An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to the Airport, or Lenny’s Story

First off, see what my husband saw at B&N this morning!

Me and Keith Richards!! Oh yeah, the LADDER at B&N!!!! Al… on TwitpicSo great right?? Another milestone achieved! *check* I’ve always stared longingly at the books that get out front in the ladder. Yeah! It’s been a wonderful several weeks, a little hard with missing my family, but so nice to meet my reader-family, and bookseller-family. Everyone has been so nice! And if we are friends on Twitter please do say hi! I love meeting my Twitter friends!

Anyway, I’m furiously working on the final draft of Witches right now, but I wanted to share my experience this morning since it was so memorable.

The nice thing about going on tour is that they send a car and driver for you, nothing is as great as the fancy car and chauffeur. It really makes you feel awesome, as Joan Rivers says, “I always thank god for the cars and drivers they send.” It means something. And it’s a wonderful thing to get to go to the airport in luxury. Anyway, this morning, I had a very nice Ukrainian man I’ll call Lenny (not his real name.) We got to talking, since I’m pretty friendly and I used to be a reporter, so when I find chatty people, I like to ask them about themselves. So much more interesting talking to people than listening to the radio or sitting in silence. You learn so much about the world talking to cab drivers, drivers, bartenders, people you encounter. And I love collecting stories. Lenny had a FANTASTIC story I want to share with you.

He started off telling me about the crazy things that have happened in his job, how he had a pickup at 4AM and when he got to the house, it was totally dark and no one came out. He rang the telephone, no answer, then finally at 4:30 AM he finally knocked very quietly on the door. A guy answered it in his pajamas, and said “WHAT THE FRACK ARE YOU DOING HERE? WHO ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU RINGING MY BELL AT 4:30 IN THE MORNING?” Lenny said, “Sir, you called for a car service to the airport. The guy SLAMMED the door in his face and said “NO SUCH THING! GO AWAY!” Anyway, just as Lenny was leaving the guardhouse at the gated community where the dude lived, the guard told him, “You gotta go back, he made a mistake.”

So apparently the guy FORGOT that he had called a car and had a 6:30 flight. Lenny said he was totally silent the entire time, until they got about ten minutes away from the airport, and he said to Lenny, “You must hate me.” Lenny said, “No sir. It happens.” So the guy apologizes and he explains that he had a rough night, fighting with his wife, went to sleep late, completely forgot he had a flight. (When Lenny got back to the house, the guy had 2 suitcases packed – so obviously he had packed the night before.)

Chuckles. The things people do! Then Lenny told me about his most memorable client, way before 9/11 when it was much easier to waltz into an airport late and still make your flight. Some guy had a 1:45 AM flight from LAX to Tokyo. He was in San Diego. He asked for the car at 11, and he didn’t get out of his house and into the car until midnight. He told Lenny, “I need to make this flight or a year’s worth of work is shot, please, do what you can for me.” So Lenny told him to BUCKLE UP! And he got the guy from San Diego to LAX in an hour and twenty minutes, Lenny said, “I went 120 miles per hour the entire way. The guy passed out in the back, he was so scared from the way I was driving. But I got him there, and my company was able to get his boarding pass. When we get there, he can’t get out of the car, his legs were shaking too hard, so I grabbed him, grabbed his two bags, left the car and brought him right to the gate, carrying them all!” As thanks, the guy gave him two thousand dollars cash in an envelope.

Lenny and I agreed that it was crazy that anyone would wait that long and for such an important flight, but you never know with people. Then we got to talking a little more and Lenny told me about his father, who was a famous heart surgeon during the Soviet Union, who’d performed the first open-heart surgery in the country. He was very very famous and he consulted on Nixon’s operation, he was best friends with Dr. Michael DeBackey, and operated on many world leaders among other famous and important people. “What did my father get when he retired? Enough money for six pounds of meat ration!” That was Communists for you. Apparently to reward him for his efforts, the government gave his dad a 2-bedroom apartment, later, upgraded him to a 3-bedroom apartment.

But the most fantastic story was Lenny’s himself. I asked him why he moved to the United States. I’ll let him tell the story in his own voice.

“I was thirty-four years old. I was very very wealthy. What I paid my chauffeur back then, was more than I make now. I started the first private (some kind of company that I won’t name because I want to keep Lenny’s privacy private) and it boomed and I was a multi-millionaire. One day the government came and said they wanted to talk to me. They offered me visas to any country I wanted to relocate to, I could take my family, but I had to leave. The other option was for them to take me away. I asked, Why are you doing this? I didn’t do anything, I didn’t take any money from the government, all the money that went into the business was from my family, my friends, me. I don’t trade arms. I am clean, completely clean. I support the government. I didn’t do anything. Why? Why? Why me? I told them I had to think about it, and I went home. I did not really believe what was happening. I just went back to my office.

The next day, I get a call, and it’s my wife, she is screaming and crying and yelling – I have never heard anyone have so much fear—she said “THE BABY IS NOT HERE! SHE’S NOT HERE LENNY!” I say, What, What, What, I asked to speak to her driver. They were picking up Tatiana (also not her real name) from school, she was nine years old, and she was not there. I told our driver, Ivan, he was not just a driver, also bodyguard, and I said, do what you have to do, get her in the car, take her HOME. She had made a scene and embarrassed us, take her home, let’s not make a scene, let’s not let anyone know. I had to think. I knew from the moment my wife called what had happened and who had taken her. But I could not do anything. I had to wait.

For three days there was nothing. I could not accuse anyone of taking our daughter. I knew how it went. It was better to wait. But we had no idea where our girl was, my wife was crying, my entire head of hair went gray. It was the worst moment of our lives. Then one day, a kid on a bike dropped off a note under our gates. I was shaking so hard I could not even open it, I had our butler open it. Inside was four words. CAN WE TALK NOW.

The offices of the government open at nine, I was there at eight. I spoke to them for about forty minutes and during that time I smoked three packs of cigarettes. I did not say anything. I did not ask them where is my daughter. When I saw them, I only said, “Papers? Where are the papers?” Because I knew what they wanted. They wanted everything. And it was all ready. I signed, signed, signed. They did not even let me keep anything. Not even able to sell ONE car so that we would have money after. When it was all done, I asked, “Why? Why did you do this to me?” They told me that I was too young, too rich, and too Jewish. (Lenny shakes his head, but does not seem at all bitter. Throughout telling his story, it seems like he just likes to tell it, to remember who he was and what happened to them.)

So that was that. Finally I asked, “Where is the baby?” And they pointed to a door next to the room we were in, and I saw Tatiana and she was sitting in a bed, and there was a nice lady reading to her. I had so many tears in my eyes and I just hugged her so tight. And she had no idea what had happened, she said “Daddy! I missed you! I was waiting for you!” They treated her like princess, pampered, did not touch one hair on her head. They just knew what they need to do to get to me.

When I was rich I gave many money to charity, and a Jewish organization helped get us out, since I knew we could not stay anymore. We had to leave Ukraine, and first we went to Moscow. We went to Moscow to the US Embassy and they told us that for the kind of visa we wanted, it would take two years. The Jewish organization that I helped told me they would take care of it. They offered to resettle us in Israel, but I was scared. I wanted to go somewhere no one can touch us. I wanted to go to America. The same guy who told us it would take two years, the next day, we saw him, his eyes were so wide. He said he’d never seen it in 28 years of working at the Embassy, we should really be somebody, since not only was our visas approved in a day, but he had to buy us tickets and personally escort us to the airport. So I sent my daughter and wife and my parents-in-law to America. I had to stay in Moscow, I had some things to take care of.

My wife said when they arrived in Los Angeles, the organization had rented them a house, pre-paid for two years, in Sherman Oaks, in the South side of Ventura! (Lenny is a true Angeleno. South side of Ventura is the nicer side. I love this detail!) They paid private school for my daughter for two years, pre-paid. They gave her five thousand dollars to start her new life. They really took care of them. When I heard that, I promised I would help organization as much as I can, and from then until now, 10 percent of my income, including tips, go to the organization. I will never forget their kindness to us.

I joined my family fourteen months later, and I was able to bring some family over, my mom come, my sisters, but my dad no. He was too old-fashioned. He could not leave. He said he could not learn to live new life in new country. My mom, my wife, all of us, though, have no regrets. Not one of leaving.

(I told him it was a fantastic story and since he worked in LA, he should sell his story to the movies.)

Yeah, one day, when we first moved, the organization called and said, someone would like to meet with you. And I go to the meeting, and it is Stephen Spielberg! He said he wanted to tell my story,
the organization had told him about me, what happened. I said, That is very nice, yes, but I still have family back in Ukraine, and is not safe, my father, my brother, my uncles and aunts. Is not good. Stephen Spielberg gave me big hug and said “Now I respect you even more.”

Lenny was able to bring over his whole family, his brother and sister are doctors in LA. He and his wife just celebrated their 29th anniversary, their daughter is happily married and he has “grandchild four years old, beautiful.” So I told him, “So it’s a happy ending, you have what really matters.”

Yes, yes, it’s happy ending. He sighed. I don’t know why they took my business, a few years later, a friend that I helped start a business, she came to see us and she asked me if I wanted to know what happened to our business and she told me they ran it to the ground, it went kaput under them. So why even take it then? Just take it away? But you know once you are so high and so low, you know what matters in life. My brother and sister, they say, why don’t he take our money, we can help, they are doctors, they make so much, they say, why Lenny still has to drive? My mom told them, just let him be, you know he is proud, and he will never take your money. I am oldest. And what will I do anyway? I like to work. And I know, no matter what happens, if anything happens to me and my family, my brother and sister are there for us, they will sell every last dime to help us like I helped them. And that is what is important.

Isn’t that a FANTASTIC story and a great one to hear on the way to the airport? Lenny and I wished each other well and went on with our days. As an immigrant, I am familiar with this kind of story, how one never recovers what they had back home in the new country. (My dad was an investment banker and while nothing that dramatic happened to us, I totally know how it is to have had one kind of life and then another, in reduced circumstances.) But you know, this is why we’re in America, right. Where, as the song goes, at least I know I’m free.

I was glad to be a good listener, so I ask you guys, listen to people. Everyone has fabulous stories in them! Ask! You might be rewarded. I thought Lenny’s story was like a thriller, a suspense film, and a heart-warming family movie. No wonder Spielberg wanted to make it. Very, very cool.