By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 18, 2008
WHEN I WAS A REPORTER at the Detroit Free Press in the late 1970s, I got a call from an agitated man who claimed that his drinking water was being poisoned by Muhammad Ali. Not wanting to be rude (and also not wanting to hang up too quickly on a potentially great story), I probed further. Mr. Ali, the caller said, had discovered his disloyalty -- apparently, he was once a fan but had ceased to be -- and, to retaliate, the heavyweight champ had been dripping chlorinated hydrocarbons into the man's water line through a "secret shunt." These chemicals were affecting the man's brain, he said, causing him to act in weird and unpredictable ways.
I asked him if he had any money in the bank. He said he had. "It all makes sense, then," I said, "and you must act with caution. Ali's scheme is obvious. He is trying to make you act so weird and unpredictable that you'll call the newspapers and claim he is poisoning you, and then he can sue you for slander and take all your money." After five seconds of silence, the man hung up and never called back. He may still be thinking about it.
The news media get these calls all the time, though we seldom talk about them except among ourselves. That's because they inhabit that disturbing intersection of madness, fear, creativity, pain and humor. It's also because, ultimately, they create an impossible dilemma for us: These callers don't want and won't accept the help they really need -- what they demand are Watergate-scope investigations of the fact that little men the size of cigarette butts keep invading their homes by rolling in through the cracks under the doors. And, yes, that is a real complaint, fielded by a Post copy aide.
Just a few weeks ago, a caller to The Post said that he knew for an absolute, positive fact that each of the three presidential candidates is a serial killer. Furthermore, he knew that The Post was aware of this, too, and would see to it that we all go to prison for obstruction of justice just as soon as he became president.
In such cases, reasoning is useless. These callers are like the patient in medical literature who came to his doctor complaining of gastric distress and who was convinced, despite all reason, that it was caused by a frog in his stomach. Eventually, the doctor came up with a plan: He gave the man a powerful emetic, and as the patient was vomiting, the doctor slipped a frog into the bowl. The sufferer was elated; he declared his symptoms gone! But the next day, he returned with terrible news: The doctor had been just a little too late. A dozen baby frogs had hatched in his stomach and were hopping around.
And so, we simply take the complaints and let people talk. Most "tips" come as phone calls, some as e-mails, and some walk in the door. Here are a few received at The Post, as reported by my colleagues:
· "The postal inspector put sperm in my coffee."
· "Agents of the government keep breaking into my home while I am sleeping and are leaving stacks of quarters all over my bedroom."
What's so bad about that?
"They are also slowly poisoning me."
(This was a walk-in. Says the copy aide in the Fairfax bureau who handled it: "I didn't know what to do with this woman, but I knew that the Fairfax Metro news desk wasn't the place for her to get the help she needed. So I sent her downtown to the National desk.")
· "There's an ocelot in my attic."
· "Watch out for milk cartons. They have an electromagnetic field that can get you tracked. Also, only talk to dogs, because the other animals are not really very trustworthy."
· "Do you know Russell Simmons, the music mogul? He stole my identity and took over two clothing lines that I founded, and I'm going to get them back once I get out of this trailer park, where I am living with my father due to current financial problems. Also, my father sold my toy car collection without my consent."
· "Teddy Kennedy stole my panties."
Actually, I suppose, that one might be true.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.