The soldiers and sailors may keep America free, but it's the guys who have no idea what time it is back home or where they are who keep America rich. They are the new American businessmen, and they are the foot soldiers on the front line of the new economy. But who are they, and where are they taking us? Walter Kirn meets the troops
In June 2000, GQ Literary Editor Walter Kirn wrote a piece of journalism for GQ called "The Life." It was this story that inspired Kirn to write the novel Up in the Air. For two weeks, Kirn flew back and forth across America—and sat in more than a few business-class lounges in cities from Denver to Dallas to Chicago—to hear the stories of the men who would become Ryan Bingham.
We are pleased to reprint it here.
It's sleeting, and the troops aren't going anywhere. Denver International Airport, the major hub for the western United States and a forward base for the war effort code-named Operation New Economy, is out of commission this Monday morning. Paralyzed. Canceled flights clog the monitors, eyed by platoons of anxious businessmen who aren't going to make it to the front this morning. According to a voice on the PA, descending planes are taking on coats of ice, and one slid off the runway a couple of hours ago. I can see it on the tarmac being towed while, all around, men in orange vests atop booms spray other frozen aircraft with gallon upon gallon of deicer.
Inside United Airlines' Red Carpet Club East, a sort of legion hall for frequent fliers feeling strung out and lonely between missions, Peter Zelter is desperate for a drink. He should be in Los Angeles by now, connecting with a commuter flight to Oxnard, where he's supposed to meet up with a sales rep for the medical-systems division of Siemens, his company. Peter's job is demonstrating equipment—high-end X-ray machines, to be precise, which go for up to $1 million apiece—and if his rep is going to make a sale, Peter needs to be there, showing off the unit. To add to the pressure, Peter's division is under orders from the upper echelons to achieve a "flatter line" in its quarter-to-quarter revenue curve, meaning it needs to boost its springtime sales to match its traditionally stronger autumn performance.
Peter holds out a Visa card to Dennis, one of the bartenders, and asks if he can run a tab. No dice. With all the club members jamming the phones with tense, excuse-filled calls to pissed-off bosses, harried subordinates and impatient clients, the bar's credit-card terminal can't get a line out. Worse, the ATMs are down. More frustrating still, the TV behind the bar has ugly news: the third-worst point drop to date for the NASDAQ.
Morale is low in the Red Carpet Club, and Peter jokes that he'll have to curb his drinking. He calls for bourbon, slaps down a couple of bills and talks bout his life aloft—the life of a corporate airborne commando.
"I don't know what day it is half the time," he says, estimating his annual air travel at 120,000 miles. "My work's never done. I work in my hotel room. I rarely go out. My friends think I've got a great job, but traveling isn't glamorous. I go to a lot of cities, but I never see them." Peter laps his bourbon for a moment as CNBC reporters recap the market drop and a man at a nearby table boots up a laptop to check his portfolio in real time. The battle maps change quickly in this conflict; it's crucial to have the latest intelligence.
Peter orders a second drink. "A lot of people don't understand what it is to be a traveler like this. It's a lot of headaches and hassles. Checking into a room that's crappy and has never been cleaned, getting that middle seat in the exit row that doesn't recline between two guys who are bigger than I am." Another gripe is the rudeness of fellow passengers, particularly those who sit up front and expect to be treated like top brass. Air rage is real; peter sees it all the time. He watched a guy out a flight attendant because she didn't have his brand of beer.
Peter boots up his Cassiopeia PDA and calls up a calendar. He taps the calendar's squares with a stylus. New Jersey. South Carolina. Houston. Back to Denver. Then on to Oxnard. Then on to San Diego. "I've been living like this for two years," says Peter. "When I talk to friends, I have to look at the hotel phone to tell them where I am."
Since I already know the answer, it's no use asking him why he doesn't just ground himself. I've spent three days in the club, talking with men like Peter, morning till evening, soaking up the radiation from their cell phones and laptops and pagers and PDAs. The gear makes them virtual cyborgs, robofliers; they're perpetually alert to beeps and buzzes that go off in their pockets, on their belts. They're always connecting, these guys, these plugged-in mercenaries, and yet they're always disconnecting—from family, from friends, from the whole civilian world. The only people who sympathize, they say, are others who've been to the front and know the life. That's what they call it: the life. It's soldier talk.
For a lot of them, living the life is not a choice. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. And though these guys are always swearing, like shell-shocked combatants in a Hemingway novel, that they see themselves settling down in a couple of years (it's always "a couple," for some reason, never "a few"; two is the magic number of denial), and though they're constantly singing the praises of home-cooked meals and familiar mattresses, they also report that the when they've tried to stop, tried to demobilize, it hasn't worked. The blare of distant trumpets calls them back.
"Going from this to working in a cubicle might be tough for me," says Peter. "Sometimes, if I have five days or a week off, I'm at a loss." He's 31, and at least he knows himself. The reason he has an apartment, not a house, is that he can't see himself spending his precious time off watering the lawn and cleaning gutters. Indeed, he has one friend, another gung ho traveler, who let his lease lapse and is basically homeless, living from hotel suite to hotel suite.
Another bourbon. Sleet still coming down. The NASDAQ off 180 points. Worse, Peter left his pager at home today.
All it takes is a little ice, sometimes, to stop an advancing army in its tracks.
The traveling salesman isn't what he used to be—a figure of populist Americana who hung a clothes rack in his Buick's backseat, loaded up the trunk with samples and set off into the roadside wilderness of coffee shops, offices, barrooms and motels to sell his wares, and himself, to all and sundry. Arthur Miller memorialized his desperation; Sinclair Lewis satirized his optimism; Theodore Dreiser celebrated his energy. Salty, down-to-earth and democratic, he was a the guy with a joke for every waitress, a grin and a nudge in the ribs for every bellhop. He knew everyone; everyone knew him. He built relationships. When he died, a hundred letters of condolence flooded in to his widow. A sort of commercial Johnny Appleseed, he wore out pairs of shoes and sets of tires covering his territory.
His counterpart today is far more insulated. He lives in the sky and in members-only airline clubs, alighting on earth only temporarily, where the first thing he does is find a telephone jack so he can tap into cyberspace. He's in the world, but not of it. He moves too fast. He doesn't mix with the common people; he skims along above their heads, pressing hot towels to his forehead in first-class cabins or sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice on one of those "executive" hotel floors that require a special key for access. He thinks of himself as belonging to an elite group, and nearly every move he makes, from using his credit card to renting a car, garners him new entitlements, new privileges. He's Willy Highman, literally. A god. Or so he's told by the myriad reservation agents who constitute his chief contacts with humanity.
Inside himself he knows otherwise. He's still the guy in the Buick, pushing, pushing. He still has to eat what's put in front of him and dress for the day in his cleanest dirty shirt. And he's still far from home, obliged to get results and terrified of returning empty-handed. Nothing has really changed, except his separateness. Instead of being down among the people, he's up there in the clouds somewhere, cut off, where no one can follow because he's leaving no footprints.
When the paper reports a rise in productivity or when that growth fund in your IRA shoots up, pause for a moment and think of them: the "fulfillment" manager for Nordstrom.com who flies around negotiating shipping rates with express-delivery services, the itinerant CEO-for-rent who takes young computer companies in hand, the entrepreneur who sells advertising space on the walls of airline lounges like the Red Carpet club. And what do they get for this back-and-forth existence that carries the flag of progress and prosperity from city to city, state to state? A few gold stars in the form of frequent-flier miles.
What makes this a truly military culture, besides its overwhelming maleness, its air of emotional deprivation and the lousy rations, is its obsession with rank and hierarchy. Like jungle gorillas, business travelers always know where they stand versus the rest of the group. In this parallel universe of upgrade vouchers and priority-boarding privileges, everyone has a number and a position, and who gets that open aisle seat in first class means even more on the road then who earns what. Money is just a symbol, after all, but Premier Executive status on United can get you extra legroom. And a free cup of coffee in the Red Carpet club.
The club is a curious place, a sort of holding cell masquerading as an officers' club. The sense of importance it offers is a mirage. Ever since the invention of frequent-flier miles, those insidiously addictive New Age green stamps, airlines have been at the vanguard of what are know in the marketing trade as "loyalty programs." Be true to us, and we'll be true to you. The airlines know what their customers forget, though; that such perks, in reality, aren't perks at all but accounting gimmicks priced into every ticket, and their psychological value far exceeds their economic worth.
Like time off for good behavior or extra shore leave, frequent-flier miles are tools of discipline that work by promoting the illusion of freedom. Because, face it' For the troops in the Red Carpet club, loyalty to United is not an option. The airline holds a near monopoly on connections through Denver. Fly United or go Greyhound. It's pretty humiliating, if you think about it.
The club and the other loyalty programs offer a way not to think about it. The members are conscripts twice over, for the most part—forced to travel by their companies and forced to travel United by United—but the armchairs, the pretzels and the laptop ports make them feel like captains of industry. That's why American calls its lounge the Admirals club and why Delta calls its club the Crown room. The essence of motivational science 2000 is convincing galley slaves that they're steering the ship.
"I was supposed to go to Boston today. Then that changed on Friday," says Erick Horn, a project manager for an Internet company whose exact nature he's hard put to explain and whose major client, a Big Three auto company, he's wary about naming lest the enemy get a jump on him. "Of course, I'd made the reservations on Thursday. Then they said the meeting was in Detroit. I had to cancel my hotel in Boston and make a reservation at a Detroit hotel, but the one I normally stay at was sold out. Then I had to reserve a car because the airport is so far from the city." Sometimes, Erik says, he'll cross the country for a two-hour meeting, then fly home that night.
As much as any person who wishes to remain a Homo sapiens rather than become a bionic silicon hybrid can, Eric has adapted to the life. He belongs to a nationwide chain of fitness centers so he can maintain his muscled torso wherever he happens to touch down. He supplements his sporadic meals with protein bars, which and the "team members" he leads and travels with order over their laptops from a company that FedExes the bars to whatever location they're in. He drinks a lot of water to stay hydrated and keeps his weight down by removing buns from airline sandwiches.
Sitting perfectly upright in his armchair, Erik tells a teammate to check the monitors, then discourses on the vast promise of E-commerce; he's confident and cadetlike, a starship trooper. He's also a living rebuke to the idea that young men go soft and sloppy in times of peace. The warrior instinct, in healthy American males, is a constant; it can't be turned off, just redirected. Maybe that's why other countries fear us most in periods of calm, when our guys hit the beach bearing cell phones instead of hand grenades.
Erik's challenge is teaching his loved one on the home front to adapt to him. At 33 he's newly engaged, but talk of relationships darkens his shining face. "When your partner doesn't travel for her job," he says, "it's hard for her to understand that when you're away, you're working. The interruption of contact makes things hard."
Chad Schmidt, 24, is part of Erik's team. He's a Web-site designer, Cornell educated, with a nerdy, permanently single look and formless, fashion-free Bill Gates-style hair. "Girlfriend? Always looking," he says curtly. "It's hard. It's really hard." He has a friend who flies as much as he does and picks up women form port to port, but he's had no luck. He should keep trying; from what I've heard in the club these past few days, frequent fliers can be a swinging bunch. They're always up for a brief encounter in their favorite Courtyard by Marriot. One imagines them in bed beneath bad paintings, a soft-core pay-per-view flick on the tube, wine chilling in a plastic bucket. Live for today; tomorrow you die. Or get hung up in Oxnard, without a rental car.
Marching in Americas' laptop army has taken a physical toll on Chad.
"Planes are a gestation vessel for germs and sickness. I used to get sick a lot," he says. There's more: "I've developed neck problems from sleeping with my chin on my chest on planes and looking down at my laptop. I have to get physical therapy now." Other than his aches and pains and his lack of a social life beyond the team, though, he says he's grown accustomed to life in uniform. He claims he's even found a Zen-like peace in admitting his powerlessness over travel hassles. "When we're in Miami or something, I say just get me going west. I'll get home eventually."
Chad calls this "life at the speed of business." But instead of resenting the pace set by Erik and the company, he's grateful for having learned to push his limits. There's the money, too. Chad brings out a folder from Toyota and shows me the dream SUV he hopes to own, ticking off his desired options as though he were describing that ideal woman who he's resigned himself to not meeting. " I'm waiting for our stock to hit fifty so I can buy it," he says. He sounds a bit wistful about this minor hope, partly because of the plunging NASDAQ and partly because he knows that, with his schedule, he'll rarely get to drive the vehicle. The Toyota is like those frequent-flier miles: a mostly imaginary incentive.
Life at the speed of business has changed Chad, and sometimes he wonders if it's for the better. "Alan Greenspan is talking about interest rates tomorrow. Two years ago, if I thought I'd be interested in that, I'd have jumped out a window." He settles his hands on the ergonomic backpack that carries his electronic survival gear. "Eventually, I'll marry and have a kid and get a minivan. I grew up in a California town like where the Beav grew up. I like that environment."
Small-town bliss will have to wait, though; the sleet's letting up and it's time to ride, says Erik, shifting into combat mode. Chad slings on his backpack, stretches his cramped neck. Semper Fi, marine.
But is it worth it? Looking around the club as the weather clears and the men get moving again, snatching up Tumi briefcases like parachutes and guzzling a last few ounces of black coffee, one wonders if there's an exit strategy for this battle. Guys burn out, rest up, then jump back in. Homecomings are perennially postponed. Will there ever be dancing in the streets? A joyous Times Square ticker-tape parade? Men worked hard in the 1950s, too, but the goal was a martini on the patio at the end of the day, a weekend camping trip. The Red Carpet brigades have different goals, and it's a good question they'll ever meet them, ever find time to barbecue a steak and toss around a baseball with the kids. No matter how often Chairman Greenspan raises interest rates, even he can't get these flyboys to slow down, to ease up on their pursuit of more free miles.
In explaining the country's overheated economy, the blame and the credit routinely go to soaring tech stocks and the Internet. Me, I wonder if it's not the airlines' fault. Maybe they're the ones who struck the match. Maybe their loyalty programs have caused the madness. A man can have enough money, after all, but there's no such thing as having enough miles.--
Willy Loman faced the world with nothing but a shoeshine and a smile. In the Red Carpet club, men are better equipped for the salesman's life of nonstop travel. Besides all the high-tech gear they tote around, there are the cards.
Craig Story keeps a special book, a sort of photo album, for all his cards. They're framed in plastic pockets, dozens of them, gold and silver and platinum and diamond, entitling him to Marriott Miles, to VIP service at car-rental counters, to first-class upgrades on airline after airline. The cards are heraldic tokens of Craig's rank, and someday, when his children ask him what he did in the war for global prosperity, he'll take the medals out and lay them on the bed the way a veteran would a box of medals. And I won this one for flying United Airlines every other day for seven years…
Blond, broad shouldered, all handshake and white teeth, Craig is the sort of gee-whiz superspokesman familiar from late-night cable TV infomercials. He owns his own company, Pure Water Technology, and has sworn a blood oath against bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants, which he feels are slowly poisoning America. When talking up the water-filtration devices he places in factories and hospitals, he refers to germs as CFUs (colony-forming units) and warns me against drinking from office water jugs.
Today Craig is on his way home to Idaho after a visit to Columbus, Ohio, where his filtration units are manufactured. Idaho is where his wife and kids live and where he hangs out with Mark Fuhrman, a neighbor ("He can drink some beer!" Craig says), but his true, spiritual home is here: comfy leather armchair at the club, surrounded by other "1K" business fliers with seat-back-molded spines and ticker-tape eyes. In fact, Craig doesn't even have to be here. He made enough money to retire with his first business, selling dispensers for chemicals used in sterilizing microchips. He's here because when he tried to leave "the life," he couldn't decelerate, couldn't' stop the buzzing. One way to deal with the post-traumatic stress is to reenlist.
Craig likes to feel he has gained a certain perspective from his time off between tours. He nods at a conference table where a young man is talking on a hands-free cell phone—he looks like a schizophrenic, addressing thin air—while simultaneously pecking at a laptop. "I see these people and I think, That's the mode I was in. You start speeding up. You go, go, go, twenty-four-seven. You build up to this frenzy." Craig pours beer from a bottle into a glass and watches the foam subside as he reflects. "I traveled all around the U.S. and the world, but it feels like I didn't see much. I knew it was time to get out when I was walking through an airport and I though, I know everybody here."
This epiphany soon went poof, of course. "I didn't know what to do with myself. You don't realize how ramped up you are," Craig says. As if to prove this, he launches another sales pitch, hyping me on a device he's invented—the Health Energizer—that runs on two D batteries and somehow wipes out germs and viruses by adjusting the body's electric field. It's going to change modern medicine, Craig says, and he can't wait to hit the road promoting it.
He checks his watch; his connection should be boarding. This chance to discuss his products makes him glad, he says, that he missed his scheduled morning flight. I ask him why he missed it. A dumb mistake, he says. When he landed in Denver a couple of hours ago, the flight attendant told him the wrong local time.
The Red Carpet Club is half-empty. It's getting late. A few lonely fliers gather at the bar, sighing and drumming their fingers while their drinks are mixed. Unlike most other airline lounges, the club charges member for alcoholic beverages, and they rarely fail to whine about it to Dennis, one of the club's long-suffering bartenders.
When it comes to absorbing crap from citizen soldiers whose spouses resent them for missing Junior's soccer games, whose commanders are on the warpath for flatter sales curves, whose vertebrae pop like Rice Krispies when they sit down and whose chief consolation for all this grief is the hollow title of Premier Exec, Dennis is a champ. You can't pull rank on him.
"This one guy is eating at the bar, and I say, 'Sorry, you can't eat here,' and he says, 'Hey, I fly 50,000 miles a year,' and I almost said 'BFD.' " Even celebrities don't turn Dennis's head, and he's served some of the legends, from Wayne Newton to Diana Ross. "The only thing that impresses me is size," he says. "When David Robinson sits in these leather chairs, his knees are parallel with his shoulders."
The world Dennis sees from behind his bar is frantic, perpetually running late and booming. The Premier Execs are making a killing despite their complaints about the price of Buds. They look right through Dennis at CNBC and pump their fists when Cisco hits new highs. They're cocky. They're psyched. Like the kid from San Francisco who flew in today to sell security software to Denver Internet concern. His start-up goes public soon, and he can't wait. Or that older fellow, an aging hippie type who specializes in something called wireless networking and is leaving Intel a multimillionaire and jumping into a hush-hush project. The worst was that guy with a stock tip—Monster.com—who asked Dennis weeks later if he'd bought it. Dennis hadn't. The stock had doubled. Damn.
In his midfifties and worried about retirement, Dennis feels a bit left out sometimes. He's surrounded by furious action, yet here he stands, a guy who spends his weekends delivering bowling balls to alleys and pro shops for extra dough. He figures he ahs ten years to build a nest egg, so he keeps an ear out in the club for investment advice. It isn't going well. He heard about biotechs, bought some, and they tanked. "You know what's sick?" he says. "I had my money in a blue-chip fund, and I took it out because it wasn't moving and put it all in the NASDAQ. Now that's down."
He wipes out a glass. A heavy fellow shows up, setting his Nokia cell phone on the bar and his laptop case on the next stool. He bitches about a missed connection to Boston, opens his wallet, removes a Platinum AmEx.
"Sorry," Dennis says, "we can't take cards today." The Premier Exec grunts and forks over a crisp new hundred.
"You know, my other clubs don't charge for drinks," he says.
Dennis knows, but I doubt he sympathizes. He's just a civilian. He leads a simple life.
He doesn't have to take orders from these guys.