By Dan Schwartz
Recently I took in a Buffalo Bisons game with my friend, the MIT-trained geriatrician, Dr. Robert Stall. Considering his academic pedigree, Rob is an amazingly down-to-earth kind of guy.
The summer game lends itself to long conversations that can take up where they left off over the course of several innings. Such discussions are usually lacking in the other major spectator sports.
Rob asked if I had any regrets, and I was tempted to sing the first lines of “My Way,” but I guess I knew I had more than “too few to mention.” I told him I regretted missing my opportunity to meet the comedian Groucho Marx.
In my junior year at the University at Buffalo, my aunt, who worked at a Hollywood talent agency, was going to arrange it, but I was too worried about my midterms to go West. Soon thereafter, Groucho fell into ill health and my usual lack of funds prevented me from living that dream.
Rob replied by reciting all of the exams he had missed by doing great things instead. I guess I thought my professors would be a little less forgiving than those MIT profs, many of whom I’m guessing probably cared more about their experiments and publications than their students.
That night I had a dream. My father had arranged for me to meet Groucho. In the dream, Groucho was gracious and funny. Before and after the dream meeting, I could tell my father was uncomfortable when I referred to Groucho as my hero.
I guess I liked Groucho because I related to him at a very young age. I recall my maternal grandmother looking sad one day. I asked her what the matter was, and she replied, “You’re not hard on the eyes, and you’re smarter than the average bear. People are going to be jealous of you. Be careful.”
It turned out I was not so smart, and I’ve had to sneak up on mirrors most of my life, but I knew what she meant.
The country I grew up in only slightly valued intelligence and book learning. Groucho and the characters he played let us know he knew this.
I think this attitude has a lot to do with the vast majority of presidents and presidential candidates we’ve had. We don’t want our leaders to be too smart. You might even attribute it to the problems we’re having by electing intellectually challenged leaders like George W. Bush and President Trump, as well as ethically challenged leaders like Richard Nixon, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Trump.
Upon waking, I reflected the real hero of my story was not Groucho, but my father. When I was cheated out of my job, broke and divorced, he took me back in. Through a decade of underemployment and blacklisting, he put up with me.
Don’t let folks kid you; a poor report from a corrupt boss or a human resources Nazi – well, I shouldn’t call them Nazis, but you get the impression some of these folks would have done pretty well for themselves in Germany in the ’30s and ’40s – and you could find yourself underemployed or unemployed for long periods of time. It partially explains why some folks stay in bad jobs longer than they otherwise might.
My friend, Baseball Dave, gave me a gig in his company. I took part-time gigs in the form of a job in a library and selling ads for a newspaper. Then came years of adjunct teaching at ridiculously low pay, usually a couple of grand per course. A guy I barely knew took a chance on me, and although I’m no longer an administrator, at least I’m full-time teaching again.
My father and the aforementioned folks helped me out when I was down and out. The folks who do something like that are the real heroes.