Thursday, October 11, 2012

Check with me: when pay is pretty

I can look to my left and gaze upon what to me is the most beautiful paycheck I’ve ever seen. The observation has nothing to do with the amount or the fact that it is made out to me.

More than 20 years of freelance writing has turned me into something of a check connoisseur.

I imagine people with regular jobs take paychecks for granted. In fact, most probably never even see a paycheck anymore, opting instead for direct deposit.

That’s rarely an option for me. I seldom have a steady enough stream of income for any employer to engage me with the process. Usually, I do the work and they send me an old-fashioned check with either a cool or nondescript logo.

Or they don’t.

This happens with both risky start-ups and established magazines. The worst was probably Maxim, for whom I used to do lots of features. The work was fun. Trying to get paid was not. 

I think some of my ballistic letters to editors/publishers about tardy payment represent my best writing.

They read like Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic letter from a Birmingham jail only with lots of profanity and a complete disavowal of non-violent principles.

Once, a now-defunct magazine men’s magazine held onto $1,500 owed me for over a year. The publisher, I knew, was enjoying the good life being the boss of a prestigious publication. The magazine would show pictures of this enormous prick swooshing down the slopes in Aspen, parasailing above the Caribbean and sipping wine in Bordeaux.

This was happening as the magazine was bleeding money and staff were being severed.

So I was thrilled one day when I cajoled the guy’s e-mail address from a sympathetic secretary.

I imagine he fired her after reading my first e-mail.

I congratulated him on his latest adventure and wrote, “I’m sure at some point in the next day or so you’re going to sit down for an elegant meal. As is custom, the dapper waiter or waitress will present you with a posh wine list. I understand you’re the kind of refined gent who doesn’t need to dwell on things like price.

“In that regard, you and I are exact opposites. I, of course, enjoy the finer things, but am unable to afford them, especially when magazines for whom I’ve done work that’s already been praised and published refuse to pay.

“Right now, my car needs new tires, my daughter needs braces and my wife needs reassuring she didn’t marry a loser.

“I ask you give even just a moment of thought to me and my needs next time you’re perusing the wine list and weighing whether to get the Cabernet or the Pinot Noir.”

It was all very dignified and proper to that point and then -- BAM! -- I went all Yosemite Sam on his pampered ass.

I used all seven of the words you can’t say on network TV and I used them in such a dazzling array of forms that left no doubt of my disdain.

Then every two days I’d send him a blank e-mail with the subject line that read, “Wine list, m*****f******!”

Got paid in two weeks.

What’s interesting to me is the check with which I’m so infatuated is such a modest sum. It’s $255.96 for mileage reimbursement from the Certified Angus Beef council.

They offered to fly me to their annual conference last month. But I said I’d prefer to drive the five hours to The Greenbrier in southern West Virginia.

Now I’m so glad I did. Had I flown I never would have been the recipient of this most beautiful check. About the size of a dinner plate, it’s like a billboard for beef.

“Taste the Difference. There’s Angus. Then there’s Certified Angus Beef brand,” is emblazoned with the logo along the top third.

The bottom repeats the phrase, but includes four pictures of four cuts of beef so succulent you can practically smell the sizzle.

In the money middle is a scale-sized sliced filet that looks mouthwatering enough to eat, truly rare case of me wanting to put my mouth where my money is.

What’s odd and why I was struck to share this story with you is this is the first check I’ve ever received that comes with instructions. It says up there on the bottom of the top third: “TO ASSIST OUR ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT, PLEASE CASH THIS CHECK PROMPTLY.”

Clearly, other recipients like me see these checks as works of art and are reluctant to rush them to the bank.

This organization has treated me better and more professionally than any with whom I’ve worked in years.

So I feel sheepish in refusing to comply with their simple request.

I will not cash this check promptly. I will instead invite friends to my office to see it hanging on the wall beside pictures of my loved ones.

The shoe, for the first time, is on the other foot. I’ll not cash this lovely check until the beleaguered C.A.B. starts to shame and threaten me for not doing so.

I wonder how long before I start getting e-mails with things like "wine list!" in the subject line.

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