It was my first real job after my freelancing career blew up – a former contact threw some serious coin at me to manage a team working on big ticket proposals. Big ticket meaning at least half a million a year in fees, usually more. Usually a lot more. And these were recurring deals, engagements where the firm would be cashing checks for years to come. Deals that made careers. Or broke them.
So I’d fly to whatever town the deal was percolating in on Monday morning and fly back home on Friday night. Unless there were two deals cooking, or three. Then I’d fly from town to town through the week, an itinerant word smith whoring out his trade.
I’d get to whatever conference room in whatever office every morning at 7:30 and I’d be there every night until at least then, usually later. Twelve hour days were the baseline. Fifteen hour days were the norm. Twenty hour days happened. They happened a lot. I was once in a conference room for 71 hours without leaving except to use the can. They’d bring breakfast in, lunch in, dinner in. I was a like a zoo animal. They’d feed me, I just couldn’t leave. And they’d watch while I did my tricks. The only exercise I got was walking back and forth to my hotel. I gained fifty pounds in two years. I’m ten pounds away from getting back to what I weighed when I took the job.
We’d have a core team of maybe ten, my guys, the engagement partner and his cohorts, but deals like that had a gravity that would suck others into the room like comets and spit them back out again. Everybody’s greed engines were running at redline. That smooth Don Draper veneer of civility that usually blunts the sharp elbows of commerce was stripped away by the hurricane of lust that formed around the eye of money at the heart of each deal, and we became hulking fanged avatars of avarice. Whatever it takes, that’s what we’d hear every time. But when the pitch was over, they’d go back to relatively normal lives. I’d go to the next pitch.
And the next pitch was always a flight away.
So airports. Every week started with a 4:00 am pick up on Monday morning. They were always trying to get me to fly out on Sunday night. Flights are emptier, they’d say. Upgrades are almost automatic, they’d say. Grab a nice meal somewhere on the firm, they’d say. Sleep in a little later on Monday. They just wanted their extra couple hours, wanted me in the room at 7:30 on Monday, too, instead of 9:00. But I had two days a week at home, Saturday and Sunday. I don’t care what time your plane leaves, if you’re flying that day, then that day isn’t yours. So I flew on Mondays.
The airport was the River Styx between the hell of each week as the respite of home. And Charon was flying the fucking plane. It was all of a piece – the cattle crowd of business zombies and the clueless vacationers and the screaming kids and the reeking cabs and the anonymous interchangeable hotels and the waking up and not being able to remember what city you were in and the greed-stink chaos of the conference rooms – it was all mushed into the same pustulent Pavlovian ball. To this day, I can’t drive into O’Hare without my stomach clenching.
And I became that guy you hate. That guy waving his gold frequent flyer card at the girl at the gate, elbowing his way to the front of the line, grabbing an upgrade if I could get it, making sure I was at the head of the line to board if I couldn’t, taking the aisle seat in row one or in the exit row, shoving my briefcase in the overhead bin instead of under my seat so I’d have a couple inches more leg room (I’d always stick an extra binder in my briefcase so it wouldn’t actually fit under the seat so when some public-serving flight attendant tried to free up bin space, my bag would have to stay where it was. Have to check yours? Too fucking bad. Learn to play the game.) And by the time the poor schmuck that got stuck with the middle seat sat down, my arm was firmly planted on the arm rest and my MP3 player buds were wedged in my ears. Don’t have enough miles to beat me on to the plane? Cross your arms and dream of England, asshole. This seat is mine.
I still fly a fair bit, I guess. Maybe five or six times a year on business, maybe another ten for pleasure or family stuff, and I’m not as bad as I used to be. I put my second bag under my seat now, I let little old ladies into the aisle when we land, if some motor mouth wants to chat, I respond politely for a bit instead of pretending he doesn’t exist. And I try to understand when people have kids on the plane, because I’ve been there, and when everyone else is glaring at some haggard road warrior while he shoves his briefcase into the last open slot in the last bin, I just smile.