You don't know me ... neither does Amex

The news that American Express has announced an upgraded credit card designed to humble its reigning platinum status got me all atwitter. For months I'd been tantalized with the idea of taking the platinum plunge. Among the proffered temptations: an upgrade in shipboard credit, a private tour of the bridge with the ship's captain, a safe refuge from pesky airport crowds, and, most alluring, your very own 24-hour-a-day concierge, who the platinum brochure promises can "help you find the rare vase you meant to buy in that shop in Paris."

And just as I was finally convinced to make my move - poof! The platinum card is now supplanted by a somber card in black. A thousand dollars a year can get you the black Centurion card - if you are invited to a spending party. You see, in order to keep this plastic privilege from guys like me, Amex is not advertising this card for despicable consumption: The big spenders are called in only by invitation.

This is the ultimate ploy: no embossed mailings, no telemarketing - just get out the word that head captains will fawn over you and that you can crash airport lines, and success will follow. I know. I finally tracked down the American Express black-card desk and was told by an exotic-sounding voice, "We are sorry, but membership invitations are closed for the year. You may try again next January."

Silver, gold, platinum - just dross. What really turns on today's aspiring conspicuous consumer, Amex marketers believe, must be the image of being a centurion in black - this a salute to the ancient Roman officer with his hundred foot soldiers in tow. In play here is military rank - with every black cardholder having his own Batman at the ready. The tie-in possibilities are challenging: You could look forward to using your black card at the Mars Holiday Inn.

Sorry, Amex, I don't have the patience to endure waiting for your call. I'm going to start impressing unemployed actors and surly rental-car clerks right now!

My solution: a 59-cent black magic marker. I ran the felt stub over my existing green card, and - presto! - I am a black-card holder. And it works; the awe I inspire is frightening. But I miss the chance to be intimidated by one of my very own concierges.

*Charles Preston, the Monitor's crossword-puzzle editor, has edited The Wall Street Journal's 'Pepper ... and Salt' feature for 50 years. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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