was Laura Silva. When a really gorgeous woman walked in, Kathy turned to me to pronounce, “We’re dead.”
But it wasn’t her. The real Laura came in and sat right next to me, not knowing that her tormenter was at her shoulder.
Our case was the first one called, which terrified me because I’d wanted to watch for awhile and get some tips from other people’s presentations. But no.
And true to form, I blundered right from the get-go.
“I started clambering onto the wrong chair in the beginning, saying, ‘Is that right, Your Honor?’ and he motioned me to stand in front of him, with a smile.”
I presented my side somewhat shakily and at lightning speed, ignoring both the speech I’d spent typing up until midnight the night before and my reams of documentation. Then came Silva’s turn, and the judge seemed to partially take my side from the very beginning. Silva wasn’t as respectful (i.e., scared) as I was, often finishing her responses snidely with, ‘Is that it? Am I through?’ And the judge even seemed sympathetic to some of my more questionable corrections. For example, he demanded to know whether she would count “proofread” and “proof read” in the same paragraph to be an error. She said no, along with this doozy: “That first one is two words. The letters are just squished together. You can see a line between them.”
“That’s the PROOFREADER’S red line!” he answered, with more than a little exasperation.
Another gem involved her misspelling the name of Fanning’s Bookstore. Silva claimed that she was under no obligation to spell the name of the bookstore correctly, especially since she had no time to look up the name in the Fictitious Names Index.
I told her that I had simply called Mr. Fanning and asked him for the correct spelling!
Finally, when the judge looked at Kathy’s carefully enumerated list of errors, he told Silva, “Paula’s list contains 49 spelling errors alone, which by itself beats the 41 that the winner had.”
“Well, uh huh, that’s true,” Silva admitted.
For crying out loud, why had this woman ever thought it was justifiable to declare someone else the winner? All she had to do was declare me the winner with 42 typos and I would never have felt cheated or taken her to court. Now she was spending her time defending her ridiculous excuses. What a waste! None of it made any sense to me!
The judge concluded by telling us that he would commission a third party to scrutinize my entry, and that we would get the decision in the mail.
As I walked out of the courtroom past the gallery, still a bit wobbly, a young guy about my age took my hands in both of his and said, “That was a very nice presentation.”
“I tell you, that sweet gesture made my whole day happy.”
A couple of weeks later, the judgment arrived.
May 12: “On the way out the door at 2:00 this afternoon, I found my court judgment in the mail, a piddling $80 victory. I’m glad I won, but it sure would’ve been nice to get more money for all the work I put in. And I feel a little sheepish calling up people like Mom and telling them that I only got 80 bucks.”
The cherry on top was that Silva waited so long to send me my check that her time limit expired and I had to lean on her with another letter. But she eventually coughed up the dough.
So that was it. Justice had prevailed, although it seemed like only partial justice. I still have my lengthy list of bloopers, and even with the mellowing of age, I still maintain that I had a couple hundred valid entries. Who was this “third party” who came up with such a cockamamie count? Obviously not an English major!
So where are these dramatist personae today?
As far as I can tell, Kathy Reigstad lives in the Pacific Northwest and still works as a copy editor, including for Harper Collins Publishers in New York. She was a dedicated, kind, competent editor and delightful human being.
Sydney Fairbairn, the earnest young woman from Consumer Fraud, is an attorney in Marin County.
My friend Pam Pecora Hansen is an attorney in the San Francisco D.A.’s Office.
Laura Silva, as it turns out, owns a large shop in my neighborhood! Oy! I have never stepped foot in her store, even though there’s some great stuff in there. But I’m too afraid that if I bought anything she would recognize the name on my credit card, even after so much time has passed, and I shudder at the thought.
She may well be a lovely person. After all, it’s been nearly 40 years, and we’re all different people from what we were half a lifetime ago.
On the other hand, maybe she’s still a schmoo.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
2/9/73 [age 17]:
“Two learning experiences, one quite in contrast to the other. This morning I took Mary to school early in order that she be able to attend a History class. I went along to her class for lack of anything better to do and because I simply LOVE learning! The program was actually quite interesting. (Judy asked today what class I was reading Walden for. I answered that I was doing it for fun. ‘God, I NEVER do that!’ she replied.) And the other experience? Well, yesterday I was propositioned in the Student Union. I rudely turned the guy down. He must’ve been hard up.”
3/9/73 [age 17]:
“Mom and Dad went out tonight so I naturally went in the sewing room to listen to four records at ear-splitting volume. My tastes are not limited; Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand hold as much appeal for me as do Neil Diamond or Johnny Rivers or the Four Tops. My sole material desire in the world is to own a stereo with four speakers at the very least. I know the quality of every radio station around; I can sing the words to almost every song that was ever written. It’s kind of ironic that I am so wanting in musical talent, and I have the worst voice this side of the Rockies.”
2/19/73 [age 17]:
“Dad had to go to a basketball game tonight, so we’re not going to Clearlake until tomorrow. Instead, Jeanne took me to a ballet at Flint Center, “Swan Lake,” with Rudolph Nuryvev [sic]. I guess it was okay, but my mind wandered all over the place. It was so boring!”
2/20/73 [age 17]:
“On my break today all I did was eat. So much for my diet. I had three pieces of pizza, a tuna sandwich, some French fries, and a glass of root beer.”
2/22/73 [age 17]:
“I had a dream that I was in an elevator and the doors never closed and it started going up and down, faster and faster, never stopping. I grew dizzy, became disoriented. It was awful. I’ve tried to analyze what it all means – maybe the elevator is my world, for I am helplessly confined by something beyond my control. Alone, scared, out of place, confused. I woke up with my heart pounding like crazy and I was gasping for breath. I tell you, one of the most glorious feelings in the world is waking up from a horrible nightmare and realizing you are still alive.”
2/25/73 [age 17]:
“I’m slowly recovering from a bash on the head [my sister] Janine gave me with a pot while we were drying the dishes. It was accidental, I think. I’ve finally decided to make some attempt at learning to cook, or at least to make preparations for my eventual independence, so I’ve bought myself a little notebook in which I shall observe different dinners and write them out. Eventually, I shall also include other domestic chores, such as washing, repairs, etc.”
2/28/73 [age 17]:
“I’m still trying to get over the shock, but Mr. Jordahl from Rexall Drugs by Lucky’s called today about an interview; I went down and without any real questions he hired me (it’s advantageous that he knows Mom). The pay is really raunchy – $1.55 an hour – but I’ve accomplished the one thing I wanted to do: no more Clear Lake. I don’t know what I’ll do when they [my family] go away for the weekend, or how in the world I’ll get to work (in the dark? with no car?). We’ll solve that problem when we come to it. Maybe they’ll pawn me off on somebody or I’ll have a friend come over, which’ll be really nice. O, blissful freedom!”