HERE I AM UP in the air high above California. I am in a tiny little Embraer regional aircraft flown by American Eagle. In the row ahead of me is a woman with a small child who is crying as if the devil was coming after her. But I mean really, really, SCREAMING. Like a madwoman. Or a mad child. Just going crazy. The mother, a psycho with tattoos and a T-shirt that says, in Magic Marker, “GO AHEAD AND STARE!” has no clue about how to quiet a crying baby. She is not offering her food, milk, soothing, nothing. She told me she and her daughter had been flying all day from Ft. Lauderdale and had missed a flight and the daughter was exhausted. Also, the daughter is sneezing and coughing. I am just a few inches away from this tyke.
Naturally, about 10 minutes before landing in Fresno, the kid fell into a deep sleep. The mother apologized to me. “I hope it didn’t bother you too much,” said the witch. What? How on earth could it not have bothered me to have a wildly screaming baby in front of me?
However, in my new calm incarnation, I just thought, there is a lesson here. The kid was obviously exhausted. None of us should allow ourselves to get too exhausted, or otherwise our inner baby starts to shriek in fear or anger or depression.
Off in a nice little Town Car to my Hilton Homewood Suites Hotel in Fresno. Not my usual. No room service. But they did bring me a toaster, a loaf of bread, butter, and orange juice, so I am happy. I got a driver to take me over to the International House of Pancakes. I had dinner with my old pal, the beautiful Tami, and her sweet little daughter, Savannah Suzieray. Good pancakes. Good orange juice.
Then we met Tami’s parents, lovely fine people. Then I watched Tropic Thunder in my hotel room, and then to bed. Come to think, I like this Hilton. It is quiet and the bed is comfy and I like my toaster a lot.
OFF FOR LUNCH AT Marie Callender’s at a shopping center in Fresno. My companions were Tami and Savannah Suzieray. I had never been to Marie Callender’s. I had turkey and stuffing. It was amazingly good and very cheap. This will be a new destination for my eating pleasure.
Then a very short nap and off to speak at Fresno State. I had a short meeting with some sweet, smart young students, all of whom seem to want to do good works and work for government or the nonprofit sector. (I guess the whole economy is a nonprofit sector now.) Then a reception with a group of faculty, administrators, and donors. I talked to each of them. Many of them talked about what a terrible water shortage the growers of California face. It is terrifying. I think they should be having major desalination of ocean water, but apparently that’s very expensive. But, still, I guess it will eventually have to happen.
California without water is just a temperate wasteland. Desalination or desalinization seems an inevitable part of life for California. Anyway, the people at Fresno were just delightful. Fresno is basically a small farming city and has friendly, small-town qualities. I liked it a lot, but then I rarely go to any part of America I dislike.
My speech went very well, and the kids were delightful. There were many questions, ranging from serious issues about bank capitalization to whether pot should be legalized to help the California budget deficit. (My view: no. It is way too powerful to be legalized. But then, come to think of it, so is gin.)
Then, off in the Lincoln Town Car, driven by my trusted driver, Milky Imtaz of Bangladesh. That car is my real home. We headed back to L.A. Three and a half hours through the night. I slept the whole way. I love sleeping in a moving car more than sleeping in bed.
Then home, a kiss on my sleeping wife’s lips, a long swim, and then a sleep in my bed with my beloved dogs, Brigid and Cleo.
This is my life. I love it. I do not want to catch that kid’s cold though. Or TB, or whatever it is. I actually just want to sleep.
HERE I AM IN SPARTANBURG, South Carolina. I know this area of the world a bit because our son, the redoubtable Tommy, used to go to school near here in Clinton, South Carolina. At Presbyterian College, if you recall. There is a huge BMW plant here and lots of other automotive and high-tech entities. Naturally, they are all suffering right about now. Still, my hotel is charming. I arrived here after a long drive from the Charlotte airport in a fancy but low-slung BMW sedan. We stopped at the Waffle House in Blacksburg, South Carolina. A very drunken black man said to me there, “You Ben Stein, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You Jewish, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“And I’m black,” he said, and went back to his meal. I wasn’t quite sure of the point, but he had a likable quality anyway.
In my hotel lobby was a group of young black men. They came over to me for photos and autographs. They were, as it turned out, a “step dancing” team from a predominantly black college called Johnson Smith. I actually had heard of it because I have been a donor to the United Negro College Fund for many, many years. Now it seems, these young men had just been in a step competition and had come in second. Two of them showed me their steps. They were amazingly good. Just fantastic. And they were so happy that I videotaped them and applauded that I was deeply touched. I could not do that kind of thing in a billion years.
I went to my room and watched a strange Spanish movie about a crazed Spanish policeman who falls in love with a beautiful prostitute, and falls so in love with her that he leads his mentally retarded brother to be killed and then acts retarded himself so the prostitute will fall in love with him as she had with his retarded brother. It was a VERY dark movie but somehow moved right along and left me thinking. The human animal is extremely far from perfect. And believe me, I am in that VERY far from perfect group. You cannot quite imagine how far.
But anyway, just remember I never claimed to be anything but a highly flawed being.
A SUPER-INTERESTING DAY. I went on a tour of a breast cancer detection center at the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. It was named for Drs. Josey and Bearden, two fine fellows who did major work to help out with breast cancer in the greater Spartanburg area. It was given with the help of some kind local donors, including a couple named Gibbs, whose wife greeted me very cheerily, and the absent but very charming Mr. Roger Milliken, about whom more later.
The center was super advanced and showed a lot of kindness and thought and I learned a lot about breast cancer. I also learned that both Drs. Josey and Bearden had families who had been in South Carolina since the 1760s and ancestors who had been doctors in the Civil War. Very impressive.
Then a rest, and then a reception with pooh-bahs and others connected with the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. A good-looking, very polite, and pleasant group. Not a bad-acting fellow among them. One of the attendees was Roger Milliken. Now, get this: Roger Milliken is the patriarch of an extremely important family that owns a huge textile entity called Milliken & Company. Mr. Milliken is about 90. Courtly, handsome, intelligent.
About 53 years ago, my socially prominent and lovely friends the Sculls took me from Maryland up to Maine to see a beautiful area called Mount Desert Island and Northeast Harbor. They brought me to the home of an old pal of Mr. Scull, the self-same Roger Milliken. He was then about 35 and looked like the embodiment of a perfect gentleman. His home was magnificent, with stunning views and gorgeous carpets. (Milliken makes carpets, but I think these were oriental carpets, though I may be mistaken.) Is that a small world or what?
I gave a speech after the reception and it went well. I forgot to tell you I also posed for photos. That is standard.
Anyway, I really, really liked Spartanburg. I think I have told you before how much I like South Carolina and how genteel the people there are. Back to my room but way too tired to watch my Spanish mystery story again.
HERE I AM IN MY APARTMENT at the Watergate. Did I tell you I bought a second apartment here? I am not sure why I did. Call it insanity, as you can call so much of what I do. It is in the same building as the dwelling of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb. My view is breathtaking. I have it fairly well furnished. My “thing” is that I just lie in my immense bed and look out the window at the skyline over Virginia and the sky and the airplanes coming into Reagan. I really love doing that. I am just happy being in that spartan room with its windows looking out at the sky. Naturally, I have lost my shirt on the investment. Naturally, I would do it again.
ON TO LANSING, MICHIGAN, to speak to a well-run insurance company called Jackson National. We are actually customers of theirs. Lansing is a bit dreary but my hotel, a Sheraton, was fine. Room was way too small but the hotel restaurant was fabulously good. It is called Christie’s and it may be the best hotel food I have ever had.
TWO SPEECHES IN ONE DAY to the nice insurance people. Tiring, but as my pal Michael Chinich says, “Better to be overwhelmed than unemployed.” They really were the salt of the earth. One of the executives told me a story about kidnapping in L.A. that scared me to death. Otherwise fine except I have a nagging fear and terror about money. I wish I had lived my life more sensibly. But as Holly Martins, the hero of The Third Man, says, “I can’t be sensible. I don’t have a sensible name.” Wait, I do have a sensible name. Never mind. But I am very worried about my future. I cannot believe I have been as imprudent as I have been. I am old now and what will I do? I am so used to having a comfortable life. What will it be like when I am no longer able to just buy anything I want? Well, I don’t mean Bentleys. I mean waffles. I told you, I can’t be sensible.
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