A Tort To Extort

The old man looked sad. He wasn’t aware anyone was watching him. I had heard about his story from my neighbour, The Bloke. The old man is related to The Bloke through marriage. Like a potato vine, it would be hard to explain how they are connected in a few words, so I shan’t bother. As the old man sipped his cappuccino, he held the ear of the cup with his pinky finger sticking up in the air. In the old days, he would have been called a ‘sissy’; worse still, if he were in Victorian times, it would indicate to those around him that he had syphilis. Today, his extended pinky would convey that he was simply snobbish, if not a touch feminine. I could hear his stomach wamble even though he was at the next table. Maybe he was still on IF, intermittent fasting. A sun beam came through the glass window, shining on him like a spotlight. His hair was mainly hoary with the black ones fighting a losing battle. The glabella was typically that of a Chinese, clean of hair and well-defined. The light on his face had a pinky hue to it or maybe his face just had that healthy glow about it. His columella nasi was more on the red side, hinting that he had been blowing his nose, either too frequently or too harshly. I hoped he did not have Covid. He kept his hair long and had them swept behind his right ear; had it been his left ear, it would have exposed the deformity caused by a childhood accident. The sun must have been moving fast, as its beam suddenly hit my eyes and forced them to shut tightly. The phosphenes were still dancing in my mind as I tried to look away. His stubble was unusually neat but they still served their purpose and made him look rugged, if not masculine.

I gave him a fake smile as our eyes accidentally met. He misread my smile as genuine, and got up from his seat. No, no, don’t come over, I wished. I realised he was no mind reader as he walked over unsteadily, pulling up his loose blue jeans to his waist.

“Hey, how are you?” he asked. Without waiting for my answer, he mentioned how nice it was to see the sun out that morning. But, there was no chirpiness in his voice. He sounded like a dysania sufferer as he started complaining about how hard it was for him to get up off his bed most mornings. “I actually only got up early today because I was hoping to meet a friend here,” he said.

“Oh, ok, in that case, I should let you go back to your table,” I said, flashing another unwelcoming smile.

“No worries, he may not even turn up,” he replied, as he pulled out a chair on his side of my table. Gesturing him to sit, I asked if he would like a drink. To my surprise (ok, ok, to my shock, actually), he said, “Sure, why not. I’ll have another cappuccino.” A handsome waiter caught sight of my raised hand and briskly walked over.

“Can we have two cappuccinos please?” I asked, after I clicked my tongue. “And oh, can you swap this fork for me? It has some dried stuff on its tines,” I said, trying my best not to sound displeased with their tardiness.

The old man shook his head after the waiter had retreated out of view. “It’s like this everywhere; even the professionals are sub-standard these days,” he said. I nodded my head in agreement. It was a mistake. He took it as an encouragement to fire off a salvo of disparaging remarks about almost every profession under the sun. Oh, why must I endure this? My mind was working overtime as I looked for an excuse to disentangle myself from the toxic conversation. Damn. Why did I order another coffee? Otherwise, I could come up with an easy excuse to leave right now. I kept cursing myself until the handsome waiter returned with a tray containing our order.

“They are modern-day gangsters,” the old man said.

“Huh?” I asked, quite taken aback that my mind had wandered off and missed much of the man’s ranting. “Sorry, can you just say that again?” I said sheepishly.

“Gangsters. All of them,” he said, as he fidgeted in his seat; his bum failing to find a comfortable position on the chair. So, I tried to change the subject and told him a joke I had heard from a friend earlier in the week.

“Yeah, gangsters in the crypto markets too,” I said, hoping he did not catch me dozing off when he was speaking earlier. So, I continued with my joke. “Do you know what a Bitcoin investor said when I asked if he was worried about the prices falling?” The investor replied, he’s worried but he sleeps like a baby. “Wow,” I said, showing surprise. He explained, “Yeah, like a baby; I sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up, cry a lot and then sleep again for a short while but I cry a lot when I am awake again.”

The old man did not laugh. My joke fell flat on him somehow. And then, I found out why.

“It’s not funny, I am down 70%,” he said, looking decidedly a lot sadder.

Not knowing how to change the subject, I simply said, ” Talking about a baby’s cry, I learned a new word this week. Vagitus. Any idea what the origin of the word is?” I asked, wondering if it had somehow to do with a vagina.

“Anyway, I was talking about gangsters,” the old man said abruptly, looking slightly miffed. He started telling me his father’s story. By the time he finished, I was ready to leave. But, he caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more coffees even after I said I was fine. His father was a small business owner in Penang who ventured out into coconut plantations and rubber plantations in the 50s and 60s. But, his small success caught the attention of the triads. One day, they knocked on his door and told him to follow them to a kopi-tiam (cafe) nearby. The gangsters ordered many rounds of drinks and food and left his dad there to pay for the bill. They made it clear to him that it was to be a weekly “get-together” to keep everyone happy.

Fully absorbed in his story, I said, “Bloody hell, that’s extortion!” But, that is what gangsters do. I had watched enough movies to know that. The Godfather. Scarface. Peaky Blinders. All with pretty much the same theme. From bootlegging to avoiding the Prohibition to prostitution and illegal gambling and selling drugs, but right through all that, there is always extortion.

” A gangster equals extortion,” I said in full agreement.

The old man then pulled out a sheet of A4 paper which was folded neatly into a small square. From the griffonage, he read out to me his notes from a recent meeting with his lawyer. After he finished his story, he placed his notes on the table. All I could discern from where I sat was the frequency of interrobangs used on the sheet, some large, some smaller, but all in thick and bold style. He paused and looked directly into my eyes. At that moment, I felt his sadness. The despair in his eyes seemed to reflect the eyes of a cow being herded into an abattoir. He took a deep breath and stared into space. Faintly shaking his head, he muttered something under his breath, briefly forgetting I was there. The busy twitching around his eyes and the involuntary jerky movements of his right shoulder hinted at his stress levels. Poor guy, I said silently to myself.

His story was one about a modern-day gangster. Dressed in the finest woollen suit, with matching shiny and pointy Italian fashion shoes, pure leather, of course. Well-groomed, impeccably presented, incredibly well-educated and well-spoken, and importantly, thoroughly verified and certified by one of the most prestigious institutions on the land, the Bar Association.

“Today’s gangster is a lawyer,” the old man told me.

The old man is a small business owner selling car accessories online. Almost two months ago, he received a letter from a big international law firm accusing him of intellectual infringement. The law firm claimed the old man’s business sold counterfeit floor mats by passing off them as original equipment products made by the carmaker that they represent. They claimed that the infringing conduct had caused loss and damage to the carmaker and given the flagrancy of the conduct, they were seeking a very significant award of additional damages over and above the loss of profit from the sale of said products. Amongst many other demands, the lawyer required all sorts of detailed information about the operations of the business, the customers’ information and demanded that the business send a customer recall letter to all customers requesting them to return the floor mats for a full refund and issue a public apology for those fraudulent activities. The lawyer also wanted the old man to pay for six months’ corrective advertising declaring his admission to selling counterfeit products and apologising for such conduct. Otherwise, and without further notice, the lawyer would institute proceedings in the Federal Court.

“Shit, that’s so scary! That would give me sleepless nights,” I said, displaying an insensitivity that was foreign to me. I was upset with my own thoughtlessness. Belatedly, I felt the jarring regret that I had further increased the old man’s anxiety by speaking words that had not dwelled long enough in my head. “But, you have nothing to worry about if you did not sell counterfeits,” I tried unsuccessfully to soothe his worries.

“I made a terrible mistake,” the old man said. “My own lawyer was also a gangster,” he spoke shakily.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I went to my lawyer’s office; being respectful, I dressed appropriately,” he said. “But, my lawyer was wearing an oversized cardigan and sloppy jeans. He apologised for his casual wear.” The old man had foolishly portrayed himself as a successful businessman in an expensive coat. His suede dress shoes caught the lawyer’s attention as the hard soles noisily enhanced his footsteps. “A day later, my lawyer increased his estimated fees by almost double,” the old man said.

The old man told them, very clearly and succinctly. Those floor mats were obviously advertised as after-market products, made to suit specific models of the carmaker. They were made by a family business in Sydney and branded as such, with the local company name, not the carmaker’s name. But, the law firm would not accept the facts laid out by the old man. So, he was left with no choice but to employ a local law firm to represent him. As a matter of principle, he would not be forced to make an admission of guilt that would destroy the reputation of his business, one that he had built up from the late 80s. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” the old man said. He told me he was forced to defend himself in the tort case when he had done absolutely nothing wrong. “Is that justice?” he asked. Even if he went to court and won, he would be out of pocket by many tens of thousands of dollars. “We never fully recover the legal costs, and that is only recoverable if we can get to the end of the hearing and win. Most of us will run out of money well before then,” the old man said and let out a long sigh. The carmaker’s lawyer wanted him to admit guilt and pay the settlement sum of $30,000. A simple demand to be met, an offer he can’t refuse. Or else. So simple. A carmaker client with deep pockets vs a small insignificant business. The small business owner knew he could ill afford to go to court, the court fees would cripple him. This was a simple case for the lawyer. Accept his offer, and pay him $30,000 or go to court and fight the case. Either way, he wins a big fee from a rich client. “A tort to extort,” said the old man.

How did you go broke? Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.

Ernest Hemingway
A long winter beckons for the old man. A crypto winter and a lawsuit.

“Let’s take a walk,” I said. As Lucius Seneca once said, we should take a walk outdoors so that our minds are refreshed by the open air and deep breathing. Whenever we need to do anything important, take a walk. Need to call your lawyer, take a walk. Need to borrow money, take a walk. Feel like arguing with The Mrs, take a walk. Your dog needs exercise, take a walk. Feeling lethargic, take a walk. Have to be creative, take a walk. Need a good solution to your problem, take a walk. Eager to buy Bitcoin, take a walk, and after that you are still sure to buy Bitcoin, take a walk again.

It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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