Selling Ben Cheever

Back to Square One in a Service Economy

(Bloomsbury USA; 2002)

“We are so apt, in our engrossing egotism, to consider all those accessories which are drawn around us by prosperity, as pertaining and belonging to our own persons, that the discovery of our unimportance, when left to our own proper resources, become inexpressively mortifying.”
—Sir Walter Scott, “Rob Roy”

“The world has been kinder than I expected, but less just.”
—Dr. Samuel Johnson

From the Book

Santa and the Underemployed

I picked up my red chenille suit, wig, and beard at one P.M. on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. ‘Take 684 North from White Plains,’ I was told, ‘and get off at Exit 2.’ The homeless shelter for which I was headed is on the grounds of the Westchester airport. In another life, I used to go there to catch Pegasus, the corporate plane that belonged to the Reader’s Digest. There were never more than six of us aboard, and if you had a bag, the pilot would offer to carry it. I remember having jetted to Washington, D.C., for dinners with those in sympathy with the magazine. Former senator Sam Nunn, former representative Jack Kemp, and former secretary of the navy John Lehmann Jr. come immediately to mind. The Digest team would fly back that same night, drinking scotch and smoking Cuban cigars. I remember studying the profiles of the older men to see if they liked me, and if they didn’t like me, to see what I could do about it. Their affection—if earned—might translate itself into cash and position. In the meantime, I enjoyed the free dinners and the richness of my surroundings. When I was anxious, the liquor helped.

The Eskimos have many words for snow, and the editors of the Digest had many names for the martini. It was a ‘martin’, a ‘martoonis’, a ‘cold one’ an ‘eye-opener’, ‘the equalizer’, and a ‘silver bullet.’ The team’s refreshment was made of gin, never vodka, and whenever possible it was taken straight up.

The free meal at the homeless shelter, I noticed, was served without liquor of any sort, but then some of these men were probably alcoholics.

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