Not long ago, the accounts payable folks at Big-Time Fashion Designer were shafting my husband's small business. That's when I jumped in. Within an hour, hubby's phone rang. It was Big-Time Fashion Designer himself, calling from the golf course, his French accent thick with apology. The next day, the check arrived. Hubby was happy, our bank account was happy and I knew who I had to call next: my childhood best friend, Laurie.
I'm not skilled in collection strategies, and I didn't use modern social media pressure to squeeze Big-Time Fashion Designer. I got action by using something I'd plucked from an old bag of tricks—a "skill set," if you will—that I'd honed while scheming and scoring seemingly unlikely outcomes with Laurie. With her, I had learned at an early age how to track down people, often at places and times they didn't want to be found, to talk to those people as if we were old pals. OK, sometimes to badger people, connive and sneak my way into their circle.
To wrangle the check from Big-Time Fashion Designer, I had figured out who I had to win over (his personal secretary) and gotten that person on the phone (by sorta leading a series of folks at his headquarters to believe I was calling from their upscale Short Hills, N.J., store). Then I'd come clean and told her a story—in fact, a true one, about what a small business we run, how $6,000 might be nothing to Big-Time Fashion Designer, but was groceries and the mortgage to us—and I got that person to want to help me, to do what I wanted. It all felt very familiar.
Scene: a hotel lobby where Big-Time Comedian was performing, circa mid-1970s.
Laurie and I wanted to meet Big-Time Comedian, and more than that, we wanted him to listen to us tell him a few jokes. We figured out that hotel personnel referred to him with an alternating series of aliases, and we—two innocent seeming young teenagers—made enough friends with enough people who worked in the hotel to learn the name du jour. After that, it didn't take long to determine that "Brad Collins" had reserved a tennis court.
Between sets, we introduced ourselves to Bill Cosby who, momentarily confused (we must have seemed convincing, because he kept apologizing about not remembering where we'd met), shook our hands, smiled and listened to our (lame) jokes, before he caught on that we had bluffed our way past his bodyguard and chased us off. (My 2016 brain tells me we dodged a 100-mph ace by getting out of that particular celeb's path!)
Is it any wonder almost everyone called us "Lucy and Ethel"?
Like that hilarious and effective duo, we were well-matched, evening out one another's temperaments, and like them too, we weren't always completely successful in our pursuit of someone or something beyond our reach. But even the flops were fun.
Picture the door to a stairwell on the upper floor of a Las Vegas hotel.
A tree trunk of a man, wielding a serious firearm, barks out: "Where are you two going?"
Why we were going to meet Elvis Presley of course, whose hotel room, we had confirmed, lay just beyond the guard. Elvis was performing at the Hilton, where I was staying for a week with my parents and Laurie, who always traveled with us. On that trip already, we'd gotten ourselves invited to B.B. King's birthday party where Laurie extracted permission to touch his famous—and famously guarded—guitar, Lucille.
To find Elvis, we had interrogated maids and room service waiters, badgered the stage door guard, and walked the stairs, stopping at every floor. Back then, no one had a suspicious mind about two unglamorous tween girls asking questions. Today I suppose, elevator access to the floor housing the biggest pop star on the planet would be restricted, an entourage of bodyguards in place, video security cameras trained on every approach. But not then.
We hadn't anticipated an armed guard, however. But we did have a story.
"Oh, we caught Mr. Presley's scarf at the show last night and wondered if he'd sign it," I said with feigned innocence and false bravado. We hadn't really been to the show and the "scarf" in my hand was a white room service napkin, but we knew he tossed a white scarf into the audience at every show, so we'd gambled.
Simultaneously, the guards yelled: "He's not in" and "You've got the wrong floor." They watched while we boarded the elevator, where we shrugged and began plotting how to meet Wayne Newton over at the Sands. (Check!)
I played Ethel to Laurie's Lucy for years. For every harebrained scheme she devised—and there were dozens, maybe hundreds—I countered with calm, sensible reasons why we couldn't do any such thing. It was wrong. Slightly dishonest. Sneaky. Dangerous. Maybe a little bit illegal. For five minutes, I'd try to talk her out of whatever foolish thing she was proposing.
Then, I'd jump in and together we'd hatch the plan.
Or she'd hatch it and I'd provide logistics and support. We got ourselves into delicious trouble and had fabulous experiences pushing into places we didn't belong. We snuck into a 2:00 a.m. party for Liza Minnelli, and shared a table with so many stars of then-current TV shows we lost track. Before the term "all-access pass," we trolled our way onto many a backstage and beyond, chatting up major headliners and wannabes.
On Miami vacations, we boarded yachts of the rich and famous. In our New Jersey town, we bluffed our way into heartthrob track star Marty Liqouri's house and had a glass of lemonade with his mother, who showed us his medals in the dining room breakfront. In a nearby posh suburb, we rang the doorbell of mansions we admired, met the owners and talked our way inside, somehow.
We got heartthrob Olympic gold medal swimmer Mark Spitz on the phone at his dental school dorm and adorable New York Rangers hockey star Ron Greschner to call us back after leaving a message with his mother in Canada. We infiltrated the entourage of Muhammad Ali in a Bermuda hotel lobby and fake-sparred with the champ, after Laurie noted, "You're not so tough," and he stood to his full height, feigned a mock grimace, and sent us off with autographs, a smile and a story.
More minor Lucy-and-Ethel shenanigans resulted in free meals or invitations to do or see things our parents eventually vetoed; sometimes our quickly concocted ideas got us out of situations too. We climbed from a ladies' room window after we'd lied about our ages and snuck into a nightclub on a tropical island with dates who turned lecherous. We once convinced a Bermudian whose motorbike we'd caused to swerve and spill (and break) his two bags of groceries to tell the nearby policewoman who'd seen it all that it was really his fault after all.
Remembering the exploits and adventures of my brash younger self gives me confidence now and reminds me that life can, and should be, fun. It reminds me that hatching plans, even harebrained ones, not only sometimes delivers success, but makes all those frustrating adult chores feel lighter.
When I think about the crazy, gutsy and dumb things the two of us did, it brings up more than fond memories; the Lucy-and-Ethel years taught me to read people, to figure out what to say or ask (or hide) at crucial moments, to understand who to snow, who to avoid, and with whom I could be honest. It also taught me that having someone by your side that you trust completely, and who feels the same about you, makes life's problems and challenges utterly doable.
Laurie and I are in our 50s now, and we don't habitually pull off Lucy-and-Ethel capers these days. Unless you count double-teaming furniture salesmen to negotiate an 80 percent discount, or posing as professional whatevers to score admittance into restricted trade shows or conferences. But just knowing what we did back then makes a difference when I encounter the frustrations and annoyances of middle age—and occasionally Big-Time Fashion Designers who ignore their bills.