Once, without even trying, we made a grown man cry.
I watched a couple of movies back-to-back last week, The Ultimate Gift and The Bucket List, that reminded me of this particular story:
During our starving-student years, while Jeff was at USC and I was working at UCLA, Jeff decided to take a part-time job working for this crusty, old mega-millionaire who fancied himself a filmmaker.
Curmudgeon might be too nice a word for this guy. We’ll call him Ron. He had successfully alienated a series of ex-wives, all of his children, and most of his employees. Now all he had was a couple of reluctant grandkids...and Jeff...to buy the fishing poles for the next obligatory outing.
Ron was the kind of guy who shopped at those appointment-only boutiques in Beverly Hills, where all the staff knew him by name. Four hundred dollars later he’d come away with an orange polyester turtleneck. (I swear this is true. Too much money, not enough taste). He lived in a high-rise penthouse on Wilshire Boulvard, and had his own limos and personal driving staff. He ate nearly every meal in the fanciest restaurants, and spent money like it was nothing.
Jeff would come home with hilarious horror stories of Ron throwing a tantrum at work, excoriating the staff with a string of profanity, firing people on the spot. And then begging them to come back once he regained his sanity.
I’d frequently ask Jeff why he stayed there under these conditions. Surely there was other part-time work to be found. And his answer was fascinating. “I kind of feel sorry for Ron.” In fact, after one particularly bad Ron-day, Jeff came home with the news that he’d invited Ron over for dinner.
“To OUR house?” The response flew out of my mouth. We lived in a one bedroom house-above-a-garage in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles...the Crenshaw Disctrict, as it was known to the locals. We affectionately referred to it as the ghetto. We had bars on all our doors and windows, recognized which ice cream truck was used for drug deals (it came around at midnight playing "Strangers In the Night") and were starting to get used to the police helicopters and the drive-by shootings. Home sweet ‘hood.
We loved entertaining, but we usually only entertained our other starving-student friends, who were also used to dodging bullets. Not penthouse-dwelling millionaires.
On the night Ron came to dinner, he told Jeff he was taking a cab to our house because he didn’t want to bring any of his cars into our neighborhood. I could tell things were already off to a great start.
But when Ron arrived, he seemed fairly gracious. Charming, even, in a Daddy Warbucks kind of way. We took his coat, invited him in. I played a little Chopin and Brahms on the piano for him while we waited for dinner to finish cooking. We sat down at the table, engaging him in polite conversation. Jeff offered a blessing on the food. He expressed thanks that Ron was joining us in our home for dinner. And then it happened. Ron started to cry. Like, seriously, put his head in his hands and sobbed like a baby.
There was an awkward silence, then we asked if he was okay. He said he was fine. Wiping his eyes, he said he just couldn’t get over how happy we were there. He couldn’t remember ever being surrounded by so much love. We were stunned. It all seemed pretty normal to us. It’s not like we put on some kind of show for this guy. And yet he sensed something unusual about the spirit in our home, and it touched him, deeply.
That evening is etched in my memory, permanently. It was probably twenty years ago, before we had any kids or owned a home, or had any money to speak of. In some ways we didn’t realize how much we had and how happy we were. But I’ll always remember that it took a bald, grumpy millionaire – who had nothing – to point out to us that our life was abundantly rich.