Honesty is the best policy.
I know that.
And while a little white lie never hurt anyone, there are some you never forget.
Like one I told twenty-five years ago. To an American icon.
It was the summer of 1992 and before I began my senior year at the University of Michigan, I spent the semester in London on a study abroad program through Boston University. Six weeks of classes – I studied theater and writing – followed by a six-week internship secured by the school.
I was hoping for a career in television and the internship was a necessary step towards that. Apparently, if you wanted to get even a lowly paid entry-level job after graduation, you had to first work for no pay at all.
And so, I was thrilled with my assignment at a small production company that booked guests for TV-am (think TODAY with British accents) on Britain’s ITV, channel 4. I figured it would be a glamorous job surrounded by bright lights and big stars!
My title was “assistant television journalist” but my duties, as an intern, were anything but glamorous.
I had to make tea in the morning and run out for snacks for the office staff in the afternoon. They typically wanted “crisps.” Which turned out to just be potato chips. But if you made the mistake of asking for chips – as I did the first time – you’d come back with French Fries. Which wasn’t what they wanted.
I also had to walk the boss’s dog through Hyde Park every day. She was a prim and somewhat surly Cavalier King Charles spaniel. I didn’t have much experience with dogs, especially the kind that wore monogrammed booties, and the walks always made me nervous that something would go wrong.
Occasionally, I got to conduct pre-interviews over the phone of upcoming guests. People like Boy George – he was having a comeback. I’d take notes on little index cards for the TV hosts to use during the live TV interview a few days later.
That was where the action was – the bright lights and big stars. At the studio across town. And the big draw, of course, was to be invited there with the producers, the actual television journalists, when the guest would appear. I had to work towards that.
And so I made the tea and ferried the crisps and walked the dog and took the notes and tried not to screw it up.
One morning, the dog, whose name I think was Lucy, had some gastrointestinal distress. I hadn’t taken more than one disposal baggie with me and, panicked at the mess she was making and that I’d leave behind, I scurried out of the park as quickly as possible and back to the office, her dribbling behind her as she tried to keep up, as we passed appalled and glaring Brits.
I reported on my return to the boss, Jason, that Lucy did not seem well. He was terribly concerned about that dog and looked at me as if I had somehow fouled up the job even though it was Lucy who did the fouling. I took off her booties and excused myself to go wash my hands.
That set me back a bit.
And that’s how it went…. tea, crisps, and Lucy. Lucy, crisps, and tea…
And then, finally, near the end of the internship, an invite to the studio! I’d join the producers and assist the guests the following day.
Among them, Neil Diamond. Did I know who he was, the producers asked me. Was I a fan?
Was I a fan?
“I Am,” I said.
You know, like the song… “I Am, I Said… I Am, Said I…” (OK, I had to explain that to them a little bit…)
The next day I went with the producers to greet him at the gate. They introduced me as “Valerie, our intern from Boston University.” I shook his hand and said, “Hello, My Friend… Hello.” (You know, like that other song…) Proving, of course, that I’m familiar with his music! Also, that I’m kind of a dork…
My job was simple. Escort him through make-up to the green room, offer coffee or tea and keep him company until his appearance. Easy stuff. After all, I’m an experienced television journalist, even if only an unpaid assistant one.
He seemed very nice. I don’t recall if he wanted coffee. If he had, I likely made and delivered it.
And then, I suppose to pass the time, or maybe because I stood there mute and star-struck, he started chatting.
“How do you like Boston University?” he inquired.
It was a bit of a trick question. I was headed back to school at Michigan in the fall and was on a summer program through Boston University but not actually a student there. This didn’t seem worthy of clarification to Neil Diamond of all people and so I simply replied:
“Oh, I like it very much.”
(This wasn’t necessarily an untruth. I was absolutely enjoying my summer program. Outside of classes and the internship I spent a lot of time at the pubs…)
He nodded. “Great school.”
Why, yes. Yes, it is. I nodded back.
“My daughter goes there.”
Here’s the point at which a normal person might make a correction. Something like, “Actually, Mr. Diamond, I’m on a summer program through Boston University. During the school year, I’m a student at Michigan.”
I don’t know why I didn’t say that, only that I didn’t want to correct Neil Diamond. I mean, he’s one of the best-selling recording artists of our time. So I just kept nodding, smiling stupidly.
He continued, “So, which dorm do you live in?”
I know there is still time to set the record straight. No harm in clearing up a simple misunderstanding, right?
But I can’t seem to find the words. Instead, creative juices flowing, I’m furiously scrolling through potential dorm names in my head to come up with one generic enough that he won’t know the difference. Something like “East Quad” or “Langsley Hall” or “Mary Whitford Residences.”
But as I look at him, all I can think is Sweet Caroline…
And I know he’ll know that’s not the name of a dorm.
Then, I come up with a solution, a really neutral one. I shrug and say, “Oh, I live off campus.” And I leave it at that.
“Whereabouts?” he wants to know.
Can we stop for a second to ask the question, WHY does Neil Diamond care where Valerie the intern lives? Can’t he just accept my ambiguous answer and be done with it? And what time is his appearance anyway? Shouldn’t I be getting him into the studio by now? Why do I have to make small talk that is clearly turning into a big issue?
Now I’m stuck. Because at this point I can’t go back to admit I don’t actually attend B.U. during the school year. Why wouldn’t I have just said so in the first place?
It’s too late now. I have to stick with my storyline.
The problem is, I don’t know Boston all that well. I only really know Faneuil Hall where I saw some street performers one time and the name of one street – Boylston – because I think I once did some high-end window shopping there. I have no idea if Boylston is anywhere near B.U.’s campus but I figure it’s a better option than suggesting I live at Faneuil Hall.
“Near Boylston street,” I declare.
I catch his eye. Is he looking at me oddly? I think he’s looking at me oddly. Is Boston University nowhere near Boylston Street? How should I know? So I double down.
“I live with my aunt,” I continue. “She had a spare room in her apartment and so I moved there. It’s above a boutique.” (It’s above a boutique?)
They say there are clues to look for to determine if someone is lying. Among them is over-explaining, offering extraneous details for no reason other than to substantiate an invalid claim. The others are physical in nature – fidgeting, sweating, blushing, darting eyes… And since I am looking at the door for an escape route and I can feel my cheeks are hot and perspiration is beginning to form on the back of my neck and in my armpits, I know I am exhibiting them all.
This, of course, only makes me fidget, redden and perspire more. It’s as if my entire body is in revolt because it knows I share a somewhat dilapidated 3-story house with 9 other women on S. University in Ann Arbor, a full 750 miles from Boylston street in Boston.
I look down, suddenly enthralled by the shape of my shoes. Why am I lying to Neil Diamond? That’s crazy! And I glance up and catch his eye again. They are kind eyes, I can tell. Honest eyes. I see something else in them. Something that looks like… skepticism.
He knows, I realize. Neil Diamond knows I am lying to him.
There is nothing worse than being caught in a lie, especially one as inconsequential and avoidable as this.
Actually, I take that back…
You know what’s worse than being caught in a lie? Being caught in a lie by Neil Diamond.
And what’s worse than being caught in a lie by Neil Diamond is knowing that he knows that I am lying. And that – based on my fidgety, sweaty reaction – that he knows that I know that he knows that I am lying.
Still following me here?
The moral of the story is I should have stuck with making the tea, buying the crisps, and walking the dog. I’m not only the world’s worst intern, I’m also a liar.
I don’t recall how we exited the room. I don’t remember the interview or if he gave a live performance. I only recall that I lied to Neil Diamond.
It’s been almost 30 years and for as much as I’d like to forget, I can’t…
Sometimes, I try to convince myself that maybe he didn’t know I was lying to him. Maybe he was just looking at me curiously because I reminded him of his daughter. Or he was recalling the last time he shopped in a boutique on Boylston Street and what he bought there. Or the clock was just over my head and he was checking the time so he wouldn’t be late for his appearance.
If I tell that to myself often enough, I can almost believe it’s the truth.
But that would be lying and – honestly – who would do that?
Valerie Gordon, the World’s Worst Intern, went on to have a 20+-year career in television, producing and overseeing features for HBO Sports, CBS News, Weekend TODAY, and ESPN. She’s now an author, speaker, and founder of career and communications strategy firm, The Storytelling Strategist. Hear her tell this story live at Speak Up Hartford and read her other humor posts.