By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009
Behold: Hester Prynne in the age of network television. The scarlet letter, or something like it, emblazoned on the chest. The private sin dragged forth for public judgment. The hours in the stocks. And the media.
Oh, the media.
"I cheated. This is my punishment." Thus read the hand-lettered, chest-to-knee-length sign worn by a man sporting jeans, a baby-blue short-sleeved dress shirt and a hangdog face as he stood on the side of the eight-lane Leesburg Pike near Tysons Corner on Wednesday morning. Thursday morning, he was back.
The man identified himself as "William Taylor" of Centreville when the first journalist, from Fox 5, interviewed him Wednesday on a grassy verge outside a shopping complex, where he has been observed during rush-hour traffic since Monday.
Neither the man's identity nor the details of his story could be confirmed. But that didn't quell the media frenzy, touched off when Fox 5 and a Los Angeles NBC affiliate aired brief footage of the allegedly repentant man standing alone at the intersection of International Drive and Leesburg Pike.
Media outlets including NBC4, MSNBC, Washington City Paper and London's Daily Mail have thus far rehashed and rehashed the spectacle. Bloggers and forums have taken the morsel and run with it, some dismissing the whole thing as some sort of insidious publicity hoax, others wondering whether the "I cheated" sign will prove effective, or whether relationships can ever really change.
One commenter quipped: "That's awesome. Public humiliation, lol." A commenter who'd seen "Taylor" through an office window Wednesday said some of his female colleagues were plotting to return the next day with sandwich boards announcing: "And I'm the one he cheated with."
As for the man, his commentary was sparse.
Facing resolutely southeast as traffic rushed by, "Taylor" told Fox 5 on Wednesday that his wife had discovered cellphone evidence of his infidelity (pictures of "his unit," as it would later be described on 99.5 FM's "The Kane Show," sent from "Taylor" to his paramour at her request). "Taylor" told Fox 5 his wife had sent him to stand, in hopes of redemption, at Tysons Corner with the sign around his neck. The handwriting on the sign looked neat and precise -- the sure and even Sharpie strokes of a determined woman.
"Taylor" clutched an empty water bottle. A discarded BMW hubcap rested nearby. Such were the props on the stage of this morality play. Taylor kept his vigil from 9 a.m. until his wife text-messaged him shortly before 11 a.m. to tell him he could quit for the day.
More details emerged during Kane's radio segment on Thursday morning, a lively, fretty, all-in-the-family emotional knockdown featuring "Taylor" and his wife calling from separate phones (she was at home, he was at Tysons holding the sign and talking on his cell) as radio hosts and listeners speculated about the marriage's chances. (Slim, in their estimation. Kane insists the wife is just stringing out the torture before she dumps "Taylor.")
At Kane's prodding, "Taylor" admitted he'd initially lied to the press about his name and place of residence. He did not further identify himself, and his unlisted cell number -- obtained from Fox -- reveals only that his phone is registered in Leesburg. "Taylor" said he's withholding his identity "to protect my privacy, and to protect my wife's privacy."
The trouble began, "Taylor" told Kane, when his wife, "Karen," discovered "pictures of a graphic nature" that "Taylor" had taken and sent at the request of the woman with whom he had a six-month affair.
"Taylor" wanted to save his marriage. He'd been recently laid off, he told Kane, and his wife had been so supportive. In a knock-down, drag-out, "Karen" conceived of the "I cheated" sign.
"I was like, what do I have to do?" "Taylor" said. "And she was like, why don't you stand out on the street and tell everybody . . . what kind of a you-know-what you are?"
So he did. Kane, gobsmacked by the whole incident, asked "Taylor" whether he'd be willing to, say, run the length of the Mall in D.C. in the nude to save his marriage. Yes, he would. "I would do anything to get her back," "Taylor" said.
Kane voiced skepticism about "Taylor's" hopeful docility: "So this could be all for naught. She could go ahead and make you stand out there and you make [a jerk] out of yourself for a week, and then, come Monday, be like: Listen. This is over, it's not gonna work. Ha ha! I leave."
"Taylor" remained optimistic: "I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping for the best," he told Kane.
The flurry of media attention the "I cheated" sign has spawned is, "Taylor" said, perhaps not entirely helpful to his alleged quest for marital peace. He said he only agreed to appear on Kane's morning program because his wife listens to it. Neither "Taylor" nor his wife, "Karen" -- who appeared on-air after Kane got her phone number from "Taylor" -- would confirm rumors that they'll appear on "Good Morning America."
A stalwart "Karen" proved intractable on-air, telling Kane repeatedly: "I really don't, don't want to talk about this anymore." "Taylor" told Kane earlier that his wife has balked at all the unexpected publicity and is upset about the sort of attention her errant husband is receiving. "Karen" would not say whether she'll reconcile with her husband, who, apparently chastened by his wife's on-air presence, declined a second Kane interview.
This morning, cars honked as they passed "Taylor" while he chatted by phone to Kane. Passersby asked to take photos with him, "Taylor" told Kane.
At some point Thursday, "Taylor's" wife asked her husband to move to a new outpost outside a nearby McDonald's, according to a bank teller who had been watching the whole scene unfold outside a Wachovia.
In a text message sent after his dramatic radio appearance, "Taylor" told The Post: "I am at home. I cannot talk to anyone in the press. I'm sorry."
Perhaps he's the media's victim. Or perhaps this is a very artful, very crafty stunt. Nonetheless, one wonders whether "Karen" will pull the plug on this man's punishment, whether publicized repentance will turn out to make for no repentance at all. Perhaps "Taylor" will appear again this very morning, his alleged sins made known to Virginians via a scarlet letter all his own.
Research director Lucy Shackelford, research editor Alice Crites and staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.