It all starts the night before, with the most unusual last-minute e-mail I have ever gotten from a Public Relations professional.
In my experience, PR coordinators are a chirpy bunch. It’s their job. Their messages ooze with gleeful cordiality, their e-mails are full of exclamation points, and most of them seem to be attractive young women. I might work as one, though I’m pretty sure that would mean buying at least one pair of stylish shoes.
Whether it’s a copter ride over Jersey or a scotch tasting on Wall Street, she’d just love it if I could attend! But her latest e-mail is the first surprising thing a PR person has ever said to me: “Alaina, can you please send me your weight in pounds?”
It makes perfect sense for me to tell her, believe me, though I do imply that empires would fall if she ever, ever tells anyone except for the helicopter pilots.
The next morning, I am up before six AM for the icy slog from my apartment to the train station, where the Septa employee sits with her back to the ticket window so as to better watch her portable DVD player. The sleepy ride to 30th Street is nothing new, but getting in line for an Amtrak is a good prelude to breaking my routine. I listen wistfully to the loudspeaker announcing the stops on the Palmetto line, all the way to Georgia. But I’m not going south today.
An hour and a half later, New York’s Penn Station disgorges me up the steps to Seventh Avenue in a tsunami of commuters. If this were an ordinary day in my own city, I would be holding my breath as I went down the subway stairs. But today, there is a man named Howard in a large and shiny black Lincoln Town Car waiting for me.
He opens the back door for me: I am going to sit in the back seat all by myself. The leather cuddles me as I stretch my legs out completely. Need a picture?
The traffic is not my only concern once Howard begins to drive. I’ve never had a driver before, and I don’t know what kind of relationship to pursue with him. All I can go on are drivers in movies, like Crocodile Dundee or The Princess Diaries, who are worldly, reserved, tolerant of naïve foibles, and provide incidental comic relief. I look at my notes and blow my nose on a ragged paper towel in my coat pocket before I realize there was a pristine box of tissues for my exclusive personal use at my elbow. I look out at the sidewalk crowds and the trash bags piled on the dirty banks of snow. An issue of The New Yorker peeks at me from a pocket. Should I bury myself in it and just let the driver drive?
I can’t take it. Here I am, missing out on someone’s story. I begin to ask questions. It turns out Howard had a long career in fabrics and had grown up right near 7th Avenue, in thrall to the fashion industry. He had managed textile factories outside Philadelphia. He took pride in paying good wages, but everything changed when the manufacture of clothing was outsourced to cheap foreign labor. He could never stay afloat paying his workers $10/hour when Chinese workers made 23 cents. He sold his factory rather than watch it go under.
One of the PR girls calls my cell phone, cheery as ever but anxious as to where I am. The helicopter is waiting, but traffic is gridlocked. It takes forty minutes to get from Penn Station to the Wall Street heliport (less than twenty blocks). We arrive at a waterfront office, the copter already thrumming impatiently on the tarmac. After each arriving in our separate luxury cars, the journalists, CEOs and VPs of Marketing all complain bitterly about the traffic.
No matter how many times I do it, walking right under the helicopter’s whirling blades increases my heart rate. But I want everyone to think I am a Serious, Affluent Journalist who takes luxury aircraft as her birthright.
The copter’s cabin seats four of us: a PR Amanda who wobbles in on three-inch heels, a marketing exec for the helicopter company, and a tall, red-haired journalist named Richard. Here are a few pictures of the ride.
We land at a private New Jersey airport, and, calm as if going from one car to another, we stroll to a small, gleaming-white jet. The PR Amanda teeters in her heels on the steep steps into the plane. I do not have to remove my shoes or put my laptop into a separate plastic container. Instead of a body search, I get cordial handshakes. I can’t decide if I’ll simply enjoy this experience, or if it will make me hate airport security lines that much more when I return to economy class.
There are already a few others aboard in a cabin over twenty feet long and about eight feet wide. It’s all sunny windows, leather, and wood grain. There is a couch and five broad leather armchairs, making eight seats in all. I see an empty seat on the couch, but the Vice President of Marketing takes my coat (of course there is a coat closet on board) and directs me to one of the leather thrones at the front of the cabin. Some other journalist has left his press kit and leather-cased iPad on the seat, but I move them to a handy ledge where they can be easily spotted. The CEO settles in directly across from me. There are two pilots in the cockpit and a third roaming the cabin offering us drinks.
After a speech on the design of the cabin, the jet begins to taxi. I was hardly aware we were taking off until the sudden lift presses me into my seat. Without a pack of beady-eyed, perfectly-coiffed flight attendants telling me to please put my seat into the upright position, I had no warning. Once we were airborne past 10,000 feet, the CEO reached for the iPad, opened its leather case, and handed it to me.
“Go ahead and check out the WIFI,” he said.
“Go on, check out YouTube! Go on Facebook! Whatever you want!” PR Amanda cried, jumping to her feet. On board the plane, I secretly wished she would either take off her high heels, or stay in her chair. “And those are for you guys to take home once we’re finished today.”
What are for us to take home?
The $900 WIFI-enabled leather-cased iPads?
Ha, ha. What?
At M0.82 – that’s 82% the speed of sound – and 11,500 feet over Jersey, Christmas has come early.
Shockingly, there are no cries of joy aboard the Challenger 300. The other journalists apparently do not have a background in non-profit arts and so are used to such corporate largesse, so I try to pretend it’s not the first time I ever held an iPad, let alone dreamed of owning one.
As I chat with the CEO and the Vice President of Marketing, their perfectly balanced verbiage falls like dollops of cream on top of our questions, with phrases like, “we believe innovation happens during downturns” and “we were big enough to matter and small enough to change.”
One of the pilots is at my elbow again, and he seems so pleased to be offering me refreshments that I accept a bottle of water. As he hands it to me, he looks at the view outside my window.
As you know, less than twenty-four hours ago, I received the most extraordinary PR e-mail of my life. Now, the pilot asks me the most extraordinary question any airline staffer has ever asked me. “Are you enjoying the view enough?” he says. “Please let us know if we can adjust to give you a better look at the city.” After a lifetime of arguing over the window seat in economy class only to find that I’m right above the wing, a pilot was asking me if I would like the path of the jet adjusted so that the view was to my taste.
The landing is so smooth I barely notice it. I gather my things and stand up to exit, but another journalist, still lounging in his seat, stops me.
“Hey – gift bags coming,” he says.
Because the iPads are not enough.
Personnel on the tarmac seem poised to catch PR Amanda as she totters down the jet’s stairs. Climbing into the copter is slightly more difficult than before with my gift bag, tissue paper billowing out of its top.
After alighting from our copter back on the Wall Street Pier, I call Howard on my cell phone and the Lincoln pulls up to the office door. On the way back to Penn Station, Howard tells me about growing up on Fashion avenue and, later, living above the Macy’s that he says is the biggest store in the world, stopping to buy beautiful ties on his way home from work. He makes me see a different time, when the fashion assistants dashed up and down the streets rolling racks of clothes.
I rustle in my gift bag. There is a nice coffee thermos and a white teddy bear wearing a faux leather jacket scarf and tiny plastic aviator goggles.
I rush back to Philadelphia, where normal life resumes. I attend a function for arts journalists and then sidle out early to go to the ballet with dance writers.
Finally home late that night, I contemplate the day. I think about the slogan for the corporate jet company’s WIFI service: “making plane time your time.” Having grasped a working iPad onboard, I think that this depends on the definition of “your time”. Does “your time” mean that business and communication continue uninterrupted, even if you leave the surface of the earth for hours at a time? I see “my time” as a period when I am not at the beck and call of anyone else. To me, WIFI on a plane – letting me write e-mails instead of enjoying the view – is a decidedly mixed blessing. If you can’t get away from your messages when you’re thousands of feet in the air, can you ever get away?
I think about the ethics of accepting Apple products from the company I’m reporting on. I wonder if I will ever ride a luxury aircraft as anything but a freelance journalist. I think about how bizarre it is that there is a brochure in my purse urging me to charter a helicopter so that I can satisfy “the urge to make every hour count over a magical long weekend in the Hamptons”.
I think about the world of ways that people get to where they’re going. Having recently lost my day job, my own road has certainly been rocky lately. I might ride planes for articles, but supporting myself as a freelancer is more of a financial roller-coaster than a jet ride. Whatever happens, it feels good to know that I am happier typing on the train than I ever was working for my capricious, dissembling boss.
And who knows what I’ll write about next?