When I was in my twenties, I believed I had to be smart about everything. It made me quite tense.
Thing is, none of us can be smart about everything. Over my lifetime of learning the facts, I have become welded to accepting I don’t know everything. If I thought I did, I wouldn’t be looking for those facts. I’d assume I knew them, or didn’t need to.
Still, everyone is smart about something.
I learned this years ago when working at Paramount Pictures at our New York headquarters.
Frank Yablans, then president of Paramount and my boss, had a couple of tickets for the New York Film Festival; he couldn’t go to one screening and gave me his tickets.
The afternoon of the screening, a guy named Gary, who had just recently been brought into the Paramount executive orbit in Los Angeles, stopped by my office to ask whether I’d already invited someone for the extra ticket but if not, could he come with me.
It was fine with me. He was grateful. “Let me take you out to dinner afterward,” as a way of thanks. That was not necessary, I said. “Please,” he said. “I’d really like to.”
Well, OK. We made arrangements about meeting up and he departed.
I wasn’t thrilled. It wasn’t a “date” in any meaningful sense, but Gary, as “date” or “not date,” just wasn’t my type of guy. I was fine with sitting in silence next to him while watching a movie but further prospective hours of attempts to socialize over dinner made me sigh in advance.
Why? Gary was very good-looking, reputedly wealthy, single, blond-ish, well dressed. Tan. Ever so L.A. Generic dreamboat. That is, he did not emit the scent of books, and a proclivity for satire. He was not an intellectual with dark hair and a creative soul, i.e., my type.
Gary was, in short, a Jewish prince. Worse, he was a Hollywood Jewish prince.
The movie, The King of Marvin Gardens, turned out to be revelatory. Its eponymous antihero was a con man with big dreams.
I’d once lived with a con man for a few years. I loved that the movie correctly characterized a con man not necessarily as a conscientiously lying sociopath but as someone who calculated a fantastically successful path for himself, unrealistic even given that his natural capacities included no moral compunction which could regulate his actions.
That’s what a con man is. He doesn’t see himself as conning you; he doesn’t take full responsibility for lying. He thinks he’s selling you on his inevitable great success. He believes in himself. He is deluded. He wants you to participate in that delusion.
After the movie Gary took me to a posh Italian restaurant. We ate. This, back in the days when I could talk forever (and, I trusted, entertainingly) to anyone. But I had nothing to say to him and he apparently had nothing to say to me.
Until, aimlessly, I asked him a question about his interests beyond the film business. His face lit up and he told me about his great passion: he was a semi-professional and highly successful gambler.
My mouth dropped open. He told me how betting worked, how odds are calculated – and who calculated them – precisely how he organized and applied his own configurations. The facts of that particular way of life. Fascinating.
I still have in my head an image his descriptions evoked of the flashing lights and colors in a Vegas betting emporium.
I never talked at length with Gary again but still deeply appreciate the lesson he taught me – not how to gamble (I don’t), but that everyone is the smartest guy in the room about something.