It was the first half of the 1970s, I was in my early thirties and was an up and coming young “executive” working for the Great American Travel company (Don’t leave home without it!).
We were having some problems in the Rome office and my boss asked me to fly to Italy on short notice to take a look and let him have some recommendations.
I was excited to say the least. So I booked a flight through our travel section. Alitalia, First Class. There was no Business Class then and on any flight over four hours we went First. After all we were the travel company. Next a room for a week at the Grand Hotel de la Ville on the Via Sistina atop the Spanish Steps.
Finally as I was getting ready to depart, my boss, who had a chauffeured Cadillac limo on call for his use says to Brooklyn bred me “Take my car to the airport. Don’t bother trying to catch a cab”.
And so I went downstairs and the driver opened the door for me, made sure I was comfortably in the back seat and we drove off to JFK.
I sat there looking out the tinted window and thought “I could get used to this”. People were going into the subway entrance, waiting for buses, trying to hail a cab or just walking. As we crawled through traffic, passers by peered in the windows wondering who was in the limo. “Anyone I would recognize in there?” Nah.
Air travel still had some cache then; first class meant porcelain and silver dinner service with a menu and choice. I sat next to and chatted over drinks with an attractive well dressed woman in her 40s who, I am sure, wondered what the young man next to her did for a living. After all, he was in first class.
At the hotel I watched and talked with Tony Perkins and his then wife Berry Berenson, who would die on 9/11, playing with their son Oz who crawled around on the floor of the salon. Larry Hagman of J. R. fame had breakfast at the next table.
An ambitious young man could get very spoiled by such treatment. I began to ask myself if I could be had. What would I do to live like this all the time? Work endlessly? Forsake wife, family and friends? Step all over others in the corporate dagger wars? Sell my soul? Do something illegal if I thought I could get away with it?
All interesting questions brought on by a young man’s ride in a limo, a first class flight to Rome and a really nice hotel.
Flash forward twenty years.
I’m in London and I need to go to Dubai. I routinely fly British Airways because they go where I travel – London, the Middle East, the Sub-Continent and Hong Kong. B.A. however has no seat available on the date I need to go. Even for me – a customer who flies tens of thousands of miles with them each year.
So I book with Emirates. We travel business class now. I have never flown Emirates before but there is a first time for everything.
Night before my flight I get a call from Emirates at my hotel confirming my flight and offering to send a car to fetch me. Fine with me.
The following evening I am in jeans, sneakers and a light jacket – traveling clothes. The phone rings – my car is downstairs.
I go down to the entrance and there it is – a chauffeur driven black Phantom Rolls – sent to pick up the guy in the jeans and sneakers.
I climb in as if this is my normal daily life, laughing to myself and remembering my first limo trip. I know I can be bought – to a degree. Everyone has a price. I also know, now that I am older and wiser, that I cannot be bought lock, stock and barrel.
At Heathrow the onlookers watch the chauffeur open the door for me wondering as I get out, “who’s that??”
Nobody folks. Nobody. Just keep walking.
Finally, my last of many limo drives in the mid 90s. I was traveling to Hong Kong and booked in the Island Shangri-la Hotel – a simply gorgeous place. The main reason I stayed there was its location – half a block from the office and in the heart of downtown.
The hotel sent a car for me to the airport. A sign with my name leads me to a white Rolls. Ahh memories.
I talk with the Chinese driver on the way into town. He speaks perfect English. The conversation turns to investments. We talk over some stocks. The driver it turns out has a stunning portfolio. More money than I will ever see. I laugh to myself. I should be driving and he should be riding in the back. But he isn’t.
I learned a long time ago that the cars and everything else were never for me. The cars and the money were just perks of the job. If the job went away the perks went with them. Both Emirates and the Island Shangri-la wanted more of the company’s travel business and I happened to be the beneficiary. The danger is in foolishly thinking that it is you who is important.
International banking executives used to gather once a year at the Boca Raton Club for an annual get-together. They would fly in from all over the world. I attended several times with my wife. We always had fun. Every year someone who attended in prior years would be missing. The missing guy lost the job. Or his bank was acquired. Or his bank exited the international lending arena. Or he quit.
My wife knew. “Don’t get a swelled head Toritto. It’s not about you. It’s about the company. One of these days you will be the missing guy!” She was right. And in a few simple words she defined the essence of corporatism.
When I tired of spending nights in hotel rooms from London to Hong Kong, from Lahore to Rio, I quit. I took a job with the largest bank in New Jersey (and a big pay cut) where I could go home every night and be with my family. I made a living but never got rich. I made up my mind to quit when my daughter called me all excited and told me she had been accepted to the college she had always dreamed of attending. She was more than happy. She was ecstatic. Daddy wasn’t there to celebrate with her. Daddy was alone in a hotel room in Cairo.
It was my wife who got my feet on the ground and my head level. She knew from whence I came and knew the secret of happiness. As I got older I tried to keep a reasonable balance between work and the rest of my life. I no longer lived to work; I worked to live.
And that my friends made all the difference. My daughters call me everyday.