Ben Stein

“Shoot if you must, this old grey head …”

That is a line from “Barbara Frietchie,” a Civil War-era poem by, let’s see, maybe Whittier. It was one of my mother’s favorite poems. She would recite it at length when I took her and my Pop for rides to the Maryland eastern shore. I guess it made her think of Maryland since it’s about an incident that happened in Frederick, Md.

I fell asleep in my unbelievably lavish room at my favorite Las Vegas hotel by far, the fabulous Mirage, at about two in the morning. I slept for only a few minutes and I thought I heard the door open, a breeze blow over me, and in came my mother. Only it was 1957 and I was 12 years old, and she had come in from a party smelling of perfume and a hint of cigarettes and a tiny drop of alcohol and I was in my bed in our house on Harvey Road in Silver Spring, Md. Only it wasn’t then. It was April of 2000 and I was in Vegas only it was my mother and when she stood over me, it was very, very cold.

My mother died in April of 1997 (April 21, erev Pesach, the night before Passover).

I awakened with a start. Maybe it wasn’t my mother. Maybe it was a robber. Climbing in the window. But on the penthouse floor of the tallest hotel in Vegas?

I could not get back to sleep. One sleeping pill. Then a tranquilizer. Then another tranquilizer. Hours of listening to Mozart on my Discman, world’s greatest small invention for the consumer. Finally, asleep. Finally. After 4 ayem.

Then up at about 10 to take a long whirlpool bath in the immense bathroom of my suite. Now, this is living. I actually fell asleep. As I did, I thought, hey, I’ve worked enough for five lifetimes. I’ve done enough for five hard-working men. I need a whole day in the whirlpool.

Then I thought, I’ve got to make some money. I got up, made calls to get guests for my talk show, and headed down to the gambling floor. As I passed by some shops, I thought of an adorable little girl I met at the ADL fund-raiser last night. She’s the daughter of a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. She had just met President Clinton at a Democrat fund-raiser the night before, and when asked what she thought of Mr. Clinton, she answered, “He’s all right, but he had a bloody booger hanging out of his nose.”

That little tyke has a future. And Mr. Clinton has a past.

I shot craps for about a half-hour. I have no clear idea of how the game is played, but I know it’s something about sevens and snake eyes and box cars, and the guy who runs the table shows me how it’s played anyway. I only use thousand-dollar chips, so what the heck. JUST KIDDING! I use five-dollar chips, so there.

Off to McCarran Airport, named for Pat McCarran, a famous anti-Communist senator of the ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s grown immense. I had to walk for hours with my heavy briefcase to get to the gate. When I did get onboard, a major-league a–hole sitting in front of me inclined his seat back so far his head was in my lap as if I were a barber.

You really see a close-up of how stupid people can be on airplanes. Opening and shutting old ashtray tops. Tapping their nutty feet on the floor. Talking across the aisle. Screaming into the wildly expensive and unworkable telephones. On a plane you get an excellent observation of my sister’s brilliant adage, “Your basic human is not such a hot item.” And also an item who has no clue that what he does can upset and disturb those around him.

The rest of the flight down was uneventful. At LAX, I was mobbed by a group of students from a high-school band from Portland, Ore. I kept thinking of that great line from the movie American Pie: “… last summer … at band camp …”

Then home to confront a shortage of guests for my talk show, more wrong guesses about the stock market, a son who will not do his homework, a wife who is exercising at the gym far too much, an incontinent dog, news of a delivery of 30 boxes of my father’s books to my house in Malibu blocking the front door, and the endless burden of going through their papers and slides and tassels from high school and love letters from 1936 and getting adjusted to the horrible truth that they are not coming back any time soon.

It’s unbearable. I have my elegant new stereo set up in my room and it could blast Japanese snipers out of a palm tree a mile away. I have my stacks of fan letters. But I think the problem is that I have this empire to run, and no one to tell me how to do it or to take care of me if I screw up.

I’m lonely and I’m scared.