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Gravy Drain

Back in the boom, even lowly assistants felt rich thanks to work-related perks -- from courtside seats to lunch at Le Bernardin. Now, they ask in horror, how can they exist on paychecks alone?

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As distraught colleagues pack up their desks, pink slips in hand, some of those who've held on to their cubicles are feeling their own special kind of pain. The corporate-sponsored largesse that folks in industries from media to finance have become accustomed to -- free concert tickets, "conferences" that doubled as ski vacations, expensable dinners at Ducasse -- is swiftly disappearing in the name of belt tightening. Many are left to wonder how they can maintain the lifestyle they've been enjoying in the city with only their salaries to pay their way.

"I haven't been to a party lately that even has a gift bag," wails a reporter on the nightlife beat. "The glory days are over." Book parties, famous for their free cocktails, are practically extinct. "We haven't done one in ages," says an associate editor at a publishing house. "And if we do, the first question we ask these days is, well, does the author have any rich friends who can host it?"

Travel expenses are often the first to go when CEOs are in a penny-pinching mood. "They ask us to take the shuttle bus from the airport," says a publicist who recently returned from Chicago. "And I had to share a room with my boss." At Condé Nast, car vouchers have been eliminated, leaving employees to charge the fare on their credit cards and wait to be reimbursed. One account executive from an Internet rep firm recalls that, last year, his company flew employees to the Olympics in Sydney. This year, he adds, deflated, "they were like, 'No more business cards.' "

When a newly hired hedge-fund employee was invited to a dinner hosted by a major investment bank last month, she expected to finally experience the corporate gravy train. But the meal was served at La Mela in Little Italy. "Have you ever been there?" she asks. "Plastic chairs, penis-type suggestive paraphernalia on the ceiling. The banker who hosted the dinner was horrified -- the corporate planning department had organized the event. It was definitely due to cost cutting. Whatever happened to Nobu?"

Media buyers, whose account reps now treat them to breakfast at Au Bon Pain instead of lunch at Le Bernardin, are asking the same question. In virtually all cases, meals with office colleagues are no longer expensable. When a manager at a headhunting agency was taken to the local diner by her superior to discuss her progress, she notes, "I had to cover my own $10 omelette." "I'd rather be fired," says a former Internet account rep, who recently got her wish. Now she's heading for grad school, paid for with her severance package.

The real humiliation is not the added financial burden but the psychological blow: Living large had become a way of life. And while such cuts -- like getting rid of the espresso machine -- save only so much money, they send the message that the life of luxury (and unlimited Snapple) is over. Still, some valiant souls are able to find the bright side in all the trimming back. "They got rid of the free snacks at our office last month," says a telecommunications executive. "It's a good thing, too," he adds. "We were all getting fat."

Click here to read modernhumorist's take on How Sweet It Was


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