Two very good books appeared in 1992, books about a company I knew well, a company about which you yourself have no doubt heard, and a company which no longer required my services near the end of the year in which these two books emerged.
The two books were released within a few months of each other. The first was House of Cards: Inside the Troubled Empire of American Express, by Jon Friedman and John Meehan. The second book had a more sinister title. It was Vendetta: American Express and the Smearing of Edmond Safra.
Neither book showed the strange culture of American Express to be very pleasant.
Indeed, it was not. I endured my time there: nine years of occasional pleasure but more often than not a series of daily surprise knife attacks and gun battles against the unarmed.
When I joined the corporation in December 1983, Jimmy Three Sticks was Chairman. James Robinson III was feared by employees the way people fear reaching into a sack of live snakes. One evening he was presenting his big green card at some high-end jewelry store in California. The amount of the charge was in the low five figures. I saw the name, noted the Special Review status, looked at the name again and assumed my life was over. If I brought Three Sticks to the phone to ensure that it was indeed him making the large purchase, he would no doubt chew me up and spit me out. If I deferred and simply waived the merchant on without inquiry, I would be skewered for neglecting to protect the Empire's financial resources and the good Robinson name.
"Fuck," I said, jamming one cigarette into my mouth without bothering to snub out the one I already had going.
The owner of the store handed the telephone to Three Sticks. I asked him polite questions that even a mental degenerate could answer and all Robinson could do was growl. The merchant came back on the phone. "Do you know who this is?" he asked with a frantic tone.
I gave the guy his approval for the charge and got on with my life.
Although Three Sticks was the nominal head of the business, Big Lou called the shots. Think of Big Lou as the Fixer. When Lou Gerstner took over the territory called Travel Related Services in 1982, the number of cardholders ("members") was a select 8.6 million. The Card projected status, perhaps even a sense of esteem. The rumor was that carrying one in your wallet made your testicles glow. When Big Lou moved on eleven years later, they were handing out cards to any schmuck willing to take one.
I should know. I carried a Platinum one myself, a card with a $300 per year membership fee.
The day Big Lou left, the count was 30.7 million cardmembers.
The worldwide total today is 114 million.
The culture of the company changed, as cultures often do.
When I began my nine-year stint, a group of three men ran the department: John L, Bob and John Y. To this day I do not know if these three even liked one another. What I do know is that a lot of women were in supervisory positions. I noticed as well that eccentricity was the real boss.
One supervisor took home every day a few styrofoam cups from the cafeteria.
Another express on a routine basis that what he cared about was betting at the racetrack.
Others were just riding out their tie.
A few cared about the work.
Two that I know of were gay.
What they all had in common was that the supervisors were all friends with one or more of the managers.
At the time, that seemed reasonable, if not quite normal.
The stories I could tell. But I won't.
I won't, for instance, tell you about seeing massive charge requests from businesses with names like Sterling Management, Bridge Publications, Religious Technology Services, Celebrity Center, Dianetics--all of which were different trademarks owned by the Church of Scientology. $5,000 charges from these establishments were the order of the day, I could tell you but will not, just as I will not mention that when asked the salesperson invariably replied that the charges were for educational materials or that the overwhelming majority of the cardholders who bought such things were either dentists or chiropractors and if you look closely in any large city you will to this day observe that where you see a sign for a dentist, one for a chiropractor will be nearby. I could but will not mention in passing how several of us pulled together sufficient data to conclude that these members were buying material they were in turning selling to others or, to put it gently, floating huge sums of cash, showing and paying huge balances and then in a flash going broke when they could--and I want to be oh so very careful how I say this, what with the litigious nature of our society--not finding anyone new interested in buying their "educational material." In short, the organization itself appeared to many of us to be a high and unnecessary risk and when we spoke with the head of the department overseeing the merchant side of our business, to our dismay we learned that person himself--though neither a dentist nor chiropractor--had incurred charges of his own from this thoughtful and reputable series of establishments.
But the Credit Authorizations department within the Western Region Operations Center as part of the Card Division of Gerstner's Travel Related Services was twenty-four hour on-your-feet shouting, running, swearing, pounding and overly sexualized work. Yes, work was the order of the day because we always seemed to be just a bit understaffed, which meant that some card-carriers and many merchants had to wait what must have seemed an interminable time to find out if a charge was approved or declined.
I won't tell you either that in our role of bringing members to the telephone at the point of sale--as we did in those days--to discuss the merits of approving or declining certain purchases--it came to pass that I spoke with a newscaster for one of the big networks whose account had drifted more than three months in arrears and how she expressed her chagrin at being brought to the phone, seeing as how the President of the USofA was standing but a few feet from her. I would never discuss that, any more than I would reveal how I continually blocked a certain former nightclub singer and child actor who had gone on to own a substantial chunk of the marquees in Las Vegas with his renditions of songs that all had the word "Daddy" in the title, or that when I say "blocked" I of course mean prevented from making charges on any of his several Amex accounts what with him being many months passed due, a fact not mitigated by the horrendous nature of his nightclub acts. And to boot I would never tell you that somehow or other this same guy--after a few phone calls to higher ups--always managed to get those holds removed.
That said, it goes without saying that I would find it inappropriate to share a most amusing story about how the bassist and chief songwriter for a then-popular band of hedonistic hard rockers did, when brought to the phone at a time when not that many people outside the industry knew who the poor sad bastard was, bring to tears the person sitting next to me who suffered for no good reason a string of brash obscenities meant to intimidate and dissuade beneath the guise of being an indignant prima donna. The amusing part of the story occurred moments later when I positioned myself at a computer terminal and cancelled the future star's account as being "deceased," an 06 cancellation, if memory serves. I would never consider going on to tell you that when some freaky-haired illustrated man in leather and attitude presents a plastic charge card with the name of a presumably dead person on it, the authorities all too soon get involved.
It would, without doubt, be wrong of me to further disclose that after this pompous buffoon at long last and weeks later verified his condition of life and received by registered mail a replacement card and written apology from God knows whom, he found that within minutes this card too had been cancelled for the same reason as before.
But such as the vicissitudes of rock star arrogance.
Please remember this was a department where screaming bloody murder was the order of the day and the gentle voice of reason had been strangled and incinerated long before I had even arrived on the scene. When a series of transactions were awaiting the attention of a well-intentioned Credit Authorizer, the standard method of communicating this fact was for the supervisor in charge to rise from the Control Desk located in the center of the fray, throw back the chair, lift one eyebrow while lowering the other, knock over the nearest coffee cup and--in the voice of an inebriated cockatoo-- screech, "Ay, ye bastards! We've got thirty in queue! I needs every swinging dick on the phones! I needs every screen up! Chop-chop! Suey-suey! Gimme a clear out! Use my number! Hu-yaw!"
Do not feel inferior if you do not comprehend the meaning of this series of commands. I do not know now what they meant. I did not know then. No one ever did know. They were just words, verbal spasms designed to convey that the department was metaphorically in flames once again and that everyone within earshot needed to pretend to give a damn.
The thing was: No one ever told us that this was all play-acting. We took it seriously. We knocked little old people out of our way as we lunged at vacant computers, keying the command 66 which made available the next pending transaction which in turn we evaluated in two or three seconds, often without so much as looking at the necessary information because clearly what mattered was the bellows of the supervisor be quenched and that doing a decent job was secondary, if not tertiary, if even important at all.
One of my big successes (and one of humanity's biggest successes, for that matter, because we really are all connected and no one makes it on his own--we are all responsible for one another's successes and failures and if you don't like that point of view, find another solar system, buddy) was Lisa Ann. Yep, when I first met her, all I could think about was the way the back pockets of her blue jeans wiggled up and down as she walked away. But in no time at all I recognized that there was something very dear and special percolating inside that sweet head of hers and I wanted to get to know her, be her friend, spend serious time being silly.
Instead of all the things I will not tell you, I will tell you this.
One evening Lisa Ann and I were sitting in my apartment, drinking the first of three bottles of cheap white wine. At some point we got to talking about what a dummy a certain supervisor at work was (I won't say her real name, so we will call her Katherine), and how it might be fun to annoy her.
I stood up and announced, "Let's explore the distinctions between annoyance, irritation, and making someone totally insane!"
Lisa Ann stood up and said, "Yes! Let's do!"
I picked up the telephone, this being in the days before caller ID and that type of buzz kill, and rang up Katherine the Supervisor, a woman who at that very moment was sitting at the Control Desk in the Authorizations department at American Express in the Western Region Operations Center, which was where Lisa Ann and I worked. Katherine answered the phone and I said, "I need to speak with Bubbles."
"Bubbles?" she said, all sorts of background noise and confusion dying down as if she had said "E.F. Hutton." "Is that someone here in this department?"
"Most certainly," I replied. "I need to speak with her right away."
Katherine said she would try to find her for me. She sat the phone receiver down and I could hear her marching up and down the many aisles of cubicles, asking in that strangled cat voice of hers, "Is your name Bubbles? Does anyone know Bubbles? Who the hell is Bubbles?"
At long last she returned to the Control Desk, retrieved the telephone handset and--with heavy breath--said, "Sir, I'm sorry. I cannot find anyone here named Bubbles?"
"Is this American Express?"
"Yes, yes it is American Express."
"Oh, well, my mistake then," I said and hung up.
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