Getting In

"Yes!" I shouted, punching the air as I hung up the phone. I jumped off the bed where I had been keeping vigil all morning and ran down the...

"Yes!" I shouted, punching the air as I hung up the phone. I jumped off the bed where I had been keeping vigil all morning and ran down the stairs to find my wife.

She was coming up the stairs from her basement office.

"Well?" she asked, her eyes anxious until she saw the smile that exploded across my face. She knew what the smile meant. We hugged and kissed each other as we swayed on the blue dhurrie rug in the hallway.

"It's so great," I said. "If you call your family, I'll call mine."

My wife went to her office to phone while I went back upstairs to the bedroom to call my mother with the news. I have been dialing my home number for 45 years but, in the thrill of the moment, I got it wrong. A man with a gruff voice yelled at me for waking him up.

I redialed and, after two rings, my mother picked up.

"Good news," I said, my voice breaking for a second. My mother is 86 years old and recently a widow. She had been nervously anticipating the call, her heart set on the outcome.

"I'm so happy. And proud, too." Her voice swelled. "You should feel proud, too."

"Come on. There was a lot of luck to it," I answered, looking at the clock on the bedside table. It was just after 11 a.m.

"You can say luck, but there was also hard work and perseverance," my mother said earnestly. My mother has always been a great booster of her family's accomplishments.

"Okay. Hard work, but luck also. It's time for me to go to work," I said, beginning to come down from the morning's high.

I went to the bathroom to wash my face and applied some new deodorant, since my undershirt was soaked with sweat. Then I put on a clean blue shirt and red tie to commemorate the occasion.

What was the origin of this celebration and outpouring of feeling?

Harvard admission for my son? A Marshall or Rhodes? A job offer for him from Morgan Stanley?

No, the source of joy was getting reservations at the Charles Hotel for my son's graduation as a member of the class of 2000.

 

Ever since Mike was accepted at Harvard on early action--itself a cause for great revelry--the matter of Commencement week had loomed. In our family, where Mike's cousin is a member of the class of 1994, Commencement demanded the Charles. Although Boston and Cambridge have dozens of fine, even venerable, hotels, no other place was considered.

The Charles is prime real estate for Commencement, however, and reservations are as precious as the crown jewels. There are no shortcuts or byes: getting reservations means getting on the line on the second Monday in June, losing a day to nerve-wracking waiting, and, of course, being willing to fork over a lot of cash. Getting into the Charles and staying there is not for the fainthearted or poor, but for the swashbucklers and titans.

With some trepidation, my wife designated me as the family member who, at exactly 8 a.m. on June 14, 1999, would get into the phone queue for the Charles in hopes of garnering the prize. For my niece's graduation, my brother-in-law, whose sangfroid comes from years of making deals on Wall Street, did the honors. I was to be the champion for our family, not by virtue of my courage or fortitude, but simply because of a more flexible work schedule.

My wife worried about my ability to do the job. She thought I would be cavalier and call late. She fretted that I lacked a killer instinct and would not be ruthless enough to log in at 7:56 or 7:57 to get a jump on the competition. She feared that I would play by the rules and that my family would lose out and have to spend Commencement week in a Holiday Inn in Saugus.

"This is serious," she said on the night of June 13, as we reviewed the drill and the operation of the speaker phone that we had bought especially for the occasion.

As I tried to stifle a grin, my wife looked at me gravely. "Do you remember which button to push?" she asked.

"I know, I know," I said, nodding my head, adding, "This one," as I pressed on her navel.

"That's not funny," she said, slapping my hand away.

"Don't worry," I said. "I have it all down pat." In the yellow-white light of the bedside lamp, I showed her the phone number of the Charles and assured her that my clock was accurate to the second.

"Call a little early," she said. "Don't be a fool."

"I will. Let's go to bed," I said, turning off the light. I knew she would reject my advances. She wanted me mean and hungry for the phone call to the Charles.

My ordeal at the phone started the next morning after I ate breakfast, set up the speaker phone in the middle of our bed, and arrayed a set of articles that I would read while waiting to get through to the Charles.

"Remember, call early," my wife said as she went to her office for an early case after the carpool picked up our daughter. My wife did not kiss me good-bye. I knew what this meant. A kiss would be a reward for performance, not an entitlement of love.

I now want to confess to all those other parents and families out there who waited to call for reservations at the Charles.

I cheated. I did not wait until 8:00. I called at 7:58. Miraculously, I got a recorded message about reservations. I knew I was in line (of itself, no mean feat), a cause for relief and brief celebration.

The heat of Carolina summer already pressed upon our house as I began to wait. I have no recollection of the music that came through the speaker phone, but after the twentieth repetition of the insipid, tinny sound, I was sick of it. By 8:45, I was frustrated and totally unable to concentrate on the articles I was trying to read.

At 9:30, a woman with a pleasant voice came on the line. I was instantly jazzed.

"Are you calling for reservations for Commencement week?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, poised between exhilaration and despair. "Can I get them? Please?" I sounded needy and almost pathetic. What would my wife think of this attitude? I was supposed to be a warrior.

"Not right now. We're just checking. As soon as one of the agents is free, we'll get back to you," the woman said, hanging up before I could ask a question like "Where am I in line?" or "Do I have a chance?"

Another hour passed. I gave up reading and turned on CNN. The bedroom became warmer as sunlight streamed through the window. I did a few push-ups and sit-ups to relieve the boredom and only strayed from the phone once, to go the bathroom.

At 10:45 a.m., the pleasant woman came back on the phone, interrupting the music, which I had long since blocked out. "Are you waiting to make reservations for Commencement?"

"I am," I said tentatively, my mouth dry and my hands sweating.

"Good," the woman said, "Let's have the information. Let me have your name and the accommodations you wish."

I was overwhelmed with joy. I could not believe my good fortune. We were in. I spewed names, addresses, and Visa numbers for three rooms. I felt I had crossed the Jordan and was in the promised land.

"And what will the rate be?" I asked, although I knew the answer from previous inquiries.

"Five hundred dollars a night, with a three-night minimum," the woman said calmly. "Of course, there are also taxes. This is Boston."

"That will be fine," I said, trying to sound nonchalant, although three nights at the Charles for Commencement for the class of 2000 would cost as much as my freshman year's tuition as a member of the class of 1967.

After reviewing details of the cancellation policy, my job was done. I had passed the test with flying colors.

 

A few months later, while I was at the Charles on consulting business, I asked the clerk whether Commencement week was sold out.

"Of course," he said.

"How long did people have to wait on the phone?" I asked as I snatched a Red Delicious apple from the glass bowl on the desk.

"Until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, " he said.

I felt tickled, giving myself kudos for calling at just the right instant. Even if I had jumped the gun by a whisker, the infraction was too slight to diminish my achievement. My timing in the phone queue was a masterpiece.

Since the Charles is pricey, I had cleared the cost in advance with my mother and my wife's parents who, with my wife and my daughter, would fill up the three rooms. My wife's parents are Republicans and were dismayed when Mike chose Harvard instead of Stanford, my wife's alma mater: home of the Hoover Institution, among other things. To them, Harvard was still suspect, a place that was once known as Kremlin on the Charles and boasted a faculty that had led our country astray.

"What a rip-off," my father-in-law said on the phone when I alerted him to the room rates. But despite his grumbling about the perfidy of Harvard--and of its front, the Charles--in espousing socialism while engaged in the most venal price gouging, my in-laws nevertheless agreed to the rate.

Mike, an economics concentrator, had a different view. "If they charge $500 a night and get it," he said, "it means that they're not charging enough."

David S. Pisetsky '67, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and a writer. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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