A few nights ago, a dear friend who happens to be an inmate at a prison in a Southwestern state saved my sanity. It was such a God-shot, such a blessing, a miracle, that I feel as if I should share it.
I had been on a long trip. On one of the many horrible airplane flights of the trip or in an endless TSA line at the world’s worst airport, Dulles, not Dallas, Dulles, or in some fetid hotel room, I had caught a vile ’flu. I was in a daze, irritable, wheezing, coughing, exhausted.
But here was the problem. I had an enormous — I mean eight inches high — stack of bills that I had to pay. I own a lot of things and employ a lot of people, and there are insurance bills and tax bills and HOA bills and boat loan bills and it never ends.
So, I was sitting in my office at home paying the bills, feeling ever sicker, noticing that my loving bride had forgotten to give me many bills that now would have a late fee, and I was feeling CRAZY. Beleaguered. Under siege. Crazy. Plus, I had ordered some chicken and it was an hour late.
I was starting to come apart, like the radioactive nuclei in an atom fission bomb. Like BOOM. And then the phone rang. It was my pal calling me from prison. He’s allowed to do that because he’s a model prisoner. He could hear the craziness in my voice and I said, “I can’t stay on the phone. I have to get off and pay more bills.”
“No,” said my friend, who lives in a 9 x 12 cell with another man and hears people screaming and imitating movie monsters all night and sees them talking back to the traffic and weather caster on the TV every morning. “You don’t have to pay any more bills tonight. Just put them aside until you feel better. Just turn off the lights and get in bed with your dogs and make a list of all of the blessings in your life. And breathe in the L.A. night air and the smell of the jasmine and be grateful you are a free man. That’s all you have to do tonight.”
And do you know what, friends? He was right. I put the bills in a pile. I turned off the lights. I got in bed with the dogs. I opened the windows because in L.A. you can do that at night. And I forgot about the late fees and the condo fees and all of my incompetence and why don’t I invent an Internet app that sells for $19 billion. And my life started functioning again.
I owe that to a friend in prison who didn’t do anything really bad but got clobbered by the state. An angel calling out from prison saved my life that night. An angel who knows that being free is itself more important than any amount of late fees. It’s worth remembering.
My sister says it well, and I will repeat it. “Your basic human is not such a hot item.”
I ran into one of my closest friends tonight at a charity fundraiser and he told me a story. By an amazing coincidence, his name is also Ben, and I call him “The Benefactor” because he takes care of so many people in his life.
“I travel a lot, just like you do,” said Ben as we stood outside a café in Beverly Hills. “I travel and I get sick a lot, just like you. And I had been feeling really terrible, so yesterday I went to the doctor and he took X-rays of my chest. He called me in to see the X-rays and said, ‘You had a close call. You have infiltrate and infection in both lungs and quite a lot of it. Let’s admit you to St. John’s.”
“I told him hospitals kill people and I didn’t feel like dying just now, so I went home after he gave he a huge shot of something in my butt. I got home. I told my wife about my condition. She said she didn’t feel well either and didn’t feel like cooking so could we go out for sushi. I was not at all surprised, but a bit disappointed. She cooks a special meal for her cat each night but never for me. We took a nap and went out for sushi. Yoshi. Same place you and Alex often go.
“This morning, I woke up feeling lousy, and my wife felt lousy, too, so we just stayed in bed and slept. Then I got a call from a woman who used to have a close relationship with me. As usual, she wanted money and lots of it. The implicit, but never stated, fact at the base of these calls is that she’ll make our relationship public and wreck my life unless I give her the money.
“So I told her I would give her the money, but that it had to stop soon because I was just getting too damned sick too damned much and could not keep working this hard and making this kind of money.
“Now, bear in mind I’ve been taking care of this woman for years, rarely see her, have absolutely no interest in her, mostly because she’s not a nice person plus she’s gained a helluva lot of weight, but I have made her life like a fairy tale.
“I told her she had to work at a job like a normal person. I just didn’t have it in me to keep supporting her forever. ‘Just help me a little,’ I said. ‘Get a small job and contribute at least something.’
“In return, I got over forty texts from her screaming at me, telling me what a horrible creep I was, how I had promised to support her forever — a total lie — and that she would never have believed I could be so cruel and cold. Not one word about the fact that I was extremely ill. Not one drop of sympathy.
“I called my lawyer. She said that the woman could really make my life miserable. Just the fact that I had agreed with this woman when she had said she was getting fat, and had at one time paid her to help me file made me liable to a claim for sexual harassment. ‘I have to think about it,’ said my lawyer.”
“If you’re this sick and have these problems, why are you out at all?” I asked him.
“This charity event is my wife’s. She wouldn’t let me stay home,” said the Benefactor. “She had to pack the house.”
At times like this, I told my pal, all you can do is ask God to help.
But as I lay in bed with Julie, all I could think was, “Your basic human is not such a hot item.” Epstein’s Law, after my sister, Rachel Epstein.
Even better, “No good deed goes unpunished.” From Peanuts, I think.