Monday, June 1, 2009
Expense accounting the national spelling bee
I wondered how the hundreds of children whose lives I altered for the better are doing today. I wondered how many of them have gone on to to be doctors, educators or noble philanthropists. I wondered if any of them remember me in their prayers.
You see the annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., has for more than 20 years been a hallmark event in my life. It’s an annual commemoration of two weeks in consecutive years when I did more good on behalf of my fellow man than the sum entirety my misspent life.
It was my first experience with an expense account and I learned something illuminating about myself.
I’m a hell of a lot of fun with someone else’s money.
I was a rookie reporter at the now-defunct Nashville Banner, and there’s a perhaps coincidental pattern of places that can be described as now-defunct that once entrusted me with the company loot.
I vividly remember the top editor approaching me while I feigned industriousness by carrying on a pretend phone interview into a dead receiver. I said a polite goodbye to the imaginary subject, set the phone down and looked up. Yes, boss?
“The guy who’s covered the National Spelling Bee for the past 10 years is sick of it. We want you to fly to Washington, chaperone our entrant and write stories about the bee,” he said.
The Banner building had no windows. One editor described days there as similar to being on board a submarine during a long voyage beneath the Arctic circle. I was always thrilled to get outside and enjoy the sweet Tennessee sunshine. That’s why I was so crushed by the boss’s offer.
I’m sorry, I said, but I just can’t afford to fly to Washington and stay in a hotel myself, let alone pay for some poindexter spelling champ.
“Idiot,” he said, “the paper pays for everything. You’ll have an expense account.”
It was a watershed moment in my life. As I’ve truthfully said many times, my idea of a splurge at the time was pizza with pepperoni and sausage. To think that I was going to be let loose in a glamorous city with ample bags of someone else’s money was like some kindly bandit had cut me in on the spree following the bank holdup, an analogy you’ll see is rather apt.
I remember checking into the Capital Hilton and finding a fully stocked bar brimming with dozens of top shelf little bottles of hootch.
Eureka! I thought. I shoveled them all into my suitcase, figuring housekeeping would assume I was a thirsty guy and would re-stock the next morning and we’d begin repeating the procedure for the next five days. And that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t know that each tiny bottle carried a $3 to $5 fee.
With a crisp$20 and bright smile, I became best friends with Pierre the hotel concierge. Over the course of the week, I had a dozen or so conversations with Pierre and every one of them included some form of the line, “Say, Pierre, where can I find the best (lobster, steak, cigars) in town.”
My father was vicariously thrilled with my experience. He called to advise me to attend the Kennedy Center premier of The Caine Mutiny Court Marshall starring Charleton Heston Henry Fonda. Pierre expertly secured me one of the scarce tickets. And this was cool -- President Reagan and wife Nancy were there, too!
My balcony seat was directly above Reagan’s box. I’ll never forget the moment he entered. More than four thousand people rose, turned toward me and began wildly applauding. From my perspective, it looked like they were looking right at me.
I felt so overcome with warmth, I couldn’t help myself. I waved and took a little bow.
Really, after four days on the expense account, word could have gotten around and they may have been applauding for me and not Reagan. As a representative of the Banner, I felt it would have reflected poorly on the institution if I was a cheap tipper, even if the pious old prick who owned the place was a notorious cheapskate.
All the while, I filed a bunch of fun stories about our contestant to cover my rear. It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions where I could be professional for about two hours each afternoon and still get away with being excessive fun for the remainder of the sleepless days and nights spent enriching hardworking bartenders and wait staff at various posh establishments.
As good as the stories were, nothing endeared me to the Banner staff more than word about my stupendous party expenditures.
The color drained from my editor’s face when I handed him the total.
“It’s breathtaking,” he said.
It was the first time anything I’d ever done had been compared with words used to describe to the Grand Canyon.
Oh, it’s not that bad, I said.
“It cost less to cover the Super Bowl!”
After that, they wouldn’t let me out of the building to cover a barn fire. It looked like my spelling bee run would end at one.
Then three weeks before the next year’s bee, the girl who’d been designated to go abruptly quit.
I sat down at my computer and instantly composed what was the best thing I’ve ever written in my life. It may have been the best thing anyone’s ever written.
Because I convinced them to risk the company solvency to let me go again. I didn’t do it because I enjoyed living the high life on the company teat. I didn’t do it because I was hankering lobster at Harvey’s or prime rib at The Palm.
I did it because Pierre’d sent me a Christmas card saying his son was going to need braces.
We’re numb to stories of idealists who leave heartland homes and go to Washington and become jaded cogs in the corrupt system.
I’m a guy who can always say he went to Washington and made a real difference.