The Breaking Point
By John Schulian
As much as I detested how Murdoch had cheapened the Sun-Times, I kept pushing myself to write the best column I could. For a while, I might even have succeeded. But things were too different and too weird for someone as irascible as I am to keep his mouth shut for long. The paper’s new editor wanted to cut a wide swath in Chicago society, and his wife was just as pathetic and desperate for the spotlight as he was. The new sports editor was a young dolt who seemed to spend most of his time sniffing around a pretty copy clerk. I’d worked for a string of first-rate sports editors before he showed up, guys who wouldn’t have hired him to fetch coffee, and here he was acting like he knew something.
One day he made the mistake of asking what I thought of the changes Murdoch’s infidels had made to the paper. When I told him, he looked like I’d hit him between the eyes with a sack of wet brownies. I’m sure he scampered off to let his bosses know that I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s the way they operated. I’m surprised we weren’t required to take a loyalty oath.
It’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one at the Sun-Times who loathed Murdoch and his henchmen. But people needed a paycheck. They had families, mortgages, bills. They needed the work. And if the people they worked for were a bunch of bums, so be it. They would soldier on and hope for a better tomorrow.
I was one of them until I came home from covering the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles. I’d been fighting a virus for weeks and I felt like dog meat. But I’d never called in sick in Chicago and I wasn’t about to start now. It was a Friday and I went to Wrigley Field and interviewed Ryne Sandberg, who was having his breakout season with the Cubs. Then I came back to the office to turn the interview into my Sunday column. It was noisy in sports, so I took refuge in the features department, which was empty except for two deskmen laying out the Sunday sports section. All was right with the world until this guy I’d never seen before walked up and started insulting me, saying my column wasn’t any good and I was overpaid. It turned out that he was a features editor who’d been imported from Murdoch’s paper in San Antonio. Maybe the editors there could get away with acting like drill instructors and prison guards, but this was a first for me.
I should have just hauled off and hit the son of a bitch. But I’d been ambushed. I was stunned. On top of that, I was so weary and sick that I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed. It was all I could do to call him a weasel and a motherfucker and invite him to go to the editor who had decided to pay me all that money and get me fired.
The deskmen, both gentle souls, were gob-smacked, which, in retrospect, was the only amusing thing about this episode. I don’t think they realized their jaws were on their chests until Murdoch’s provocateur left and I finished my column and drove home to Evanston, about a half hour from the office. The longer I drove, however, the angrier I got. This was before cell phones so I had to wait until I walked I the door to call the office and ask if that mouthy prick was still around. He was. “Don’t let him go anywhere,” I said.
There are people who will tell you I went back to the office that night and punched him out. I didn’t. I realize this will come as a disappointment to both those who regard me as some kind of a hero and some kind of a lunatic, but it’s true. I’ve often wished that I had beaten the son of a bitch so badly that his unborn children felt it, but I’m not nearly that tough. Almost everything I’ve punched in my life has been inanimate. I do, however, have a temper, and I refuse to be bullied, and that’s why I returned with malice aforethought. But when I saw the guy for the second time, a voice in my head started saying, “You don’t want to go to jail, you don’t want to get sued.” Hardly the thoughts you associate with someone on the verge of violence, but there you have them.
I settled for calling the guy every kind of a gutless motherfucker I could think of, hoping he’d throw the first punch. But his mouth had written a check his ass couldn’t cash. He kept backing up, and just as he was about to turn and run, I grabbed him – one hand on his collar, one on his belt — and threw him over the nearest desk. He bounced once, as I recall. Then I walked around the desk, picked up him, and threw him back where I had found him. The only real satisfaction I got was the expression on his face. He looked like the noose had just been put around his neck and I was the hangman.
The next day, the sports editor called to say I’d been suspended me without pay. In doing so, the paper violated its contract with the Newspaper Guild, which said I was entitled to a hearing before any action could be taken. The Sun-Times responded by firing me. But the Guild fought the good fight in arbitration and I won a healthy settlement. It came on top of a different kind of reward from the people in the features department who had been bullied by the son of a bitch I bounced around. He had been making their lives a misery from the day he showed up. To them, I’d struck a blow for justice.
My wife was less convinced of my virtues. I didn’t blame her. I still don’t. I wasn’t easy to live with in those days. I was either on the road for work or at home raging about a computer that had crashed or a column I’d written poorly or a typo the copy desk hadn’t caught or . . . Jesus, I was a runaway train. The blow-up at the Sun-Times only added to my anger and my wife’s confusion and frustration. The strange thing was, we never argued. Maybe we should have. But my being fired was where our paths diverged for keeps. We divorced quietly, amicably, painfully.
For the rest of the summer, I rode my bike up and down the North Shore, from Evanston to Highland Park and back, always by myself. I had a million thoughts running through my head and no concrete plans. About the only person I saw on a regular basis was a big-hearted used-book dealer named Roger Carlson. He had a little shop in an alley in Evanston. It didn’t have any windows, so Roger had one painted next to his front door. The window looked in on a bookstore, and there on the shelves, alongside Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a book with a name on it that really didn’t belong there or, for the moment at least, anywhere else. My name.