Don’t Read This in Public
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
If you do, someone may dial T for Thought Police
By MARC SCHULTZ
Editor’s note: We offer this story, originally published by Creative Loafing, the alternative paper in Atlanta, to warn our readers that perusing alt-weekly stories in public places could be dangerous. We wish we were kidding.
“The FBI is here,” Mom tells me over the phone. Immediately I can see my mom with her back to a couple of Matrix-like figures in black suits and opaque sunglasses, her hand covering the mouthpiece like Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. This must be a joke, I think. But it’s not, because Mom isn’t that funny.
“The who?” I say.
“Two FBI agents. They say you’re not in trouble, they just want to talk. They want to come to the store.”
I work in a small, independent bookstore. It’s a slow Tuesday afternoon, so I figure, sure. Someone I know must have gotten some government work, I think. Background check, interviewing acquaintances ... no big deal, right? Then, of course, I make a big deal about it to my co-workers.
“The FBI’s coming for me,” I tell them. They laugh; it’s a good joke, especially when the FBI actually shows up. They don’t look like bogeymen. They’re dressed casually, they speak familiarly, but they are big. The one in front stands close to 7 feet, and you can tell his partner is built like a bulldog under his baggy shirt and shorts.
“You Marc Schultz?” asks the tall one. He shows me his badge, introduces himself as Special Agent Clay Trippi. After assuring me that I’m not in trouble, he asks if there is some place we can sit and talk. We head to a table in the reference section. I’m again informed that I am not in trouble.
Then, Agent Trippi asks, “Do you drive a black Nissan Altima?” And I realize this meeting is not about a friend. Despite their reassurances, and despite the fact that I haven’t committed any federal offenses (that I know of), I’m starting to feel a bit like I’m in trouble.
They ask me where I drove on Saturday. I struggle for a moment to remember the day. I make a lame joke about how the days run together when you’re underemployed. They smile politely. Was I at work? I think so.
“Were you at the Caribou Coffee on Powers Ferry?” asks Agent Trippi. That’s where I get my coffee before work, and so I tell him yes, probably, just before remembering Saturday: Harry Potter day, opening early, in at 8:30. So I would have been at Caribou Coffee that Saturday, getting my small coffee, room for cream. This information seems to please the agents.
Then they ask if I carried anything into the shop. My mind races. I think: a bomb? A knife? A balloon filled with narcotics? But I don’t own any of those things. “Sunglasses,” I say. “Maybe my cell phone?”
Not the right answer. I’m nervous now. I’m your average, mid-20s, unassuming retail employee. What could I have possibly been carrying?
Then Trippi levels with me: “I’ll tell you what, Marc. Someone in the shop that day saw you reading something, and thought it looked suspicious enough to call us about. So that’s why we’re here, just checking it out. Like I said, there’s no problem. We’d just like to get to the bottom of this. Now if we can’t, then you may have a problem. And you don’t want that.”
You don’t want that? Have I just been threatened by the FBI? Confusion and a light dusting of panic keep me speechless. Was I reading something that would constitute a problem?
Then it occurs to me: It was an article my dad had printed off the internet. I can’t remember the topic, but I’m sure it was some kind of left-wing editorial, the kind that never fails to incite me to anger and despair over the state of the country.
I tell them this, but they want specifics: title, author, some kind of synopsis, but I can’t help them — I read so much of this stuff. I check behind the counter, but it’s not there. I call my dad at work, but he can’t put together a coherent sentence after I tell him the FBI is questioning me.
“The FBI?” he keeps asking. Eventually I get him off the phone, and suggest it may be in my car. They follow me out to the parking lot, where Trippi asks me if there’s anything in the car he should know about.
“Weapons? Drugs? It’s not a problem if you do, but if you don’t tell me and then I find something, that’s going to be a problem.” I assure him there’s nothing in my car, coming very close to quoting Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite: “There’s nothin’ in my trunk, man.” The excitement of the, well, interrogation, has made me just a little bit giddy. There’s nothing in my car, of course.
Back in the store, Trippi gives me his card and tells me to call if I remember anything. After he’s gone, I call my dad again. We retrace some steps together, figure out the article was Hal Crowther’s “Weapons of Mass Stupidity” from the Weekly Planet, a free independent out of Tampa. It comes back to me then — it was this screed on how corporate interests have poisoned the country’s media, particularly Fox News and Rupert Murdoch — really infuriating, deadly accurate stuff about American journalism post-9/11. So I call Trippi’s number and leave a message with facts about the column and ask him to call if he has any more questions.
To tell the truth, I’m kind of anxious to hear back from the FBI, if only for the chance to ask why anyone would find media criticism suspicious — or maybe the sight of a dark, bearded man reading in public was itself enough to strike fear in the heart of a patriotic citizen.
My co-worker says that we should be thankful the FBI takes these things seriously; I say it seems like a dark day when an American citizen regards reading as a threat, and downright pitch-black when the federal government agrees.
Marc Schultz is a freelance writer in Atlanta. The column that got him in hot water is at http://charlotte.creativeloafing.com/newsstand/2003-06-04/news_cover.html.
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