Work: The Great Equalizer

I write this essay to honor my friend Dan, another friend who died recently, and another friend whom I met at work.  To describe my friendship with Dan I first have to describe my relationship with myself at that time of my life: I was self-conscious, believed I was not good enough, acutely aware that I was the first person in my family to go to college and every day felt unworthy.  And Dan was part of the family who controlled The New York Times.  He scared me.  To be truthful everybody scared me, but few more than Dan.  He was brash and direct and funny and biting and quick-witted and I could not keep up.

We were assigned to a project together that required us to visit movie studios together in L.A.  The first night at dinner, over an exceptionally good bottle of wine that Dan chose, he started a conversation about “The List” – the list of very famous people who could sit down next to you on a plane and say, “I want to sleep with you” and it doesn’t count as cheating.  Now Dan and I were each happily married and talked about our respective spouses all the time, so this was one of those conversations that was simply pure laughter, with each of us making fun of the other person’s list.  I remember that Michael Douglas and Bruce Springsteen were both on my list.

The next day we had a business lunch at The Beverly Hills Grille with the head of Marketing at a major studio and Dan started telling the man about my list. Before I knew it the executive was saying, “Well Michael Douglas is right over there.  Let me go get him.”  I was terrified of what Dan might say!  Would he be dignified or sheer ornery?  Michael Douglas came over to our table to say hello to the executives of the New York Times and, much to my relief, Dan chose dignified.  But our friendship was solidified and we laughed about that day for a decade.

Our friendship began.  We talked about what we had wanted to be when we grew up.  I talked about always wanting to be a therapist.  Dan talked about wanting to make a difference in young people’s lives.  He talked about growing up in a prominent family and the pluses and minuses of that.  I told him about feeling insecure and not good enough.  He told me I was an idiot.  From Dan I could hear it.

There’s no getting around the fact that Dan could be difficult at work.  He was smart and would lose patience with people and sometimes it didn’t matter who those people were.  We developed a code that we first used when we were together on a project with a McKinsey and Co. team:  I would tell him that I had heard he’d been behaving as if he’d eaten too much chocolate!  He would sputter a bit and then break into a grin.  From me he could hear it.

We didn’t work too closely together over time but we were there for one another.  During the first sales conference over which Dan presided as the head of Advertising Sales, he had arranged a karaoke machine for the evening’s entertainment at the bar after dinner.  People were milling about awkwardly, and no one was going anywhere near that machine.  Dan came up to me and said, “Come on, you and I are going to go sing together.”   I know I protested, but he told me not to be an idiot and please help him, and so there were Dan and I, pretending to be Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, belting out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough!”  All it took was for somebody to be brave enough to break the ice.  Within an hour half the women in advertising were gathered ‘round the mike singing “I Will Survive.”  The evening was a success.

Eventually I left The Times.  Eventually Dan did, too. Every once in a while we’d have dinner, often with other friends from those days.   Before he died he was working in a charter school in Newark, N.J. helping children, making a difference in their lives like he said he wanted to do.

Dan once told me that we were friends because I didn’t treat him differently just because he was a “family” member.  I used to feel a little guilty about that, because sometimes I think that his specialness made me feel special and helped me feel good enough at the beginning of our friendship.  But by the end, I know how special he was just because he was Dan.  I miss him.



“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-by so hard.”                             Winnie-the-Pooh