Early afternoon. My friend Larissa and I peer out the window of the office at the snowy ground of the Five-Minute Walk. She’s calm. I have to admit I’m a little nervous. We’re waiting for Richie Mehta to appear. His name might not be instantly recognizable, but it should be. It’s on the banners around campus. The Star talked to him in September about his new movie Siddharth at TIFF. Six years ago TIFF also listed his debut Amal in their top 10. Actually, Amal was my favourite movie for years.
A couple months ago I learned that Richie was also editor-in-chief of the Medium at the turn of the millennium. Today he travels all over the world. Feels kind of strange, filling the shoes he filled 13 years ago. I wonder if he was as good then as he is now, or if he felt as unsure about his creative future as I do.
We remember that the Student Centre’s doors are locked. We head down to let him in. As we do, he appears through the glass towards BikeShare. He’s wearing a hat with fuzzy earflaps and big green coat.
As the three of us climb the stairs again and sit across from each other on the Medium’s couches, I explain that we’re looking for his memories.
He looks around the office as he settles in. This prompts an obvious preliminary question. “What was the Medium like when you came to it?”
Richie pauses and nods. “The Medium, when I came to it, was more ragtag,” he says. “Because it was in the Crossroads Building.”
“So what’s under this right now, this shell, was the Crossroads. It was an L. And it was just open air—I mean, there was no court, no inside corridors; you’d walk into the next office from the outside.
“At the time we were already using computers, and Duncan Koerber was the editor-in-chief,” he goes on. “I only got a glimpse of that environment, but it was really committed, very professional, lot of jokers.” Professional jokers? I make a mental note to follow up.
Richie continues. “This was the late ’90s, so it was still on the heels of the non-technology days, doing everything yourself. And then when I came in after, they moved to the North Building cuz they were building the Student Centre. This didn’t exist; it was all under construction. So we had a temporary office. They took a chunk of that café in North and made a makeshift cement wall and they gave us a corner. And it was like half the size of this room. And there were no windows.”
“Probably always smelled like food, too,” I say.
“Oh, disgusting! It was Panzerotti Pizza. It was greasy pizzas.” Richie pauses to reflect. “I’d come in at like 8:30 in the morning, get my stuff, and leave at like midnight. So in winters I wouldn’t even see the day; I’d just be inside the building. But it was fun! I mean, at night we would run around the building. We worked our asses off, but it was really stuffy, in the winter especially.
“Actually, the wall they put up temporarily? I did a big mural of the Death Star. I painted it, since I was doing an art program. So it looked like we were looking out a window into space, and you could see Endor and the Death Star. It gave us something to look at. That wall was demolished in the summer, and some construction worker took away the Death Star piece…”
He looks wistful. I’d be too. I love Star Wars.
Larissa realizes that we need some more background. Richie explains that he came here in 1997 for art and art history. “At first I thought I’d go through art and then potentially through animation,” he says. “At the time there was a booming animation thing for Sheridan, and there was a post-grad program for computer animation, so I was like, ‘Well, okay, I’ll do a fine arts degree, and by the end of four years, I should hopefully have a good portfolio, get into animation.’ And then they introduced a post-grad film program of directing—and that was my end-goal, so I was like, ‘Why go into animation when the program I really want to go to now exists?’ ”
“So it was always about filmmaking rather than journalism,” says Larissa, and voices what was on both our minds: “What drew you to the Medium?”
Richie grins. “I remember the first day of Orientation, I walked into one of the lecture halls thinking, ‘This is going to be great. New people, a whole new life!’ I walk in and there’s a whole section from my high school. They were like, ‘Ayy! Richie! Come sit with us!’ I saw that and I was like, oh man. I love the group, but that’s not why I came here. It was time to expand my horizons.
“I was really involved in high school, clubs and sports and drama,” he goes on. “I started joining stuff, and I realized everything was just a variation on social gatherings. I said, ‘I feel like there’s no school spirit. It doesn’t exist within the confines of this environment, as a UTM thing.’ So when the Medium came along, I thought, ‘This is way for me to completely integrate into this environment, to really get to understand and know it.’ ”
Richie pauses. “I mean, there was school spirit in a few other pockets. Not amongst the people who came from commuting, right. Obviously, you go home at night and on weekends.”
Sad fact. Or maybe not. Hard to say.
“You said the Medium was ragtag when you came to it?” I ask. “What did you change during your time?”
“It was kind of evolutionary, because first I started writing in Crossroads, then North, then here. So we were moved around for three years. It wasn’t that there was any radical changes, it was just that it was happening on its own, settling into a new home.”
Just before I can press further and ask about the “professional jokers”, Richie starts up again. “When I was editor-in-chief, I just wanted to make sure it was running smoothly, because I had found something before that was disturbing to me. And this wasn’t just the Medium,” he says. “It was what I knew before and had seen across the student body. Often people get too involved in this stuff. When you graduate, you’re left in a bubble, because you haven’t been focussing on your own future. You’ve been getting too involved in the present of the student union, the campus, student politics, which snuffs itself out once you’re not involved. It has nothing to do with anything else, unless you’re going for a career in politics and it’s practice for you.
“You do your job and you do the best you can,” he says, “but you also don’t take it too personal. So I wanted to make sure the infrastructure was solid, but I also didn’t want to lose myself. Because things happen that piss you off and you want to get involved with. And I was like, ‘Hold on. My end goal is to make movies, to enter that world. I’m here to learn management skills and to learn how to write—and then back off.’ ”
That phrase “lose myself” sticks in my mind. As Richie talks, I let the iPad do the listening for a second and try to guess the story he’s thinking about. One sticks out in my mind from the 2000/01 year: the student union’s special projects director was given a $25,000 budget but failed to realize it and ended up neither organizing nor advertising half his scheduled events. I ask Richie if he remembers how the Medium ran a picture of the guy where it looked like he was taking a leak in the woods, and then he came up to the office and told Adam, the news editor, that they’d hear from his lawyers, and—
“…And I’m gonna beat the shit out of you and Richie!” Richie completes the quote for me from memory. “Yeah, he became angry with us. I mean, I don’t know where he is now, and I’m not here to slander him or anything, but there were a lot of students who didn’t really know what they were doing, and it was our job to jump on them and QC the whole thing,” he points out. “We would just use a prism of logic and say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ And if it requires us making fun of it, we made fun of it.”
I take it that’s the jokers part. I look over at Larissa and decide to voice one of my doubts.
“When we try to hold people accountable,” I start, “for the most part it’s us calling them on things and then them saying, ‘You shouldn’t have called us on that.’ And nothing follows from it. Should we become like a small-town paper where we say, ‘Here’s the nice things that are happening…’ ”
“No, no, no!” exclaims Richie.
“As a matter of principle, you have to call them out. Always, always, always call them out,” he continues. “Because even if what they’re saying is what they’ve always said and if nothing even comes out of it, no matter what, you guys will come out of here calling people on stuff forever. It’s a habit to develop as a person, and I’ve taken that out with me, to my service. I’m really, really glad I have that.”
He continues. “That’s another thing, is that we wanted to be creative. People would come in and say, ‘Why did you write this?’ And we’d be like, ‘Well, at least you read it.’ And that was our thing: what will it take to get people to read this and care? As long as it’s not libelous, what can we push just so people will read this, within the confines of truth?”
I nod and look down at my hands. It’s hard getting readers. Next year we might cut back on circulation. In Richie’s year there were several letters sent in per issue. In my year we’re lucky to get two a month. What am I doing wrong?
The conversation carries on. We talk about other things—how Richie learned to write, how Robert Price persuaded Richie to be the editor in the first place, what a weekend was like here at the Medium. Friday nights, says Richie, the staff would always go to Swiss Chalet for a couple hours “for a lark”. Larissa laughs and says that for us, articles have to be in by Thursday night. Richie tells us we must be thinking of the organized world. They were just holding on, barely…
But he clears his thought and qualifies the thought. “We got a kick out of it. It was just fun. But we had in fact cut it down significantly, cuz before me, when it was Rob and Duncan, they averaged finishing 3, 4, 5 in the morning on Sunday. Average. So when I came in I said, ‘I want to get home in decent time.’ I was actually the conservative of the group. So what you guys are talking about? Unheard-of.”
Before we can talk much more, Richie gets distracted by old headshots scattered on the table that we were sorting through. They happen to be from his era and he recognizes a few people. Erin Findlay, Robert Sabga. Friends and mentors.
“Oh my God,” says Richie. “Youssef.”
He holds up the picture.
“This guy is the funniest man I’ve ever known! Adam and I still talk about him. We talked about him yesterday. First day of school, we’re walking up to the South Building from the parking lot—we’d just met this guy, we didn’t know who he was—and there was a group of girls standing in the middle of the path. So Adam and I just kind of walked around; he walks right in the centre of them and stops. He says, ‘Hello, ladies. My name’s Youssef. I’m gonna be around.’ And every girl just ran in a different direction. And we’re like, ‘Did that just happen?’ Like, this is like a Rob Schneider movie: he’s the guy who nobody’s ever gonna like, and he has the most confidence for some reason.”
The interview wraps up. Our photographer isn’t here, so we have to take it. We get Richie to help us out, what with his being an expert.
Finally we pose him in the editor-in-chief chair. Here he looks professional again. I think about how our next source will have to be Robert Price, Richie’s last editor-in-chief. Larissa snaps a picture of the man. He looks thoughtfully around the office.
“This is so much cleaner, oh my God,” he says suddenly. “I do have photographs of our office at the time, and it was really messy. We used to play Frisbee a lot. At the opening of the Student Centre, they served food on Frisbee plates that said ‘Opening Day’, so we took a lot of those. We would just play sometimes when we needed to not sit and work. We got really good. Like, you’d be sitting there? Just right to you.”
We head up to the third floor of CCT. We’re on our way to see Robert Price. He’s now a professional writing instructor.
The office is cozy. It extends mysteriously to the right when you come in. Rob sits across from Larissa and me at his desk. The forest is visible in the window behind him, growing greyer.
The man introduces himself with the year he started at Erindale (“1995? I can’t remember”) and a disclaimer about some “really terrible” poems he wrote for the Medium (“and they published”). We came here expecting dry facts, but stories pour out. Rob called Richie a great storyteller, but I start to make out a more complex picture. Richie’s the idea man. Richie matches a memory to a maxim. Robert tells stories for their own sake. If something philosophical comes up, it’s because it fleshes out the story.
And the time passes quickly as he speaks, his pace measured, his tone sometimes affected, as if reading off a mental script but simultaneously writing it, intrigued by each new line. The stories he tells are great. There was the time the school got donors for turning the Crossroads Building into the Student Centre, but one donor had never signed anything and withdrew a million-dollar donation and the university dumped it on the students via a referendum. The Medium pounded the principal about it at a town hall, says Robert. “Where’d the million bucks go?” The artistic renderings of the Student Centre disappointed them, too. In all the pictures it was empty. Underneath one of the drawings they ran the caption, “Do you hear the lonely wind?”
Even when the building was completed, Robert and his team hated it. He looks at us across his desk and says it’s a horrendously ugly building. The first week, they were all high from fumes. They went to the workers and asked what was going on, and a worker said, “I don’t want to be quoted, but this building is a piece of shit. The quality of the workmanship and the materials is low-grade.” So Robert tells it.
I pipe up. “They had to repair that roof recently. You look at the shape, and it’s like snow and rain is designed to accumulate there.”
“It’s an award-winning roof! Don’t make fun of it,” Rob cuts in. “That award-winning roof, there was a bunch of people who didn’t want the Student Centre built. We got us all together, we went up onto the roof and then we urinated on it. That roof is like one big urine trough, that’s what it is. And so christened that roof, and then we went and urinated through the ocular.” And then he wrote about it in his weekly satirical column, “Life at the Centre”.
Another beef was with Radio Erindale. They didn’t broadcast. They were a radio station without a signal. “They actually had a line, like a Rogers cable, and they were broadcasting in Manitoba for a while,” he says. “Shut it down!” He compares it to a players’ den: nice couches, soundproof walls. Bring your girl, light a candle, smoke up, listen to music. The Medium blasted them week after week. But he concedes they got their act together, eventually.
Muckrakers, he calls his team. Chasing after scandal was fun. Given the keys to an office, a budget, and a newspaper they could do anything they wanted with, they pursued the news mercilessly. Like the ball hockey fights that would break out in the Meeting Place, a league that got out of hand with racism and violence on a campus that was all about ball hockey. Then the university stepped in and shut it down for a time. “Take the ball hockey league, shoot it in the head. There’s a lesson to all of you.” They wrote open letters to the principal making fun of his eyebrows. They followed the “clowns who have no clue what reality is, and they run for student council”—he’s referring to a couple of candidates who ran on the promise of giving away half their salaries to fund student bursaries, but conveniently forgot after they were elected. Every week the Medium ran their picture with an empty thermometer labelled “The Baghai/Oliveira Scholarship Fund”. One of them apologized in the end. Never gave away any money.
Their attitude earned them flak. Once, a certain Patrick Scantlebury—I’m amazed Rob remembers his name—observed that although student fees to the RAWC had gone up, the equipment was still ratty. Rob got a call from the athletics director, saying, “Patrick’s writing a letter; I don’t want you to run it. He doesn’t like me.” So he ran it, and she got mad. She called Rob and his sports editor to her office, and “She bitched us out.” Solution? Rob ran a story about the meeting. And they reprinted Patrick’s letter in case readers forgot it. Then someone named Mike came up to the office and told them, “You shouldn’t question what the administration is doing.” So they made a cartoon about him. A common retort was drawing enemies with small penises. “We had letters from morons who thought we should behave,” says Robert, a hand going thoughtfully to his chin. “I thought that was a compliment.”
I take all this in with amazement. Larissa says she has to go—her ride is here—and the interview, a mess of stories in my mind, twisting and turning into each other, feels like it’s going to wind up. But how? How did the paper not crash and burn? Everything I was taught had to do with…
“Professionalism?” snorts Robert. “I hope I wasn’t professional when I was at the Medium. The news was hard-hitting and we followed stories, which is a virtue: we kept coming back to the Student Centre story and the ball hockey fights constantly. So that’s the Medium’s job. You aren’t professional. I don’t care. If you look at the bottom underneath the editorial, there’s the blurb. It was written in four-point font. We would talk to each other in the blurb. I think some of the best writing was there. You know, like ‘The Medium plays Les Paul air guitars exclusively.’
What’s the point of professionalism?” he continues. “Being neutral? Telling both sides of the story? I guess so. That’s what they say. In the news world. But you can’t be objective. And some people need to be humiliated on this campus. Sometimes you need to punch someone in the face.”
The argument is compelling. He goes on to compare professionalism to wearing white gloves. He mentions the mornings after pub night when he’d see two of his staff cuddling on the couch, having gotten wasted, sleeping there all night, breaking wind. On Sunday they turned on the Mighty Q and had wrestling matches. There were a couple all-nighters, he says. There were a lot. Usually by choice.
“We came together,” he resumes. “We had some harmless guys and meditative people, guys who were really well-versed in journalistic ethics, who’d spend time reading books. There was a good institutional memory that I think is lost. Like, there was a guy who stole a bunch of money—our business manager stole seventeen grand from us. It broke my heart. You can quote me on that, it broke my heart.”
He pauses and reflects. Larissa has already left. The sky is dark outside his window. The day is over.
“If I had my choice for the Medium of my era to remembered as the Globe and Mail or Mad Magazine, I’d choose Mad Magazine. I think it’s smarter,” he says.
Smarter. It’s hard to argue, considering he’s now a professor at the same campus of which he was a watchdog. Heck, so is his own editor-in-chief, Duncan Koerber, now teaching writing at York.
“And I also say that the Price-Koerber dynasty is the high point of the Medium,” are the last words I remember from the interview. “No offence, it was awesome.”
Those words ring in my head as I return to the office, carrying an iPad laden with an hour of recording. The high point? Can we ever define a high point? Am I jealous? Or is cleanliness a good thing? Washing your hands of it? I remember a friend who stopped giving interviews to the Medium because he felt he’d been misquoted. I know what Rob would say—there’ll always be a few bloodied noses.
I shake my head. I know that’s not me. I have to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s not a matter of choice. And I think of Richie’s quote again—the one about not getting too involved, never leaving.
But here’s to the dynasty.