Ben Stein's Diary

Connecting in Chicago

Back and forth, from wonderful Utah, to friendly Syracuse, to YAF country in Wisconsin.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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Tuesday
This is a compelling tableau. I am at the Great America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Truly, this is a great American hotel. Lavish lobby. Comfortable, well-decorated suites. Superb room service, in fact, I would say the best room service I have ever had. That was last night after I flew in from LAX.

This morning, bright and early, I am at a conference of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. This group has state and local government officials, high executives of corporations with a major presence in Utah, and educators.

You, faithful readers, know how I often talk about how crazy people look in Los Angeles and generally everywhere I am, right? Disheveled, sloppy, clothes and persona giving off a vibe of insanity ? You know how I often wonder where the clean-cut, wholesome, well-dressed, sensible people are?

Utah. At least here in this room. The people here, men and women, young and old, are well dressed, neat, orderly, speak well, are friendly and self-confident.

Forbes just ranked Utah as the best state in which to do business, and I can see why. This state is about hard work, about work as a moral virtue, about work and thrift and prudence as moral duties. It is a state where families stay together and where parents and children value learning.

The result? A high productivity, very low unemployment economic powerhouse.

Where are the Americans who can compete with China? Utah. And the best of them -- or some of the best -- are in this room.

I love Utah and I love these people.

Anyway, I spoke and answered questions, and then took a short nap, and then headed off to the ultra-neat SLC airport. Again, the people here look as well ordered and well mannered as the people at LAX look out of it.

I got in my little plane -- all coach, 1 and 2 seating -- and off I flew to ORD, which you sensible people know as Chicago. I was met by a simply beautiful young Chinese woman with a cart who took me to my gate for my next flight. The airport was packed. An immensely fat, smelly man followed me to get his picture with me and to shake hands with me. When he finally got his picture and his sweaty handshake, he said, with an evil cackle, "You shouldn't shake hands with strangers." Heh-heh.

Good point, but that's what I do. I washed my hand, visited with a very drunk U.S. Army sergeant on his way to Afghanistan, told him I would pray for him, and then went on to my next plane. It was an even smaller commuter, headed to Syracuse. I slept the entire way, and arrived with a start in Syracuse at midnight. I had not had dinner and was hungry. The airport in Syracuse, at midnight in mid-October 2010, was jam-packed, standing room only.

Why? Who knows? I asked my driver if my hotel had 24-hour room service. "Of course," he said. "It's the best hotel in Syracuse."

Naturally… no room service. But a helpful desk clerk tracked down the bartender, who was about to leave. The bartender, for the promise of a large tip, brought me orange juice, toast, butter, orange marmalade, and water. I tipped her 40 bucks. It is amazing how useful money is when you're on the road. Paying human beings for personal service, good personal service, is one of the best uses for money. After all, waiters, bartenders, taxi drivers, bellhops, those hard-working people, get paid modestly. A reasonable tip changes their hour and even their day. And after all, why don't they deserve it if they do a good job?

I ate some toast -- a good, bland food -- and drank some orange juice, and read my speech, then took a long shower and went to sleep. However, I was too jacked up from all of my travel to sleep. I tossed and turned, then took a sleeping pill, then another sleeping pill, and next thing I knew, it was morning.

I spoke to a fine group of men and women in the insurance industry in the Syracuse region, which is a really beautiful area of upstate New York. We talked about insurance, and how vital it is to protect your loved ones with life insurance, and to protect your health and your retirement with insurance products. They were a good audience, laughing at my jokes and applauding for the soldiers whenever I mentioned them. Very kind and intelligent people. I also stayed afterwards to sign autographs and take photos with the nice people, men and women of all ages.

Then, off to Syracuse airport to fly to D.C. The airport there is extremely neat and clean, which I love, as you can tell. I was punished for my sins by having to wait for about three hours while my plane was delayed. The agony was compounded by the many phone calls I got telling me I was overdrawn in various accounts. I -- so far -- always have the money in my many other accounts to cover the overdrafts, but it's still maddening. I think I set it up that way, with many different accounts, deliberately to scare myself so I won't be any more of an overspender than I am.

This is my main flaw, besides overeating and flirting. I spend too much money. It is almost unbelievable how extravagant I am. Now, mind you, this is by my modest standards. I am not the Aga Khan. But I spend too damned much, especially on mortgages and women. I am a sucker for any cute girl who asks for money. I am a pitiful, weak creature. How I even survive, I don't know. I once saw a Dutch movie about a poor woman who gets thrown out literally on the street because she cannot pay her rent. That is my dreadful fantasy nightmare of what will happen to me.

Finally, the plane arrived and took me down to D.C. I slept the whole way, and then went to my apartment, met up with my pal Russ, then walked over to Clyde's for a late supper and enjoyed the music. It was truly fun to be back at Clyde's. Long ago, an old flame named Cathy R. used to work there as a hostess and I keep expecting to see her there. Of course, she worked there a mere 36 years ago, so I probably won't see her, but I keep hoping she will be there and she'll be 17 and I will be young, too, and she'll smile at me and I will be in heaven. However, ain't gonna happen.

We had our dinners, and I watched the young people enjoying themselves. I was enjoying myself, too, so how old can I be?

I strongly recommend Clyde's on M Street in Georgetown. Friendly service, excellent food, moderate prices, all in all, a remarkably upbeat and cheery spot.

Friday
I walked around Foggy Bottom, where I lived so very long ago in the days when I was a young and active fellow with the girls. Every block tells me some story of youthful romance. Long ago, Wlady and I were discussing teenage crushes and he said, "Sometimes, I think those are the only things that are real, the only things that last." I have forgotten my teenage crushes long since, but the ones from my twenties -- wow, do those linger. I felt things with a certain intensity then that is largely absent now except for my wife, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my dog, Brigid. Every step, every paving block tells me of long-ago adventure.

Alas, some also tell me of how incredibly -- incredibly -- crazy I was in those days. I mean, it is almost beyond belief. And this was on prescribed medication. Almost all of the great crises of my life, except for the loss of my parents, have been caused by what might loosely be called "iatrogenic" causes, namely causes initiated by doctors. Psychoactive drugs have been far more dangerous in my life than alcohol or illegal drugs. I mean to tell you, friends, I was really a dangerous case 38 years or so ago, on the meds my doctors prescribed.

Well, as usual, God saved me. I could easily have wound up dead or in prison, but God saved me and put me back on the path to sanity. I really have to laugh when I meet people who deny there is a God. I have seen Him working, and working hard, to save me. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Monday
This has been an interesting time. I flew in yesterday from DCA to ORD, again. I had a wonderful dinner at Coco Pazzo with my pal John Coyne. We talked about politics, the decline of America, the morass we find ourselves in morally and politically and economically, and especially demographically. This country is becoming a less developed country because we have less developed people. We have people who won't work and won't learn.

As my pal super smart David Paglin, who used to be a high school teacher in urban schools, so aptly said, "It's not that they can't learn. It's that they have no idea that there is any value to learning."

It would be easy, but racist and untrue, to say that this is primarily a black youth problem. It is, alas, a problem across the nation, but painfully concentrated among those who most need to learn to lift themselves up the economic ladder.

We cannot be a first world power or a world leader with students and workers who basically do not care to learn and may not even know how to learn. I know I have said this before and I am sad to say I will say it again.

After dinner, John and I got caught in a startlingly powerful downpour. Luckily, we had umbrellas provided for us by the great Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, so we only got a bit wet, but what a downpour. John is an astounding conversationalist. Just as sharp and well informed as a man can be. He and our former colleague, Aram Bakshian, are about as brainy as there are on this planet.

Well, that was yesterday. Today, a kind driver drove me up to Milwaukee, where I was to speak at an event arranged by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee College Republicans. I got a tour of the student union, then a visit with the college newspaper editors, and then felt hungry. My car took me over to a Whole Foods near campus. Now, bear in mind, I have only been to the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills, which was not my cup of tea for the main reason that the food looked strange. But this Whole Foods was immense and cheerful and had helpful staff. I was directed to the hot soup counter. I had an amazingly good bowl of potato soup. It might have been the best soup I have ever had.

As I slurped it down, I looked over and saw that I was sitting next to an astonishingly beautiful red-headed young woman dressed in red stockings, a tweed skirt, and a stylish jacket. I talked to her and learned she had just gotten back from a year teaching in Paris to French-speaking children who were learning English. Her name was Sarah, and wow, was she great looking. I think it's almost automatic how men react to a beautiful woman. I liked her but, of course, I am old and long married, so I just tipped my hat and went back to campus.

The event was a foot-stomping, enthusiastic, standing ovation crowd of conservatives being talked to by someone they liked a lot, namely me. It had been financed by the Young America's Foundation, and I am grateful. It was an intoxicatingly great evening of speaking, followed by about an hour of picture taking, and then lasagna with the CRs, and then back to Chicago.

The enthusiasm of the people in the audience was just unheard of. Something is coming in this country. If my crowd tonight is any indication, for Mr. Obama, it is later than he thinks. 

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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.