Ben Stein's Diary

South Carolina on My Mind

On Greenville, televisons, and civil servants.

By From the April 2013 issue

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Sunday

SO HERE I AM in my beloved Greenville, most charming and friendly of small cities. All of South Carolina is wonderfully old-fashioned and warm, but Greenville is the best place ever. The main street is chock-full of helpful, open faces on both men and women. This is the polar opposite of Los Angeles, where everyone looks so surly and guarded. It still scares me even though I have been in L.A. for 37 years now.

Human beings actually smile and look you in the eye as they walk by. They say, “Good afternoon,” and wave. I am telling you, this place is not like what we usually see in daily 2013 America. At least it’s not like what I usually witness.

I offer a small example. I have not seen one person run a red light or a stop sign since I have been here. I only once heard a car horn beep and that was from a car with a Florida license plate. No one comes even close to running me over when I am in a crosswalk. I feel as if there is a war of all against all raging in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C., and here in Greenville, South Carolina (as also in Sandpoint, Hope, and Priest Lake, Idaho), there is peace. Men and women just do not seem to be at or past the boiling point. In Beverly Hills, where even a modest—and I mean really, really modest—home costs $2 million, the men and women look as if they will kill to get ahead of you into a parking space. Maybe it is that astonishing level of aggression that has gotten them to where they can live in Beverly Hills. I guess that’s obvious, right? I mean, if men and women are not aggressive in this world, they rarely get to be millionaires. The women in Beverly Hills are far far far worse in the aggression department than the men. The toughest, most frightening people I ever see are Beverly Hills women in high-end SUVs. They know no law except to take what they want. No one else has any rights at all.

I have had a woman actually crash into my car to keep me from getting a parking spot she wanted right in downtown Beverly Hills. There is nothing like that level of competition and tension here in Greenville. Nothing like it. These people are calm. There is complete peace of mind here, at least compared with the snake pit inside the minds of rich women in SUVs in Beverly Hills. Of course, that’s not true of all of them. But it’s true enough of most of the ones I encounter on the road.

Here in Greenville, I am at the Poinsett, a truly homey and charming hotel on Main Street. Last night there were two weddings here and a lot of drunk young people, but that’s weddings everywhere. The difference is that the wedding party was friendly and not snooty, and the bridesmaids did not look as if they wanted to kill the bride.

Alex and I flew in here last night from Dulles on a tiny little regional jet—how I hate them. At Dulles, the gate, A6, was a swirling madhouse of anxious, unhappy people. At GSP, the Greenville/Spartanburg airport, the lid came off the pressure cooker and everyone looked calm. Even the passengers on our plane, who seemed fierce when we boarded, found tranquility.

By the way, on a different topic, it is so much colder here in the East than I thought it would be that I bought a topcoat in Washington, D.C., at a bargain-priced men’s store called Joseph A. Bank. This is not the world’s most stylish coat. It doesn’t fit me perfectly. But it is some sort of cashmere and it cost $130. That is a stone-solid bargain.

Guess where it was made? You will never guess. Try it and see if you can. Hah! You will never guess. Haiti. That really encouraged me. If the poorest country in the world can become a textile producer, as Bangladesh, another of the poorest countries in the world, has, then there is hope for that pitiful country. Free trade hurts Aiken’s textile industry but helps Haiti. Aiken, South Carolina, is our country and we must help the folks there adjust, but Haitians are people too. Their clothing/coats are adequate and maybe they will get better at tailoring. When they do, look out, Bangladesh.

Hey, that reminds me of something else. When I was at the gate at Dulles, there was an outpost of my favorite low-priced restaurant, Five Guys. A simply beautiful girl waited on me. Guess where she was from: Nepal. Would you have guessed there were Nepalese working at Five Guys? She had a winning smile.

BACK TO TODAY, Tommy and Kitty have moved into the house here in Greenville that Daddy, fat old Daddy, got for them. It is a solid house. A two-story rambler on an immense lot. I did not have a house that solid, light, and spacious until I was 54 and had been in the labor force for almost 40 years. Tommy is 25.

It gets clearer and clearer to me what a fool I am. Year after year it bears down on me. It is a weight. Man is a mistake-making animal. That thought bears down on me constantly. It bewilders me how God has protected me from my own idiocy over the years.

Many, many years ago, and I mean like half a century ago, and sometimes 40 years ago, I did some totally dangerous and crazy things with drugs and alcohol. I could easily have died from them. I came very close to criminal prosecution over some misconduct involving some legal drugs. You just cannot imagine how close I came to big, big trouble. God saved me over and over again. I have to be on my knees with gratitude to Him every day.

That reminds me that I have also been saved by the forbearance of my former G.I. specialist, Herb Moskovitz, who could have sent me to a bad place. I tried recently to find him and thank him. But when I looked him up, it turned out he had died—or someone with the same name and occupation had died. He was a great man. In many different ways, he saved my life. His motto, taken from Josh Billings, I believe, was, “A good set of bowels is worth any quantity of brains.” It is too true.

So, I will stop feeling sorry for myself for a minute and think about how God let me have the means to get that house for my son and his family. Kitty, our angelic daughter-in-law, is happy in it. That counts for something.

Tommy, Kitty, and I went to Sears today and looked at washers and dryers. We bought extremely basic models. Kitty said that she found the “space-age” models unreliable. (“Space-age” is one of my favorite phrases. I think she picked it up from me.) Then we bought Tommy an immense high-definition TV, far, far beyond any TV I have ever owned. (More self-pity.) TVs have gotten amazingly inexpensive. They are virtually free. But the wall mounts and brackets are a fortune and the installation is a total stunner. Still, I think I will get me one of those space-age sets when I get back to L.A. My TV is a genuine antique. It is comically old.

I need one with superb definition to endlessly watch Skyfall. If you have not seen it yet, you are missing one of the most powerful works of Freudian insight ever written. I know I have said it before, but this goes way, way past James Bond. This is a classic.

Hey, that reminds me.…Last night, I was watching my favorite channel, the Military Channel, just as I was preparing for bed. To my amazed delight, there was a one-hour documentary about how my high-school classmate, friend of some 43 years, and neighbor in north Idaho, Tom Norris, rescued two downed fliers from behind enemy lines in North Vietnam.

It had reenactments, of course, but the man who played Tom as a young Navy SEAL looked like him and even acted like him. Tom and the fliers he rescued were heroic on a scale that challenges belief…strong, resourceful, enduring. Tom Norris, the greatest of the great. I am not fit to touch his feet.

After SEAL days, Tom did amazing work for the FBI breaking up terrorist groups in Idaho. Just an example of an American at his best.

SPEAKING OF THAT, also last night, before I watched TV, I took my family to dinner at a great restaurant here called Nosedive. (I know this narrative is wandering, but the budget cuts in the sequester have made orderly thought impossible.) I met a stunning young woman who is a special-ed teacher. Her name is Veronica, and she teaches emotionally challenged children. Talk about stars.

She has students with every kind of trauma, who act up, throw chairs at her, yell at her. She has to be firm, loving, orderly, all day long. We talked for a while about that. I was impressed at her beauty and her enthusiasm and her obvious empathy and intelligence.

She is a teacher and we conservatives spend too much time criticizing teachers. Most teachers do fine work for little pay. She is a civil servant and most civil servants do hard work for modest pay. By far the hardest I ever worked was as a (nutty) trial lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission long ago, and I might have worked even harder at the White House for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Police, judges, EMTs, soldiers, sailors, Marines, pilots, sheriffs, firefighters, probation officers, FBI agents are all government employees and we cannot live without them. Maybe it’s time to treat them with respect. I was startled two days ago when Speaker Boehner said it was time to stop the government from “stealing” from taxpayers.

The government is taxing us to pay for programs our elected representatives have voted for us. They are taxing us to pay for police and firefighters and Navy SEALS and your parents’ Medicare and your Social Security. They are taxing us to pay interest on debt we accumulated because we were too darned self-indulgent to tax ourselves enough to pay our bills. I like Mr. Boehner, but what he said was deeply unfortunate.

I think there should be monuments to women civil servants like Veronica.

Meanwhile, one parting thought as I go to sleep. Mankind has been around for tens of thousands of years in a state of civilization, although most of it in primitive tribes. We here in America right now, even if we are not rich, unless we have a serious disease or a family member who does, are the most fortunate creatures who ever lived. Freedom under law, plenty of food, air conditioning—we’ve got it going on.

Now I am going to sleep to dream of Julie Goodgirl, my beloved hound.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.