Don Draper for an Afternoon

No matter how lowly and low-paying the position, if they gave you an expense account back then, you were somebody

In memory of the three-martini lunch.

True (perhaps slightly embellished) tales from expense-account days past:

A promotion rep from a big record company decides to take a famous rock star out for a night on the town. "Uh-uh," says the rock star. "I ain't goin' clubbing without a new hat." So the rep brings him to the finest milliner in L.A. and he picks out a very expensive, spanking-new chapeau. Back in the office, the rep submits her expense account to the boss.

"Are you crazy?' he says. "You can't expense a hat!"

Concerned about the rep getting stuck for the obscene price of his new hat, the rock star grabs the expense form and does a little creative rewrite. He brings it back to the boss and shoves it in his face. "Here," he says, "find the hat."

Another expense account fable that by now has entered the Chutzpah Hall of Fame features the exploits of an advertising sales rep for a magazine who submits an expense report for a 6-martini lunch with a major client. The accounts payable department kicks it back, attached to a copy of a newspaper obituary of the client dated several weeks before the lunch. Undaunted, the rep crosses out "lunch" on the form, writes in "flowers," and sends it back to accounts payable, which, I am told, reimbursed him fully.

I'm just a sucker for a good expense account story. But I'm an even bigger sucker for an expense account, and those crazy, bygone days when every little pisher in New York had one.

I was introduced to the concept of the expense account at my first journalism job at a weekly trade magazine. Most of the staff writers were 22 or 23 and knew very little about the wonders of the working world. However, one female colleague, who had more balls than I, showed me the ropes.

For a routine assignment covering a convention in New Orleans, she submitted an expense report worthy of a Thomas Pynchon novel. She expensed everything but the airplane peanuts. The editor-in-chief, whose sense of humor was suspect, at best, did not appreciate the jape. He fired her — before the publisher, recognizing that she was the best reporter on the staff, hired her back.

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As the years went by, I learned to use the expense account not wisely, but too well.

No matter how lowly and low-paying the position, if they gave you an expense account back then, you were somebody. For about 6 months between jobs in the late 1970s, I worked as a writer for a major record label, churning out canned rock star bios and press releases. It was barely a cut above a Charles Bukowski job. I was making maybe 22 grand, tops, and the head of the marketing department didn't know my name, but I got to take half the writers in New York out of lunch every week.

To be entirely fair, there were some other perks, like my own office overlooking the Rockefeller Center skating rink and a couple of thousand free record albums. But armed with my corporate credit card and expense account, I could make like Don Draper for an afternoon.

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Following that gig, I went about 5 years without an expense account, but then again, I didn't need one, because most of the people I was writing about had huge expense accounts and they used them on me (for the record, my editorial integrity could not be had for the price of a good meal).

In the late 1980s, I hit the expense-account daily double. I traveled through half of Asia on assignments from a magazine AND from Uncle Sam, who, as we all know, doesn't give a shit how much tax money you spend or what you spend it on, as long as you're not spending it on food stamps, critical infrastructure repairs or improved educational opportunities for kids.

I tried not to abuse the largesse of my government or my employer, but, heaven knows, U.S. embassy personnel across the subcontinent, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines didn't have such compunctions. Our man in Kuala Lumpur, for example, was a master at using his expense account to get visiting dignitaries and journalists drunk and laid, usually in that order. His budget for that task was apparently unlimited.

Anyway, all that swag has passed me by. Today, I live in the non-governmental, non-profit sector, and here, unless you're a poverty pimp, there are no expense-account perks. The other day, on my way to see a case management client, I got lost in Queens and had to take a cab. This home visit cost me 13 bucks and all I got was a cockroach in my briefcase. On the way back to the office, seated next to a homeless guy on the subway, all I thought about was how to bury a new hat on my travel expenses.

Tags: memoirs

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