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Defamation and what it did to me

tea-03The manager of the tea shop lied. She told the owner that I busted into the place, threatened employees, and made customers feel uncomfortable. I don’t remember any such thing. I was in the shop just twice and both times treated employees with respect, even shaking hands with a couple of them who smiled and said they were glad to meet me.

I had done some write-for-hire work for the manager, who we’ll call Melody. Actually, I did the work for a woman who had taken on the job and sub-contracted it out to me. Her name was Jane. Jane’s commission would be 10 percent of the final cost of the work. I saw it as a good deal. I needed the money at the time and was willing to put in the time and effort.

It was a big project. A general introduction to tea and its origins started the menu. After, I had to write a detailed menu of teas with information about each tea, the districts it came from, and taste characteristics. I had to describe the color and body of each finished brew, as well as justify the price, which sometimes reached $6 to $8 a cup. When I met with Melody, she said she was aware that Jane had sub-contracted the job to me. Melody said that she’d work with me directly to see the menu was done right. She said that money was no object and that she was willing to pay up to $1,400 for the work.

The job took several weeks and lots of research. I spent hours and hours at the computer, searching out the information I needed. Reference librarians gave me books about tea production methods and organizations that protected the appellations of the teas.

I read six or seven books and drank a lot of tea—white, green, oolong, and black. Melody had given me literally tens of samples of the teas I was to describe. I love tea, so I reveled in that part of the job.

When I completed the menu copy—forty pages covering something like 100 teas—and turned it over to Melody, I gave her an invoice for $1,200. I remember she took the menu and the invoice and said thanks. She would get with the owner and get me a check.

In the meantime, I interviewed for a position at a local publication. I had worked for the magazine’s owner before, and he and I were good friends. He had just struck out on his own and his publication was in its infancy. He was also friends with the owner of the tea shop. The shop advertised heavily in my friend’s magazine. My friend assured me after our interview that the job was mine. At the time, I had a well-paying job with a book publisher. As good as I was at editing books, the work didn’t suit me. I needed the magazine job and was happy I was going to have it.

But Melody must have been off the chain when she said she was willing to pay so much for what was basically a book about teas, their origins, and their prices. When the owner of the shop got my invoice, he called my magazine owner friend and said he wasn’t going to pay for the work. He thought the price was outrageous. At the same time, Melody had related a story to the shop owner of my abusiveness to his employees and customers. She said I came into the place, threatened and intimidated the employees and threw things around, notably a large metal trash can.

My magazine friend approached me and asked me about the veracity of the story. I was on the defensive. I assured him nothing of the story was true. He said he believed me but couldn’t afford to alienate the shop owner, too much money was at stake for his new magazine venture.

I was shocked. How could someone tell such stories about me? Why? The owner of the tea shop was incensed that I would charge so much for what he called a “simple menu.” There was no way he was going to pay that much. It was unheard of, he said through my editor friend, that a small business owner would be held hostage by a freelancer.

The idea of being held hostage was absurd. Melody already had the menu. I worked very hard as a professional to fulfill a task that Melody had described in great detail. When I handed her the menu, she read it carefully and told me she was happy with the outcome. Because of the story of my abuses, however, my magazine friend said that he had to rethink my entrée into his publication. There was no way the shop owner would advertise in the publication if I was on staff.

I suffered deep anxiety. I had been on the cusp of tending my resignation to a well-paying, sinecure of a position that I could have made a career of. But I was willing to sacrifice editing books for lower pay, lesser benefits, and insecurity, as no one was able to tell how long my magazine friend’s publication would last.

Now, with the accusations swirling around, my employment was on the line. Someone defamed me. I felt violated. I apologized to the magazine owner, saying that there must be come mistake. It wasn’t in my nature to abuse people, especially low-wage workers. I didn’t throw things around, no matter what Melody said.

Here’s the thing: I knew the tea shop owner well. I had worked for him in his previous venture in magazine publication. He should have known better about me. He had to support Melody, but how could he buy such stories? Surely, he would know that I wasn’t capable of the behavior she accused me of.

Melody didn’t speak a word of this to me. As far as I could tell, she was happy with the job. Our relationship had been cordial, professional. She was anxious to have a smart, complicated, and complete menu for discriminating customers.

From the moment the shop owner reported to my magazine friend the story of my alleged bad behavior, Jane, who originally sub-contracted the job to me, became the point person. The shop owner and Melody would only deal with Jane. I was left out of the loop altogether.

Jane became pedantic and petulant. I gave you this job, she said, because I trusted that you would be able to do it. Why did you bust up the shop? Why did you have to ruin this? Obviously, she said, I overestimated you and your ability.

All sides assailed me. My editor friend withdrew his offer of employment. Jane berated me, after all, wasn’t she losing money on this too. The shop owner decided he wasn’t going to pay for the work. Melody changed her story as she went along, constantly embellishing the story of my behavior in the shop. She also said the menu didn’t live up to her expectations and was disappointing.

Where could I turn? I spent three weeks of my life on that menu. I had done the research and written the best prose I could. Now, not only was I to lose the job I wanted but the shop owner was not going to pay for the menu he now held in his hand.

I’m not good at intrigue. I was basically an innocent, a guy stuck in the middle of something he couldn’t understand. After years of thinking about this incident, which still stings some 15 years after it occurred, I think that what happened is this: Melody worked in a new business. She was hired for her expertise in managing complicated restaurant operations. She had grand designs for her new enterprise and was given what she thought was free rein to do what she thought was best.

Then she handed the shop owner a bill for $1,200. He was a well-known tightwad. Melody never told him that she said she was willing to pay over $1,000 dollars for a complicated, if impressive document that told the story of the teas she was selling. The owner thought that the menu should be simple, to the point, and cheap. To cover her ass, Melody made up a story that got her off the hook. It also relieved the shop owner. He could justify paying less than what the writer, me, wanted for his work, perhaps nothing at all.

In the end, through Jane, the owner said he was willing to pay me $150. To get that, I would have to sign a legal document that stated I would not sue the shop in the future for any work I had done for it, real or imagined.

I was humiliated. I knew, of course, that I didn’t do what Melody accused me of, but I lost a job over it. I spent a good deal of my time and expertise on a project I wasn’t getting paid for. I’d been accused of heinous things that I couldn’t prove I didn’t do. Nothing but heartache and woe came out of the deal. I was nearly broken because of it.

To get my head straight again, I volunteered for a social services agency for six months. The only way I know to get away from problems that plague me, and in this case, most of the problem lay in my head, was to do something good for someone else. After just a few weeks at the social services agency, my head began to clear. The memory of the trauma I went through still ached but didn’t debilitate me as it did when it was fresh.

And the tea shop owner did use the menu I gave Melody, every word of it. The menu wound up exactly as Melody had described it to me—laminated pages in binders, a complete run down of the teas the shop sold.

All these years later, I wonder how different my life would have been had I gotten that editor’s job. I might have stayed in journalism and never gone on to Ph.D. work. If I stayed in journalism, would I have wound up out of work and desperate for any writing job as many of my journalist friends have in the days of digital media? Might I have figured out how to make it in the Internet Age or would I have gone on to something completely different?

Fortunately, my magazine owner friend in still in business. He has struggled, and we have remained friends, despite the difficulties surrounding the tea shop. The shop owner sold his business a few years ago and moved out of town. I don’t know where he is and don’t care.

And where are Melody and Jane these days? Did their lives turn out the way they thought they would? Where would they have been if Melody had taken the menu and paid for it just like she said she would? Does Melody still make up stories to relieve her of her mistakes? Does Jane still sub-contract out complicated jobs she doesn’t want to do?

I don’t care about them, though I do wonder sometimes if Karma really exists. More important, however, is that I have to leave this incident behind me. It plagues me at night sometimes, when it comes up out of the cloud of thought to sting like a sweat bee. It’s nothing painful, just a prick, an irritation that I don’t need anymore.

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One Comment

  1. Sometimes what seems bad, causes the good in life. Enlightening and uplifting story about meeting adversity with positive action.

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