Sitting next to me in the evening flight to Paris from JFK, was a successful young executive. The successful part of his equation was easy to perceive; He was wearing a 500 dollar shirt, a conservative but eye catching Hermes necktie, an improvable Tahaney suit and, by his feet there rested a leather attaché case made of fine unborn calf finely designed and exquisitely finished metal locks almost screamed "I am a mark Of distinction! "
Responding to some unconscious quest for keeping things in their places, I mentally cataloged my seat mate, even before I had a chance to exchange a word with him.
In this age of high executive salaries, quick killings in the money markets and sudden wealth appearing from sources of varied pedigree, I could not readily place him. I had to settle for one of those young lawyers who join Dad's old firm and, true to modern American tradition, start at the top. I also figured he was single, as I did not see a wedding ring nor the tell tale sign of one. This, however, is not a finding of any certainty as present mores allow unions, arrangements, situations and joint ventures between heterosexual couples that no longer make use of socially imposed symbols.
"Will you have a champagne or something else?" – asked the stew on duty. The question was directed at my seat mate first, as he was separated next to the window.
"Just Champagne, please" – His voice was well structured and his accent faintly smacked of Eastern Shore. And, of course, champagne was the right thing to drink at that moment.
I also decided to have some champagne. Fortunately, since childhood I have been exposed to its delights as my parents seemed to be forever toasting one thing and another with the finest brands. Early on I knew more about French geography and wine making than the average French Member of Parliament.
We were served a decent Clicquot, at the right temperature and the usual small packets of peanuts and other cocktail snacks.
"I am not going to ask if you are going to Paris. This is a non-stop flight, you know, and my powers of deduction are not being strained."
My seat mate had turned towards me, champagne flute in his hand and had delivered his opening line in a soft and light tone, without exaggerating on the delivery or including any nuances. Just a simple observation, short, friendly and polite. Class.
"You are right, it would be difficult to go to Abilene on this flight" I answered, without thinking.
He smiled and extended his hand.
"My name is Mike McClellan. And I must add that it is a pleasure sharing this flying sofa with you."
He was pleasant, well educated and best of all, impeccably mannered. We chatted about this and the other and in the process, as is usual, disclosed details of our lives.
He was not a lawyer. He was a Value Analyst for a major publisher. And he was single, living in New York. There was more brief biographical data about New Jersey's hill country, Princeton, Rhodes scholarship in London and some Navy service.
You know, the 6 hour period of captivity on the New York – Paris flight allows for ample time to talk. You are almost obliged to do so. The cocktails and the meal take about 2 to 2 and half hours. The film takes another hour and a half. If you can sleep with your vertebra under protest, you can do no more than a half hour at a stretch. So that leaves time to stare ahead, read or talk to your seat mate. Especially if he is attractive, witty and wants to talk.
So we talked away. As always, I tried to reduce my output of personal data to the necessary minimum. Accomplished women are not exactly what men want to share a ride with. So I just mentioned that I also worked for a publisher in Boston doing this and that; Book reviews, studying new collections, etc. I dared not mention the 9 books and countless columns I have sweated over, nor the film scripts and the couple of Emmys I have somewhere in my garage.
I asked him what a Value Analyst does. I said: "I have never heard of such occupation, or is it a title devised to confuse aspiring writers?"
"No" he said. "It is a serious and responsible position. It has to do with establishing real and accepted parameters of excellence in varying situations, places, products and even personalities. The company must know, for instance, if skiing in some new resort in Canada can justify Printing one of those hundred dollar books with great photographs that give a note of distinction to your coffee table, or whether to accept a book proposal about some celebrity's bio. "
"So" I asked. "What are you evaluating on this trip?"
"You may not believe this, but I have to do Paris on twenty thousand dollars a day. That is, I have to spend that amount in a day. You have certainly read accounts about visiting Paris on small, medium and not so medium budgets. . You have probably read countless written accounts on the subject and zillion articles about the visit to Paris. For instance, last year there were more than 4200 published pieces in magazines, Sunday Supplements, Travel books, regional and local dailies, etc. Even Church. Newsletters include accounts on my Visit to Paris. " He paused to raise his glass and with a charming smiled took another sip of the lovely fluid. I did likewise. He continued:
"Of all these written accounts, a full 60 percent were spent almost inevitably to rating hotels, boarding houses, hostels, restaurants, shops, transportation, air quality, peoples smiles, river water appearance, etc. etc. It appears as if people go To Paris to check and compare hotel prices evaluate the plumbing and to determine whether the croissants in the morning are over baked, hot, cold, sticky … "
"Well, a city like Paris, like any other great city, invariably stimulates the visitor." The writing is a natural by-product, do not you think? "
"Except that in many ways visitors wonder what it would be like to spend a few days in Paris without a financial restraint." In other words, spending at will. "Most people seem to think that everything is tremendously expensive in Paris and that A very large budget is essential in order to be able to savor the many pleasures of the city. Our idea is to satisfy their curiosity and ours. We wish to determine if we can spend twenty thousand dollars a day in a more or less normal manner ; That is avoiding any type of purchase and spend the money only on ordinary things and services. Remove the blindfolds and show how you can spend a small fortune and have a great time. "Especially if someone is footing the bill"
To me, the project was feasible if not outright fatuous. To go to Paris and try to spend twenty thousand dollars a day seemed to me stretching the limits of responsible publishing. At the same time I was curious to know how anyone could manage to spend that much as a matter of course and not incurring exceptional expenses.
"Listen" I said "I was in Paris for a solid week last month and even including the air fare I did not spend one fourth of the amount you plan to spend in a single day. I stayed at a good hotel, ate in restaurants , Invited people to dinners, tipped appropriately, made daily long distance calls continuously and bought me a silk scarf, a pair of shoes and two books at WH Smith! "
His question was a clever one. It was a probing question:
"Yes, but were you by yourself?"
I caught on right away. "Yes" I replied. "I did have lunch with colleges and hosted a dinner for one of the executives who was getting married next month. No nightclubs, no trips on the bateaux and no quick visits to the countryside"
"He laughed and said:
"Were you bored?"
"Not really. I carry with me enough reading material to stay interested for days. Why do you ask?"
I felt it was time I take the offensive. Before he had a chance to answer I followed up with another question:
"And you, Mike, do not you get bored on these journeys?"
He said what I expected to hear:
"Yes I do. Mine is a lonely job." I have to verify every aspect of a project and that involves both time and concentration "
"Yes but in this case, spending twenty thousand dollars in a single day should be fun, not only for you but also for those involved. Paris has many things to offer and it is easy to build up outrageous expenses in no time al all"
Then it came. I was glad that the strategy had paid off .:
"Let me ask you something" he said and looked at me in a way that included a clear message "why do not you join me in this project once you have finished your assignment. Or even before you start the assignment, or just forget About the assignment. I feel that spending these days with you and being able to spend at will can be the experience of a lifetime for me! "
I laughed and drank more champagne. Whoever invented that Cliquot, knew what he or she was doing. Someone with a velvet palate, I thought, remembering one of Miranda; s descriptions of either great champagne or a great kiss! I said:
"Tell me one thing. Are you expected to be by yourself while you add to Frances Balance of Payments with those twenty thousand bucks or can you invite other people to join you?"
"It has to be strictly an individual effort. If I as much as invite you for a glass of Perrier, I have to pay for it from my own pocket.
The man had class and wit. Qualities I value in men. I recovered quickly and answered:
"Even without a glass, mon ami"
I agreed to accompany him next day when he would begin recording the expenses. At the end of the next day and, to my amazement, we spent only five thousand eight hundred dollars. His hotel suite by itself took 2,500 dollars. The car rental with chauffeur cost another 1,000 a day. Lunch for one at Lipp's took 450 dollars for half the bill, same as the 1,000 dollars for dinner at the Crillon and another 500 in generous tips to head waiters, doormen, elevator operators and hotel clerk. We returned to the hotel around midnight and sat down at the bar for the usual nightcap, which turned out to be another bottle of champagne. I helped him estimate the day's expenses, for which my portion had to be deducted and charged to his personal account, even if I recognized that I pay my share.
At one point he said:
"I am afraid I can not spend twenty thousand dollars in a single day, unless I buy you some furs, a bracelet and a gallon of choice scents along with enough orchids to choke your suite.!"
"So, what are you going to do now?"
He smiled with that charge of manly attraction and said:
"I am going to cancel the rental car and rent a living Mercedes. I am going to e-mail my office and tell them that I am taking a few days off, and that the Paris on Twenty Thousand work does not work. Going to drive straight south and stay overnight in Lyon where I plan to have dinner at one of Armand's restaurants. Then, some lazy days in les Alps Mediterranee and then Provence. Some days at St Remy de Provence and then off to Barcelona and back to The yellow cake mines in New York! "
"Gee, that sounds great, Mike. Will not you be bored?
He laughed and asked the question I expected him to ask.