I did a double take when I saw that the comma queen, Mary Norris, was speaking at this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival. I made my way to the already-packed room with ten minutes to spare and managed to snag a seat in the last row. There was ample seating available in the overflow area where the event would be streamed, but I wanted—no, needed—to be in the actual presence of Queen Mary.
To rousing applause, she took the podium and began sharing her story of a good Midwestern girl’s climb through the ranks from foot checker for athlete’s foot at the pool in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, to milk woman (her word—great story), to cheese packager, to editorial library staff at The New Yorker, to her now venerable position as copy editor of the same. She then segued into giving us the goods, what we were all hungering for: her grammatical wisdom. I resisted the impulse to stand and applaud her take on the epicene, or gender-neutral, pronoun “they” (it satisfies the problem of gender but not number), and her reading from her book, Between You and Me, regarding the common conundrum of “that” and “which” left us geeks in stitches. Who knew that grammar could be so funny?
But when Ms. Norris said, “People tend to be afraid of copy editors,” I really sat at attention. She shared that when new employees are brought around her office to meet the staff, they recoil in fear when they approach her door and discover that she’s a copy editor. Only when she reassures the trembling new employee that it is indeed safe to talk to her, that she doesn’t edit the spoken word only the written that is destined for publication (her emphasis), does the poor soul relax. It was then that I recognized Queen Mary as a kindred spirit, for I, too, experience others tiptoeing around me once they know I’m a copy editor. People repeatedly apologize to me in follow-up e-mails for grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors in their previous messages. I even receive follow-up texts with “* (word spelled correctly),” and sometimes with the commentary, “damn spellcheck!” It pains me that my profession, and apparently I by association, strikes such terror in the hearts of people.
After a Q&A that included such fascinating topics as peeked/peaked/piqued and “hopefully”/“presently,” the event concluded, and we all herded out of the room en route to the bathroom or bookseller’s table, or both. My heart went all a-flutter when the Queen herself and I practically brushed elbows as she made her way through the throng to the book-signing table. Never before have I been so near royalty.
Little did I know that this would not be my last encounter.
One hour later, I left Central Library and headed to the parking garage one block away. Since I have a chronic mental block as to where I’ve parked, I had taken special note, and even checked three times, the floor of the garage: X5.
After climbing eight flights of stairs, I came to a door marked “X3-X4.” Since five comes after four, it stood to reason that I needed to go up one more floor. However, after doing so, I was met by a door marked “Y3-Y4.” Hmmm … Y comes after X. What happened to X5?
I hiked another two flights of stairs, only to find myself standing on Y5, the top floor of the garage. Where the hell was X5??
I traced this route twice, certain that I must be overlooking something, until I finally just hoofed it through the ramps, where I eventually found X5 nestled within the recesses. Upon laying eyes on my beloved car, I almost ran to it with outstretched arms and draped myself across its hood.
As I approached the exit, two women were ambling away from the parking attendant. One was laughing while the other was turning in circles, scanning the walls of the parking garage with a befuddled look on her face, saying something like “Now what?” Then I recognized her black shoes (I loooove shoes). “That’s Mary Norris!” I said out loud to myself.
I wanted to roll down my window and speak to my kindred spirit, as twice we had crossed paths in as many hours. But I didn’t. Why? Because she’s Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker! Copyediting royalty! But I suspect that Mary would have welcomed the interruption and even chatted shop with me a bit and shared a good laugh had I the guts to engage her. We copy editors from the Midwest are down-to-earth folk, after all. We also get lost in parking garages.
So don’t let our good grammar fool you. We scary copy editors are people too.