Written by Diana Altman
I’d been a travel agent for one week when a woman came into the office, mistook me for someone experienced, and sat down at my desk. Most clients went to one of the other three agents, either because they were loyal to them or because they could see I didn’t know what I was doing as I riffled frantically through cheat sheets or turned to the agent at the desk behind mine to ask for an airport code I kept forgetting.
We depended upon travel agents in the days before we could shop for flights and hotels on the internet. To be a travel agent you had to go to school. There were two travel schools in Boston in 1995; one at night for people with day jobs and the other for those of us who could attend all day.
Like me, my classmates were changing careers midlife. They were tired of jobs at banks and insurance companies. I was the only writer. My first book was published but I couldn’t write another because I was too restless to sit still. Children grown and gone, I felt the itch of wanderlust. So did my classmates. Free travel was a perk of our new career.
I was interviewed by Ida who owned a successful travel agency in Lexington, Massachusetts. She was in her sixties, had seen it all, and was not impressed. Her gaze let me know that she’d interviewed dozens of worthless people and I was just one more. She poked her calculator. This was mere drama because we both knew the standard beginner’s pay in 1995. “I’ll give you $15,000 a year to work every day including Saturday. You should be paying me,” she said. “You’re useless for two years.”
The woman who came in, my very first client, was about seventy. She had an alert, bird-like quality that was adorable. She said she wanted to go to San Francisco but didn’t have much money. I had only been to San Francisco once in my life and that was at the airport on a stopover. “The place to stay,” I said, “is down by the water. Let’s see if I can find you something with a beautiful view.” I went to fetch the hotel reference book from the shelf by the fax machine.
Back at my desk, I thumbed through pages to find San Francisco. My client said, “I just have to get away. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be living with my daughter.” She continued talking to me as I ran my finger down the columns of hotels looking for one that didn’t cost too much. “I don’t want to say anything against my daughter,” she said, “but I’ve just got to get away. I’ve just got to for a little while, anyway.” She said that she’d had some financial setbacks and found her current situation humiliating. I so wanted to help this woman. I so wanted to do a good job.
“Look at this,” I said. “Could you afford $52.00 a night?” She nodded. “It’s right by the water. Right on the wharf. Wow. Roof garden, indoor pool, excellent restaurant. Should I book it?” I phoned the hotel, made the reservation for four nights, filled out vouchers, punched up a round-trip economy class ticket to SFO, and she went away buoyant.
“Hey,” Susan at the desk across from mine said, “you know who that was?”
“Who?” said Bill at the desk next to hers.
“That was the mother of the woman whose husband had the mistress. Loretta, wasn’t that the mother of that woman?”
Loretta, fingers tap dancing on her keyboard said, “Didn’t notice.”
“It was,” Susan said. “That was the mother. Tell her Loretta. Tell her about it.”
“I’m in the middle of something here.”
“My client?” I asked.
“Yes, she came in with her daughter. It was before your time. The daughter rushes over to Loretta’s desk and asks what flight her husband is on. He’s arriving from Chicago and the daughter’s supposed to go meet him at the airport but forgot the flight number. So instead of sitting in the chair she stands right next to Loretta as Loretta pulls up his reservation. She’s looking right at the screen and there before her eyes, plain as day, is her husband’s booking. He hasn’t been in Chicago but in Palm Beach. The reservation is for two and she sees the name of his girlfriend right there on Loretta’s screen.”
Loretta joined our conversation. “There was nothing I could do. She’d seen it. I didn’t know these people at all.”
“So what did the daughter do?” I asked.
“She screamed,” Susan said. “Called the guy all sorts of horrible names.”
“Really screamed,” said Bill.
“How scary,” I said. “So what did the mother do?”
“Nothing,” Susan said. “What could she do? She just left with her daughter. I’m sure that was her. I remember. That was the mother. I’m telling you.”
Now my heart went out even more to my client. There she was, living in a household where there was tension, shouting, and hurt. At least she would get away for a few days. I was proud of being competent enough to make that possible.
A month later the woman came in again, this time just to visit me. She’d had the most wonderful vacation of her life. Her room overlooked the bay. Each night turndown service left chocolates on her pillow. The mattress was a cloud, the bathroom had a whirlpool, a scrumptious terry cloth robe waited in the closet, the shampoo was fragrant and so was the body lotion. “I brought you this,” she said and presented me with a red rose. “And this.” She gave me a piece of gourmet chocolate and a little key ring souvenir of the Golden Gate Bridge. “I want to give you a hug.”
I stood up and felt her fragile self against me. “I’m so happy you had a good time,” I said.
“Yes,” she said when our shy hug ended. “And I’m moving out. That vacation renewed me. I’ve come back to myself. It’s like I’d lost who I was. I’ve found a place of my own. I’m moving out of my daughter’s house.” When she went out she turned and waved to me a final time.
One of my goals was to provide people with a respite from their worries. Doing the job correctly meant the traveler felt safe while away and that she or he got more than they paid for. It took a special person, I told myself, an especially clever person to understand so thoroughly what that client needed. Soon I would have what the other agents in the office had, “a following.” Eventually there would be clients who wouldn’t deal with anyone but me.
The phone rang. It was the desk clerk from the hotel in San Francisco. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said. “To be more careful? Next time you book a hotel?” He was still so young he ended his sentences up. “This hotel? It has the same name as a hotel across town. The other is $52.00 a night. This one is three times that much?”
“But my client described a beautiful hotel to me.”
“I know,” the young man said. “I kept trying to explain that her reservation wasn’t in this hotel but she just couldn’t understand. She kept showing me her voucher? She was really upset. She reminded me of my grandma. So I let her stay.”
“Thank you. What a wonderful person you are. Thank you so much.”
“I put her in a good room with a view of the bridge.”
This news I kept from my colleagues while reviewing where I’d gone wrong. I looked again at the hotel reference book with its tiny print and no space between listings and saw that the two hotels were right next to each other. Luckily my mistake was to the advantage of a gentle woman who really needed a break.
The next day the phone rang. It was the manager of the hotel. “Your client got a thousand-dollar vacation for pennies,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m very sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough. Your agency has to pay the difference. We lost money on that transaction so your being sorry is meaningless. We intend to make up that loss.”
“It was my mistake.”
“Yes, you and that desk clerk I fired.”
“You fired him?”
“Of course I fired him.”
“But why? That isn’t fair! It was my fault. He’s just young. He’s just a nice young man. She reminded him of his grandma.”
“She did not pay enough for the room. Don’t you understand anything? What kind of idiot are you?” He hung up. This too I did not tell my colleagues.
I imagined that young clerk in his apartment, sitting at his kitchen table revising his resume. He’d paid a steep price for his goodness and I wondered if he thought it was worth it. Maybe he was feeling as I was, that of all the mistakes we had yet to make we’d never make that one again. I felt very guilty and hoped that he had at least enough for next month’s rent.
A few days later Ida stood in the doorframe of her office and gave me the come-hither finger. “Sit down,” she said, indicating the chair in front of her desk. She closed her office door, a bad sign. “A hotel in San Francisco is withholding our commission on a booking you made,” she said. “Did you book a client in San Francisco?”
“I know. I know. She thought it was one hotel but it was the other one and the desk clerk let her stay. It was my mistake. I’m sorry. The poor kid got fired.”
“Do you know how much that cost me?” Ida never engaged eye to eye. If she looked anyone in the face at all, it was a quick tap on the chin. Now she jabbed her calculator. “The client paid $52 a night for a room that cost three times that.”
“She had a wonderful time. I think she’ll be loyal to our travel agency for the rest of her life.”
“Have I asked for your opinion?” She poked the calculator again. “The commission due is ten percent of the nightly room rate. The commission that is coming to us is zero and our preferred status with the hotel chain has been jeopardized by your mistake. I am taking the commission owed us out of your pay.”
“That is all.”
Furious, I sat at my desk fuming. How could she do that? Didn’t she want her employees to be happy? Wouldn’t a scolding have been enough? There was an embarrassed hush hanging over the room. Ida’s office door was made of glass so they’d all seen me in there withering.
Winter was approaching so the next weeks were nonstop work. I booked tickets from Boston to Fort Lauderdale for widows escaping the snow. Dark at four in the afternoon, I filled out resort vouchers for couples fleeing to Aruba and families going to Orlando.
Then came spring and one of Loretta’s clients sat down at my desk. In his fifties, he was handsome and expensively dressed. “Where’s Loretta?”
“Las Vegas. Her son’s getting married.”
“Usually I work with Loretta.”
“Can I help?”
“Get me two first class tickets to Nevis and an ocean view suite.”
He told me the dates. I phoned the hotel, made the reservation, then booked the airline tickets; one for him and one for a woman with a different last name. I was happy because the commission would please Ida. “I’ve never been to Nevis,” I said as I was stapling his vouchers. “It must be nice there.”
“It’s as good as any other place,” he said. “They’re all pretty much the same.”
“Yes,” I said. “Warm and cozy is always welcome.”
He leaned in closer to me and whispered, “If the wife don’t find out.” He pulled back and examined my face, perhaps to see if I was shocked. “The wife and the mother-in-law,” he said.
“That can’t be too comfortable.”
“Tell me about it. Then the mother-in-law moves out and I have to hear about that.”
“The wife wanted her to stay. Easier with the kids. She could go out, leave them with the mother.” I said nothing, busied myself adjusting the carbon paper on the voucher pad. I wondered if Susan across the room was trying to give me a sign but I didn’t dare look up. “Doesn’t matter. I got a place of my own. I get the kids once a week and every other weekend. But, you know, they’re in high school. No big deal.” He watched as I folded his vouchers and put them in an envelope. “I offered to take them to St. Martin,” he said. “Thought that might be nice, spend some time together. But no, they can’t be bothered. I said it’s just for a week. You can’t have that much school work. One week? Is that too much to ask?” He shrugged.
“So,” I said softly, “Nevis it is.”
He looked at me and our eyes met. “Nevis it is.”
featured in our spring 2019 issue