By Michael Hingston
Here’s how it happened.
For a few months, there were distant rumblings on campus that the Metro, a free daily that had been blanketing the Greater Vancouver area with pulpy, celebrity-strewn tumbleweeds of new garbage for over a year, had plans to expand its circulation to Burnaby Mountain. The thing was shockingly well-read. Discarded copies pooled by the dozens in back corners of buses and SkyTrains, and even though you were never more than an arm’s length away from one, the company employed dozens of charmless thugs in ink-stained aprons to stand on street corners and shove them at anyone who might walk, jog, or rollerblade past. These guys all fit the same basic type: forest-green toque and comic book stubble, with the charisma and silhouette of a refrigerator. They’d swat a coffee out of your hand with a rolled-up copy, then press that same copy into your palm on the backstroke, still warm. Already holding one? No problem: they’ll shove a Metro inside another Metro. It wasn’t uncommon to be waiting to cross the street somewhere downtown and all of a sudden get punched in the stomach — you double over, winded, reaching for your sure-to-be-missing wallet, only to come face to face with a mixed-metaphor headline and stock photo of a slightly frightened-looking Jennifer Aniston. The attacker, meanwhile, would already have his back turned. “Free Metro.” He wasn’t asking.
So far the Burnaby campus had been immune, for the same reason it would have also shrugged off Noah’s flood: it had the higher ground. SFU, Arkless Since 1965. While it was nearly impossible for students to get decent take-out delivered up the mountain, the commute also scared off most unwanted solicitors. As a result, the Peak, Simon Fraser’s official student newspaper, enjoyed a near-total monopoly. Its only rivals were technicalities: a sporadically published newsletter by and for business students called the Buzz!, and an Asian-specific pamphlet that, despite impressive distribution numbers, not one person had ever been seen reading.
But now it looked like the Metro was making a real play for a presence at SFU. Rick, the Peak’s business manager and resident grown-up, heard through one of his mysterious channels that the daily would be setting up a booth at Clubs Days, complete with banners and confetti. There’d be an entire squad of fresh-faced excitables wearing headbands and green jumpsuits, fully ready to chat up passersby and cartwheel for a paycheque. If things went well there — and really, how could they not? — they’d leave dozens of shiny green Metro boxes in their wake, scattered down the mountain like breadcrumbs, each to do circulation battle with the lopsided, splinter-friendly Peak display stationed next to it. Apron-clad meatheads wouldn’t be far behind.
The Peak had two major things to fear from this new competition. One was advertising. Ad dollars were scarce to begin with, and the Metro was sure to take a significant chunk of them without even counting the shadowy clout that came with having successful franchises installed in seven other unwilling Canadian cities. Let’s say a campus business wanted to get the word out on their product, but disagreed with a certain student-operated paper’s occasional policy of running full-frontal male nudity beside all the ads. So far they had no alternative. But the Metro staked its reputation on being wholesome, or at least some hall-of-mirrors facsimile of it. It had been thoroughly market-tested and focus-grouped in all literate demographics. It didn’t have any penis quotas, anyway, and sometimes that’s enough.
The second problem was Sudoku. The Metro had it; the Peak didn’t.
At that week’s editors’ meeting, this very issue was under discussion.
“We could get it. We could totally get it. I know a guy.”
“You don’t know anyone.”
“Is someone taking minutes? We need to be writing all this down.”
“And check this out, right? We’ll make it even harder. Bam. Instant victory. Beat them at their own game.”
“You’re all wrong. People don’t want it to be harder. They can barely be fucked as it is. They just want something to stare at on the bus — something to doodle overtop of while they’re on the phone. Plus it’s already impossible. You ever try it?”
“No. But then again I disagree with the whole idea in principle. Word searches and math have no business in bed together in my personal opinion.”
“You mean in a dresser drawer together.”
“Just sevens and ones all over the goddamned place.”
“See, I can’t do anything past intermediate. There’s too much to juggle in your head. I get all dizzy.”
“Because Sudoku is Japanese.”
“Oh, the ones I do are scaled: 1-5. My favourite is 3. It’s okay. Totally doable.”
“Do you buy the books? I saw the New York Times guy has his own line, but I don’t think his heart is really in it.”
“Did anyone see that documentary about him?”
“And Japanese people live in small houses.”
“Hey! How about a crossword? That would be easier.”
“Sure, why not.”
“Will Shortz, motherfucker!”
“The first obvious question is what the dimensions should be. With black spaces, or the more economic Harper’s model? Cryptic or standard? Are themes allowed? What do we think?”
“Come on guys, seriously. This is important. The minutes . . . ”
“We should have someone look into potential ink savings re: no blacked-out units. Pull some quick data together. Venn diagrams.”
“Hey. Everyone. Hey: I really don’t care about any of this.”
“I’m okay with that, as long as we don’t use any of those answers that keep getting recycled every other day. No iota, no aorta. Definitely no eerie. Or with just one e. Like the lake. Shameless vowel-grabs, the lot of them.”
“It also works because you could keep a puzzle book in a drawer really easily. That’s like its house.”
“Do you want to go outside and smoke until this is over?”
“Yes. More than anything.”
“Hi all. Sorry I’m late.”
“What’d I miss?”
“Not word fucking one, believe you me.”
“Where would we even put a Sudoku? Like what section?”
“I say humour.”
“Whoa, whoa. Slow it up now. All of you can go right to hell. It’s the humour section — as in, jokes only. Don’t dump your excess baggage on me just because I’m at the back with the classifieds. No word jumbles, no horoscopes. I’m not the diversions editor or whatever the fuck.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Sure. Yes. Sports. It’s a mental workout. Cerebral crunches. Chin-ups for the soul. Put it in sports.”
“Not a hope, chief. I’ll stonewall you.”
“Or opinions. Give it its own column. Maybe It’s Just Me, by Sudoku Puzzle. S. Puzzle for short.”
“If I really picture myself smoking hard, my brain will release some sweet, sweet endorphins. I’ll clench my fists.”
“Would we have to pay this Sudoku guy?”
“Yeah. And who is he, anyway?”
“I should say that he’s never actually made one of them before. But he’s been meaning to for, like, forever. He’s a stand-up dude. A real think tank.”
“Are you related to this person?”
“I bet I could smoke ten cigarettes at once. Someone dog dare me.”
“If nobody takes minutes we’re never going to remember this for next week. Can someone find the Spider-Man binder? I’ll do it. I have a pen.”
“Okay, I changed my mind, you guys. We can put Sudokus in the humour section, guys, as long as I get to make them myself. Hand-drawn. Full page. And we’ll save time, too, because they’ll be unsolvable. Just never print the answers.”
“It never . . . none of this is procedural.”
“Also they’ll be in Comic Sans.”
“You use that for everything.”
“That’s because it is a perfect font.”
“Ugh. It should be illegal to use if you’re over 11 years old. You should automatically be registered as a sex offender.”
“Smoke, smoke, smoke, smoking.”
“Who put this popsicle in the microwave?”
“Don’t touch that. I’m using it.”
Nearly everyone was there. The Peak employed 11 editors (production, copy, news, associate news, opinions, features, arts, sports, humour, web, photos) and, in what was assumed to be vague homage to the school’s heavy-left political beginnings, no editor-in-chief. Section editors dictated their own content, and disputes were solved by a show of hands, passive-aggressive e-mails, and the occasional secret ballot.
So they sat, equals, on itchy couches around an old wooden coffee table that was spray-painted purple from three redesigns ago, and talked about the bigger task at hand. They decided something had to be done. Action had to be taken. Someone made coffee. That was a start. They all agreed that the Metro’s move should be viewed as a direct assault on their autonomy, and that the Student Society should have already taken swift action to keep them at bay. A manifesto was immediately proposed, to unanimous yahs and whistles. Papers were swept off of desks. Excessively long pens were drawn. Three people called the state of affairs an abomination. The perpetually red-faced sports editor announced he “wasn’t going to take this lying down.” As he said this, he stood up.
“We need gumption,” he said. “We need hustle. We need to see the whites of their eyes, and give ‘em ten barrels of hell. Now’s no time to keep our stick on the ice.” The sports editor was small and squat, with suspenders and an impossible-looking moustache. He held eye contact with the intensity of someone bound and gagged in a car trunk.
“The thing that gets me is, they can’t just come up here and tell SFU students what news is,” said the news editor. “That’s our job.” She would know, having worked there for longer than anyone else could remember. She had a habit of citing arcane policies and protocols for which no written record existed. Nobody knew what she studied, but her hair showed constant signs of being chewed on, like she was forever on the brink of some oral presentation or cumulative exam. “We know this campus. It’s our beat. We know what our readers want.”
“Totally. And I see where you’re going with that. For example, I spent all last night Photoshopping pictures of dolphins playing Connect 4. I’m willing to donate my work for the cause.” This was the humour editor: eater of pizza and lifelong critic of the Peak until he found out he could get weekly free pizza and a warm place on campus to sleep off his drinking.
“Look,” the news editor said. “We need to send a message. This kind of behaviour will not stand. Okay? It simply will not.”
“I wish we could just tell them to eff off,” one of the younger editors, a 2nd year, said from the back.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “It’s actually sort of mean, if you think about it. Why would they come here just to wreck everything for us on purpose? We’re just trying to have fun.”
The news editor muttered, “Some of us are here for something bigger.”
“As if anyone’s going to read their stupid paper.”
“Eff right off, that’s what I say.”
“Yesterday their front-page story was Boy Loses Tricycle.”
“Ridiculous, I know.”
“Does anyone know if he found it? That story was such a cliffhanger.”
The news editor snapped her pencil in half. It was mechanical.
“That’s because they’re just awful writers,” the features editor, another veteran, said. “Pure and simple. They wouldn’t know an inverted pyramid if they went on vacation to inverted Egypt.”
The humour editor sat up, sensing a riff. “They wouldn’t know a lede if . . . they were . . . winning a race!” As the words left his mouth, his face screwed up like he’d licked a battery. “Shit. I’ll get it. It’ll come back.”
“Plus they only have one writer in the whole place doing news,” said the copy editor from another corner. “Have you looked at their bylines? One guy does all of the city stuff and compiles the national and world sections. What a tragedy. Mack Holloway, the loneliest man in newspapers.”
“Egypt . . . ” mumbled someone from the back. “Oh! An inverted sphinx!”
“Shot in the face by an inverted Napoleon!”
“Yeah,” sighed the humour editor, painfully. It was easy to mistake his lowbrow taste for a complete lack of standards, but that simply wasn’t true. He hated watching perfectly good, relatively unstepped-on material burn to the ground, unless of course he got to light the rag. “That’s the same joke a few more times,” he said. “Good. Anyone else?”
“He was super young.”
“Like six or seven, I heard. Baby pharaoh and shit.”
“You guys remember when Geraldo Rivera did that TV show where he opened his tomb? I was just watching it on YouTube a few days ago. It was crazy, this super big ratings thing, but then it just turned out to have some broken bottles in it.”
“In elementary school I had to do a project on Egypt. I drew the raddest sphinx head for the title page.”
“Actually, that’s a lie. I totally traced that shit.”
“Didn’t they have a goddess called Isis? Goddess of . . . grain. Or sleep. Sheep?”
“Isis! That’s another banned crossword clue.”
“But I traced the fuck out of that shit.”
“Or those snakes that live in baskets.”
“Hold on: did they find it or not?”
“I think they did.”
“Yeah, yeah. There was a thing about it on the news.”
“So where . . . ?”
“On a bus someplace. They put out an amber alert, and no problem. Totally found — what was he, Mexican.”
“Mexican? What does that even mean?”
“Amber alerts are for missing children.”
“Yeah. What are you guys talking about?”
“Why would he bring his tricycle on the bus? Someone should abduct that retard again.”
“So what do we do?” asked the features editor, trying to bottle the stray conversations by talking overtop of everyone else. “I mean, literally what do we do next?”
The strategy seemed to work; he felt several eyes doing a slow pan toward his corner of the ratty wool couch.
“We draft it,” someone offered. “The manifesto.”
“Might I suggest something either dolphin or Connect-4 related?” the humour editor asked, tipping an imaginary hat to the group. “I have an image we could u-u-u-s-s-e-e-e . . . ”
“Okay, first of all, I really don’t think we should actually use the word manifesto,” the features editor said. “Makes us sound like douchebags, don’t you think?” He looked around and saw he did not speak for the room. A few eyes started to stray back to their former positions. “Never mind. Does anyone here know how to do this? Has anyone done it before? What are we basing it on?”
“Nah, fuck all that,” someone said from the back, eventually. “It’ll come from the heart. You don’t need to look up the truth in a book. Don’t sweat it.”
“Right.” He rubbed his eyes in vigorous circles, pulling towards the inside corners every few seconds. “Okay. Sure. You new guys are great, by the way. Full of moxy.” Clapping his hands, he said, “Let’s go for it then. Who’s going to transcribe?” He looked toward the web editor, a scrawny, bespectacled kid. “You still got that pen handy?”
The rest of the meeting went smoothly. There was the usual housekeeping to attend to, and the outrage in the room sagged and slowly drifted away like a leaky parade float. Those with sections to edit wrote what they had that week onto a blackboard, while the others asked polite, disinterested questions and silently prayed they wouldn’t be tapped to pay for dinner. They made noodles and drank from gigantic aluminum cans of iced tea. The sports editor compared the bumbling football team to the Maginot Line, and chortled to himself about it. Page counts were negotiated, accompanied by much scratching of beards and ankles. Next week’s open house was discussed. The news editor was firm that ordering sushi was not how it was done — two platters of sandwiches and one bullet of Coke, Sprite, and Orange would be fine. What kind of Orange? “Crush. Obviously.” They didn’t take it to a vote. The manifesto was downgraded to a strongly worded editorial, and then again to an editorial cartoon, writer and artist TBA. The web editor, his pen no longer needed for revolutionary purposes, took careful notes in the Spider-Man binder. For posterity, he thought, nodding at the page approvingly. The cover story would be a feature on home brewing, unless something better came along at the last minute. The humour editor performed a freestyle rap about his favourite kinds of yogurt. Afterwards they all trickled back to their desks and hit refresh on blogs, news tickers, a Word document by accident, and email, email, email, like an itch.