A year ago, while we still lived in New York, I took a job as an editor for a start-up financial newsletter. It was run by a very successful investor and former hedge fund manager I had originally met through Forbes. He was a dynamic person, and lots of fun to be around and I was happy for the job. It was hard work, and I wasn't necessarily a perfect fit for what he wanted, it turned out, but I gave it my best.
In the end he needed someone who was far more of an investment guru than I was, with more ability to break down balance sheets in order to unlock the true potential of stocks. I had little knowledge about this process. My picks tended to be pretty predictable, and not all that exciting.
Not that I was wrong all the time, I wasn't. I read through the reports they already had on file and said that Apple, for example, was a "buy" at $260, it's now at $335. The iPad was brand new and all the analysis I read pointed to it potentially being a smash product on the order of the iPhone, although many poo-pooed that notion a year ago. Worth remembering: the iPhone was also poo-pooed when it came out. I saw parallels. Honestly, Apple still might be a buy, as it's price-to-earnings ratio is only 15, but I digress. (Another digression: it's extremely hard to consistently beat the market over time.)
Whatever, I didn't buy Apple that day, because I'm really not comfortable investing any real money into individual stocks. I guess that's why I'm not already retired in the Caribbean sipping daiquiris, like Dan Ackroyd at the end of Trading Places.
And none of these points are why I'm writing this anyway.
One day my new boss took me out to lunch at a local Pannera. He generously offered to pay for my soup and salad, as well as his own. This being New York these came out to something like $25, by the way. But pay it he did, which I really appreciated.
When he paid, I noticed, he did it with an American Express card. Then I looked still more closely. It wasn't just any American Express card, it was The American Express Black Card.
Something clicked in my memory. The Black Card, I thought, isn't that what, like, Jay-Z uses?
In other words, it is for the truly big money.
That night, out of curiosity, I looked up all I could find about The Black Card. It turns out to have an interesting story. The Black Card (the real name of which is actually The Centurion Card, but no one calls it that) was actually a myth before it was a product. Once upon a time the highest, most-prestigious Amex card you could get was the Platinum card. Which is plenty prestigious, believe me.
Still, the world being what it is, the Universe's various Masters started to say they had heard tell of still another card, that was even more rare, and exclusive. The Black Card. You couldn't ask for it, they could only give it to you. If they felt like it. Maybe.
But at this point there was no Black Card, it was just a neurotic fantasy playing out in the minds of pampered heiresses and Wall Street hard-ons in order for them, somehow, to still feel inferior.
Of course American Express eventually got wind of this. I imagine when they first heard the story their top execs probably laughed their asses off and then, in mid-laugh, became dead serious. Holy crap!, they almost certainly shouted, we've got to introduce this Black Card! The marketing has already been done for us, by the most powerful people in the world! Then they went back to laughing their asses off and eating money sandwiches.
And so the Black Card was released. In a canny move Amex kept it invitation only. Today you can only be invited to get a Black Card if you already own a Platinum Card, are crazy rich, have great credit and, presumably, spend just wheelbarrows full of money all the time.
So, THAT was the card my new boss used to pay for our lunch at Pannera, that day, a year ago.
Man, I thought, this dude is seriously loaded. Which I already kind of knew anyway, but this proved it.
Not long after that I overheard a conversation in the office whereby my boss talked about how he had to pick up his laundry, either within the building or perhaps through delivery. He didn't have the ability to do laundry in his, presumably, posh, possibly penthouse-level, apartment.
Fast forward one year later. We live in Louisville, Kentucky. We do not have a Black, Platinum, Gold or even Green Amex Card. Yet we do have a clothes washer and dryer in our apartment, unlike my old boss. That we have this is considered so unremarkable no one ever remarks upon it. We spend a grand total of $905 a month in rent, which is high for here.
And THAT is the real difference between New York and Kentucky.