The Way We Were (1973)
Author: Ben Stein
A ghastly, unbelievably unpleasant night last night. I was so tired after considering some issues about a tiny bit of property I own in West Hollywood that I just ate some left over Chinese food from Panda, then fell asleep in bed without taking my usual night time meds. I awakened at about 3 AM, determined to take my prescriptions. I watched one of the best movies ever made, From Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, my dream girl, Jane Greer (like me, a D.C. native), and Kirk Douglas. It’s a film noir super classic. Made in ’46, I believe. Get it from Amazon immediately. It’s basically an essay on women and it’s a work of genius.
By then it was 5 AM and I was starting to have super stomach pains. That went on until about 6 AM, when I finally fell asleep. You can imagine what I felt like when I awakened.Advertisement
Plus, my wife is still ill. She and her nurse were just down the hall, and I kept getting up to make sure she was still there. She’s my goddess. It was freezing in her room. I don’t know how the nurse takes it.
So, as I was lying there in agony, a few thoughts about race went through my mind. In 1958, long, long ago, in my Civics class, my fine teacher, Mrs. Worseley, a really great teacher, gave us an assignment: choose three occupations that you might be interested in pursuing when you were adults.
I took the assignment home and discussed it with my dear father, whom I miss continuously to this moment — and as keenly as the cut of a knife. My choices were, advertising copy writer, because I love TV ads, banker, because our local bank had super air conditioning, and automobile company executive, because I have always loved cars and their design.
I remember Pop sitting at the dining table and heaving a sigh and lighting his pipe. “Look, Benjy,” said my brilliant old Dad, “maybe re-think this. Advertising agencies don’t take many Jews, if any. It’s a very white bread occupation. I am not sure you’d be happy there. And banking definitely does not like Jews. And auto companies rarely take Jews. Maybe think about law or economics.”Advertisement
It was like a slap in the face. Now, it’s sixty years on and I still remember it painfully.
How the world had changed. The ad business has Jews, women, even blacks. It’s all different. Banks have Jews aplenty, even at the topmost ranks. And Ford Motor just had its first Jewish chairman, a Mr. Fields, if I am not mistaken. It’s a better, fairer world.
But you see, the pain still rankles, just as it does every single time I drive by the Los Angeles Country Club. It’s just a few blocks from an almost all Jewish neighborhood — my neighborhood. But it has almost no Jews. And as I have often written, I was blackballed for membership at El Dorado in Indian Wells even though I had strong supporting letters of invitation from members — again, because I am Jewish. This was just a few years ago.
Discrimination on the basis of race rankles forever. As a child, my parents would drive me past beautiful neighborhoods — Wesley Heights, Spring Valley, Kent — and tell me we could never live there because they were “restricted.” That’s all changed but the pain is still there. My first house I ever bought was at 4411 Klingle Street in Wesley Heights. It cost $ 55,000. It’s long since been torn down and replaced by a mansion. But in the deed I signed, it was made crystal clear that it could not be sold to Jews or blacks or Asians. LBJ’s Civil Rights laws overrode all of that. Again, it still cuts.Advertisement
I have bitter memories of two boys in 6th grade at Parkside Elementary School, a truly great place to go school from 1950 to 1956. They called me a “f–king Jew” and we had a fistfight. I don’t think any of us landed a punch but the memory lingers. Why didn’t the teacher do something about it? I still don’t know. I recall a boy named Rourke calling me anti-Semitic names in 8th grade. I started lifting weights. My pal, Nolan Rappaport, supervised me. I got to be strong. He stopped bothering me. Decades later at a Montgomery Blair High School Reunion I reminded him of it. He said he had no recollection of it, and then he said something that touched me deeply. “I am sure you’re right, and I am bound to say I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
Montgomery Blair, 1959-62, was the best high school in the world. Only one or two incidents there. The worst was when a girl in whom I had only the slightest romantic interest was blocked from going to the Senior Prom with me because I was Jewish. I went to her home and talked to her father about it. He said he had not objected. I always thought it was a plot cooked up by her former boyfriend and then lifetime husband, an ace of a guy. He still loved her and he loved playing pranks.
Well, I could go on with this forever, and I could tell about how I am now married to the best person on earth, a Presbyterian who worships, as I do, in 12 step meetings when she is well enough to get out of bed, which is rare. I could talk about my stupendously great college fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, where I once heard, overheard, an anti-Semitic remark, but the room was too crowded to hear where it was coming from. I don’t think it was from an AD brother. It was heaven there in AD anyway. Larry Lissitzyn. Stuart Reynolds. Rad West. Grant van Allen Roberts, RIP, Clem Sweeney. Rudy Von Bernath. Brothers.
So, why am I talking about this? Because the basic fact of my life is that I am blessed beyond words to have my wife, and I will say it over until I die. And I am equally blessed to be in America. Yes, there was anti-Semitism. Yes, there was racism aplenty. And yet the America I was born in, and live in, is paradise on earth. All of the anti-Semitism I ever endured was nothing compared with what the Jews of Europe suffered. The daily life of an American Jew in my lifetime is literal heaven compared with Jewish history.
We were so much better off than the blacks, also. When I was a child, I saw the slums black people lived in. I heard all of my classmates call them “n—gers,” and I used to say, “Stop that! How would you like it if they called us ‘wiggers’?” I used to think that if I awakened one morning and were black, I would kill myself. That’s how bad it was. Yet blacks went off and fought in our wars. They still serve as cops and warriors and serve well. And now, if I awakened black, I would think that my horizons were unlimited, that I could have anything I was willing to work for. What a change, just in my lifetime. A whole race has been emancipated. This is amazing stuff. As a nation we don’t give ourselves enough credit. We have accomplished miracles in just my lifetime. Miracles of God’s gift — America.
So, after that horrible night, last night, I slept in my office, and breathed the air-conditioned air of freedom. I thought of the men and women who fight for us. I thought of how anyone — any race, any age, any sex — can own part of America through the stock market. That’s a miracle in and of itself. The poorest sharecropper can save a few shekels and have Warren Buffett working for him by ownership of Berkshire Hathaway stock. Miracles.
I thought of how in a few minutes I will swim in my pool. No Gestapo or NKVD to take me away. Just the water and the blue sky and the palms and the dogs loping by the pool and my wife sitting with her nurse smiling at me.
God bless this glorious America. God bless my ancestors for coming here. Above all, God bless my wife, a goddess herself.