Perhaps contrition, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.
I certainly hope so, because it took me a quarter century to apologize to Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air With Terry Gross,’’ for being rude to her.
And I was only able to finally clear my conscience and deliver my mea culpa to Gross in person — in a Broadway theater, of all places — because of an uncanny coincidence involving “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ in which Neil Patrick Harris is giving his final performance Sunday.
OK, perhaps I should explain.
Back in 1989, I was working as a copy editor on the Globe’s night news desk while freelancing features and theater reviews for the paper’s Living/Arts section. “Fresh Air’’ had gone national a few years earlier and was becoming increasingly popular in Boston. With her star on the rise, Gross seemed to warrant a profile, and I wanted to be the one to write it.
So I went down to Philadelphia, where I spent a delightful day with the host and her staff in their studio at radio station WHYY-FM. I found Gross to be every bit as smart and likable off the air as she was on it.
On the day my profile of her was published — May 22, 1989 — I reported to work at the Globe shortly after 4 p.m., expecting to spend the night copy-editing local and regional stories, as I usually did. To my surprise, I was told I was needed to work as the “slot’’ on the national-foreign desk. The slot acts as the last pair of eyes on stories, giving them a final read after they’ve been copy-edited, making changes or raising questions if necessary, and green-lighting or altering headlines before sending the story into type.
I had worked in the slot on the Globe’s metro side a few times, but never before on national-foreign. So I was a bit on edge about the large responsibility I’d just been handed.
I was right to be: It turned out to be a colossally busy night. About midway through my shift, while I was waist-deep in stories and deadline pressure already had me eyeing the clock, my phone rang. It was Terry Gross.
“I just wanted to thank you for that wonderful story,’’ she said in her warm and friendly voice. Feeling harried, mindful of the pile of news articles waiting to be slotted, and also feeling the typical journalistic discomfort at being thanked by the subject of a profile, I half-muttered, half-barked: “Yeah, OK, fine, can’t talk right now.’’
There was a puzzled silence on the other end of the line. “Gotta go,’’ I said, my tone making it clear we were done talking. “OK,’’ Gross said, sounding not just puzzled but a bit hurt.
Later, after deadline, I felt like banging my head against the Globe’s outer brick wall. However much pressure I was under when she called, surely I could have taken the time to be civil! Especially to someone who’d been so unfailingly courteous to me. What the hell was wrong with me? I resolved to just call Terry and apologize. But I didn’t. Why not? Who knows?
All I know is that my ill-mannered treatment of her started to gnaw on my conscience. I stewed about it. Not constantly, but the twinges of guilt were remarkably persistent for such a minor episode. It’s as if it had become a proxy for all the other gaffes and missteps I’d committed in my life and never got around to apologizing for. As the months passed, and then the years, I would wince when I’d hear Gross on the radio. The episode proved impossible to dislodge from my memory.
Believe me, I was aware of the multiple layers of absurdity involved. For one thing, I hadn’t exactly committed a capital crime. For another, Gross probably forgot about my rudeness 10 minutes after we hung up, and, for all I knew, about my very existence 10 minutes after that. But rationality seldom has the upper hand in these situations, does it?
‘As the months passed, and then the years, I would wince when I’d hear [Terry] Gross on the radio.’
“No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offence,’’ wrote Thomas Carlyle. Yes, sure, but it’s when you give inadvertent offense that you tend to lose sleep. The relationship breakup badly handled, the thoughtless quip tossed off at a party, the brusque treatment of a colleague in the middle of a busy workday: Those are the moments when we long for a do-over, even as life pulls us forward toward the next faux pas.
Today, the risk of inadvertent rudeness or misunderstanding may be higher than it’s ever been. We’re constantly tossing around observations, opinions, and wisecracks on social media. Our work lives have metamorphosed into a never-ending cross fire of hastily written e-mails. (My guilt about unreturned e-mails occupies its own special category.) We seem to be in a hurry every waking moment. And if the pace or stress of modern life, or simple human frailty, leads to a lapse in civility, you can end up — as I did — doing a private penance that is wildly out of proportion to the actual offense.
In early May of this year, I recounted the Strange Tale of the Guilt-Stricken Reporter to my friend and former editor Laura Collins-Hughes. Ever-pragmatic, Laura told me I ought to e-mail Gross and tell her the whole story. Good idea, I said. I should definitely do that. But deep down I knew I wouldn’t.
A couple of weeks later, on May 25 — almost 25 years to the day since I had essentially hung up on Terry Gross — I walked into the matinee performance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch’’ at the Belasco Theatre. I was seeing the production as part of my reporting for a pre-Tony Awards piece; Harris was favored to win a Tony for his performance in the title role, as indeed he did a couple of weeks later.
Because I was sitting a few seats in from the aisle, I kept having to get up to let others shoulder by me to their seats. A few minutes before the show began, an usher beckoned to me and others in my row, signaling that we had to stand up — for the fifth time — to let someone pass. I grew irritated.
“The death of a thousand cuts,’’ I grumbled loudly to the guy on my left. I did not look closely at the diminutive woman who slipped past and settled into the seat right next to me. But just before “Hedwig’’ began, I happened to glance over. Then I blinked in disbelief. Is that . . .? Can that possibly be . . .? Of all the matinees in all the theaters in all the world, she walks into mine? And sits two inches away?
For the next 100 minutes, even as Harris delivered a galvanizing performance as a transgender rock singer, I found my eyes frequently shifting rightward. Not since I was a point guard on my high school basketball team have I made so much use of my peripheral vision.
After “Hedwig’’ ended and we rose to our feet, I took a deep breath, turned to the woman and asked: “Excuse me, are you Terry Gross?’’ She said yes. I introduced myself. And then I blurted out the apology that had been percolating in my brain, on and off, since 1989.
Another puzzled silence. A politely quizzical smile.
But then Gross’s eyes lit up. “I remember that story!’’ she said. “That story was very important to us.’’ We chatted for a bit, and I repeated my bumbling apology for my bad manners on that long-ago night. She clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
Nonetheless, I stumbled out onto West 44th Street feeling as if I’d been granted absolution at last.
Now, however, as I think back on that moment when Gross was making her way to her seat in the theater, it occurs to me that I insulted her yet again. Surely she must have heard my snarky “death of a thousand cuts’’ crack.
Um, Terry? See you in another 25 years.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.