I am looking, as I write this, across the Bay of Naples toward Mount Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast of southern Italy. My perch could not be more comfortable -- the living room of the Presidential Suite atop the Palace Hotel on the island of Capri. Since my boyfriend and I arrived last night, our every need has been catered to with the level of service afforded the suite's other recent guests: the king of Sweden and Whitney Houston (presumably on separate occasions). The chef greeted us in the lobby the moment we arrived and sent prosciutto and melon, a sampling of pasta dishes and exquisite desserts to our room. The hotel manager personally guided us through the maze of bedrooms, living areas and terraces (with a private pool, of course) that we would call home for the next few days. ("This button will open the curtains. This one will open the ceiling over the bed so that you may look at the moon.") Every few hours, another maid arrives laden with fresh linens.
Here's the kicker: It's all free. The suite, the food, everything. In fact, every hotel we've visited throughout Italy during the past week -- fine establishments all -- has been free. As were many of the meals, including one four-course, knock-your-socks-off lunch.
I am the first to agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but I, for one, would rather not pay cash. Call me a piker.
The piker has a bad rap in this world. It's what you call someone who is stingy or cheap, a tightwad who tries to get something for nothing. Name-calling is usually a smoke screen for deeper feelings, and this is certainly the case where piking is concerned. Getting things for free -- like a luxury hotel suite in Capri -- tends to provoke jealousy among friends and co-workers. Strangers, too, resent us: Everyone who belongs at an expensive hotel -- from bellhop to wealthy guest -- can spot a piker at a dozen paces. Not many guests check into the Palace Hotel carrying their possessions in a gym bag.
No one really knows where the word "piker" came from. Some etymologists think that it was a name given to the poor immigrants from Pike County, Mo., who scrounged their way across the country to California in search of a better life. Others derive it from "pike," the act of playing cautiously. In my case, it is a combination of the two: playing cautiously during a journey to a better place. Piking, the verb, has no etymological pedigree. I made it up. But there is no question in my mind about what it means.
I happen to be in the fortunate position (for a piker) of dating a man who works for a travel magazine. Although David (I've changed his name to preserve his job) works in the publication's advertising department, most of the freebies that are offered to his travel writing co-workers also come to him. No free airfare, but hotels are "comped" and so are a lot of the meals, as well as other attractions like tours, and cruises, and ... Let your imagination run wild. I have.
During the early days of our courtship -- when lovers size up each other's assets -- I told David that because I was an entertainment reporter, I could take him to any show on Broadway for free. He smiled and kissed me. "I get hotels," he whispered in my ear, "and meals."
Our first tentative journeys were to nearby cities. By traveling on quiet weekends, when conventions were just a glint in the hotel marketing directors' eyes, we settled into a life of sumptuous suites and downy robes, a "champagne lifestyle on a beer salary," as my mother would say. I developed an addiction to the Four Seasons, with its impeccable room service and heavenly beds. Have you ever slept on a Four Seasons king-sized mattress? You'll never want to sleep anywhere else -- unless, of course, you have to pay.
But lest you get jealous, let me remind you: Piking is not free.
For starters, there's the inevitable hotel marketing director. Hotels do not give away rooms without getting something in return. In David's case, it is a
mention in the magazine. This means a conversation with the M.D. about the hotel's amenities, number of rooms, prices, restaurants and anything else that they want to promote in the free press. For pikers like us, the ideal way to receive this information is in a press kit handed over at the reception desk, or -- better yet -- left discreetly in the room next to a courtesy basket of fruit. The more common scenario is a tour of the building during which small talk is made, pertinent questions are asked and yawns are stifled. A few days ago, in Rome, a weekend manager named Luigi led us into a bedroom with a videotape in hand. What smelled like the beginnings of a porno fantasy turned out to be a mind-numbing half-hour video tour of conference facilities set to Sinatra music.
In Philadelphia, a marketing director dangled a four-star dinner before our greedy noses, only to join us at table, singing the praises of the sous chef and peppering David with questions about upcoming feature subjects. My beleaguered boyfriend tried to drown his sorrow in the seven dessert plates laid out before us. When the cuff of his navy blazer drifted into the Chantilly cream, I jumped into the conversation with a probing question about wedding receptions.
Meals, in fact, present a much greater challenge to the seasoned piker than hotel rooms do. A room doesn't really cost the hotel anything. But food, and more importantly, booze, does. Thus, the confirmation letters that spell out accommodations rarely mention meals. A good marketing director will always push the hotel restaurant, but might not make it clear if the dinner will be free. And in the better hotels, the food ain't cheap. A common scenario is that we are encouraged to eat in the restaurant without knowing who will pay. Nothing sours a good meal quicker than a whopping bill landing on your plate when you thought that the charming little dessert wine was the final course.
Because David provides all of the travel freebies, I have made a conscious effort to pull my own weight in our piking peregrinations. Sometimes this means making small talk with the marketing director. Other times it has meant posing as an editor; no one cares as long as the hotel's name is spelled correctly. In Florence, I prevented an invitation to a pricey dinner from causing us undue anxiety (the manager would not take "no" for an answer) by asking which credit cards they accepted.
"But you will be our guest!" she cried.
"Then we would be delighted!" I cried back.
We reached a saturation point, once, in Georgia, where we sailed, fished and rode horses for free for an entire week at a secluded island resort. Whether it was the ceaselessly friendly nature of the staff, the overflowing tables of food or the heap of elegant, embossed soaps that we were stockpiling in our gym bags, David and I both cracked. Unable to accept another single freebie, we both spontaneously bused our own -- and the other guests' -- dinner plates on our final night at the lodge. Abusing their hospitality just didn't seem right anymore.
As I am on the road as I write this, however, I'd like to return to those original pikers, the poor souls from Missouri, as an example of the kinds of enmity poverty arouses when traveling. Why did these people, who were only trying to improve their lot (isn't that the American dream?), become the source of such a derivative term? Being poor is not a crime in this world, it seems, as long as you stay put. Pack up your bag -- even for an overnighter -- and your poverty is thrown into high relief. Travel is the province of the rich. When poor people move -- across town, to another country -- they kick up the dust of class conflict and everyone starts to cough. They're not tourists; they're refugees.
Among my acquaintances, I would never claim to be poor, but in a four-star hotel, I start to look like a refugee damn quick. When David and I meet the concierge, we are inevitably greeted with the once-up-and-down look that says only one thing: piker. We get the same look from the bellhop. That he could never afford to stay in this hotel is not the issue. That someone else who isn't rich can, is. Of course, the porters know better than to judge our wealth by the price of our luggage. It's the way we keep it slung over our shoulders to avoid tipping that shows our hand. Which brings me to my next point.
Piking is an addiction. Getting things without paying for them is as intoxicating as gambling or playing the stock market. During a weekend in Boston, we wrangled such amazing freebies that our judgment faltered and we ended up embarrassing our own kind, fulfilling the dark prophecy of pikerdom.
It was a rainy Saturday night, our second in the city's most expensive hotel. We'd finished dinner, there was nothing on cable and the health club had closed for the night. We decided to venture out for ice cream, to a local shop that makes the best frozen dessert in New England. When we requested a taxi at the lobby door, the bellhop offered to drive us in the hotel car.
"As long as it's quick," he said. It was, we assured him.
The sedan was equipped like an airplane -- leather bucket cushions and seat packets stuffed with finance magazines. Taxis suddenly seemed so middlebrow.
When we arrived at the ice cream shop, I told the driver that it would take only a minute and David offered to buy him a cookie (taking advantage of the help is bad for the karma). As a piker's luck would have it, the owner of the shop happened to be there. We introduced ourselves, started talking about our weekend junket, and before you could say "free ice cream," he was packing a crate of it for us to schlep back to New York (dry ice -- works like magic). My eyes met David's once I realized the depth and richness of the vein we had just piked. I saw the same gold fever in my lover's eyes.
"Think about it," he said. "We just got a free ride to free ice cream."
He spoke (you can probably see this coming better than I did) too soon. The bellhop, clearly agitated that we had forgotten about him, hit the gas and left us holding a crate of ice cream. We managed to flag down a taxi, but forcing a tip into the bellhop's hand back at the hotel -- when we could tell that he was really pissed at us (and probably reprimanded by his boss) -- was painful for everyone concerned.
But damn, that ice cream tasted good.