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Sparing no expense: Reimbursements to remember

Tuesday evening was the annual holiday Meet and Greet for members of the paper's PostPoints reader rewards program.

It was a bit awkward at first. Reporters and editors stood around like debutantes as we waited for people to come into the auditorium and begin a-mingling. But it was nice to meet people who really love the newspaper. There was occasional criticism from the folks I spoke with (mainly about stories we hadn't covered) but most readers just wanted to say thank you.

And there were questions about how we do our jobs. One guy said, "As a columnist you sometimes write about your personal life. If you write about something like how your car broke down and you had to get it fixed, could you expense the repairs?"

Interesting question and one I'd never been asked before. I don't know if I could; all I know is that I don't. I think my boss would question a $700 charge for a new radiator, even if I did write a tear-jerking column about it. The IRS probably wouldn't be pleased either. But the question made me think of some of the unusual things I have expensed in the past.

Shoeshines come to mind. Not every one I've ever had but I am captivated by bootblacks--a bit of a dying trade these days--and I've written two or three stories about them. I think The Post can afford $10 to fund that research.

I've had to expense two costumes when Post editors had the bright idea to dress me up in odd garb and send me out into the street. My Elizabethan costume (for portraying explorer John Smith) and my Abe Lincoln costume weren't cheap but The Post paid up, no problem.

I once wrote an essay for the Outlook section about the difficulties of replacing the dollar bill with a dollar coin. It's a subject that gets much scrutiny every few years but I hadn't seen anything on how such a move would affect America's strippers, who are tipped with greenbacks in their garters. So I went to a D.C. strip club with a pocketful of Susan B. Anthony dollars and sat down to sip my beer and tip the dancers. They didn't like the coins but my editor signed my expense form without comment.

These charges are all pretty paltry compared with the famed excess of the late R.W. "Johnny" Apple of the New York Times, who dined around the world on his paper's tab. And they aren't as creative as my favorite newspaper expense story, recounted in the best book about old-time newspapering, Richard Kluger's "The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune." In it, Kluger tells the story of John J. (Tex) O'Reilly, a former copy boy who rose to become a war correspondent during World War II. Wrote Kluger:

He became a city-room legend...while covering the Free French forces on their march up from Lake Chad to a rendezvous at Tripoli with British troops for a westward push into Tunisia. Unable to find time to keep fastidious track of his expesnes, O'Reilly made his account balance by listing "One camel--$350." Perplexed Tribune auditors decided the dromedary was a capital expense and wired O'Reilly: "WHERE IS CAMEL?" He wired back: "ATE IT."

Now that's an expense account to remember.

By John Kelly  |  December 3, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
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John, were you alone or with, um, YLW at that strip bar?

Only you could think of such an amusing stunt for a topic to report on. How old were you at the time?

Loved it!

Posted by: iremembrmama | December 3, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

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