The radio show host was running late, but he was trapped on the Metro.
On the airwaves, and during an interview last week, Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s comedic current affairs quiz show “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” comes across as an affable guy – not the type to rant at the manager of the Tysons Corner subway station. He gets paid, after all, to make people laugh.
The night before, he’d introduced José Andrés, the renowned D.C. chef, during a live taping of the Chicago-based show at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia.
Andrés “is known for recently going to Puerto Rico and giving out thousands of meals to hurricane survivors for free,” Sagal had said, “prompting everyone back home in D.C. to say, ‘Hey, the Metro flooded that one time, where’s our food?’”
But Metro can get the best of you sometimes, and you find yourself acting in a way that makes you need to apologize – though few do.
Sagal had one of those moments, as he hurried back from D.C. to his hotel in Tysons Corner.
Earlier, as he was leaving for D.C., he’d puzzled at the array of prices on the chart above the fare machine at Tysons, unsure how much to load on his SmarTrip card.
“Finally I said, ‘The hell with it,’ and picked some round number like $4,” Sagal said.
Which wasn’t quite enough.
When he got off at Tysons later, with a half-hour to get ready to leave for Wolf Trap, he fed the ticket into the machine and wondered why the gate didn’t open.
It began, “a series of events and increasing frustration,” he said.
“The sun was in an angle so you couldn’t read the display,” he said. He cupped his hand to shield the sun and saw he was 25 cents short.
“25 cents!” he said.
Metro announced plans last April to debut a mobile app this year that will let riders out of the gate with the tap of a smartphone. If you’re in a predicament like Sagal’s, you’ll be able to add money to the app with a credit card.
But there’s no app yet, so he went to the “ExitFare” machine before the gates, where riders with insufficient funds can add to their fare cards.
“Of course it doesn’t take credit cards,” he said, “even though the machine where I bought the card does take credit cards.”
He hadn’t noticed the machine says, “$1, $5, $10,” so he slid in one of the $20 bills he had on him, then watched the machine spit it out. He slid it back in and saw it slide out.
Back in again ... and back out ...
Sagal grew up in New Jersey but spent summers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his grandparents owned a corner grocery store. He used to work there sometimes. “So I know what it’s like to stand there in an apron and get yelled at,” he said.
But seeing the $20 bill come back out broke him.
“I was having that particular emotional break that only happens when a trivial situation gradually escalates,” he said.
He approached the station manager’s booth and knocked.
Out spewed his frustrations: about the sun’s glare, the machine that wouldn’t take credit cards or cash either. He just wanted to get out.
“Not any one of those things would spur entitled white-guy rage,” he said, “but cumulatively I completely lost my cool, and I’m completely embarrassed.”
The station manager just looked back and said nothing. “I could tell he’d dealt with this before,” Sagal said.
It also seemed to Sagal that the manager was making a calculation in his head. Was it really worth it to take this ranting guy to a fare machine on the other side of the gate, and walk him through using his credit card to load 25 cents?
The manager said nothing, instead reaching into his pocket and handing Sagal a quarter.
Sagal wants to send him a note to say thanks, maybe offer some “Wait, Wait” paraphernalia. And a quarter. But he didn’t catch his name. The manager wasn’t available to comment last week, a Metro spokeswoman said.
Sagal has been thinking about his privilege. He’d been on his way to his “cushy job,” and ranted at a man in a booth who probably has his own problems.
“I just felt bad some poor guy had to deal with it, and how in a small measure I’d contributed to that guy’s bad day,” he said.
But he went on Twitter to apologize.
“The toughest thing in any service industry must be handling panicked white guys who are just not used to any difficulty at all,” Sagal wrote. “He did it well.”