Friday, September 21, 2007

Jerry & Polonius

Just finished reading Dean and Me, Jerry Lewis's fascinating look at his half-century relationship with Dean Martin (he subtitles it "a love story," and in spite of the years of friction and turmoil, it's obvious that insofar as Jerry is concerned, that's just what it is). As a reader with a genuine affection for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and first-person narratives, this book clicked with me on every level; even though the first half of the book is almost too factual, the insights of the second half make up for that slow start. Charles loaned it to me after mentioning that it was his favorite read of the summer; now that I've finished it, I can understand why. I suspect that there are many friendships that go through similar fractious periods, but few of them are subject to the intense public scrutiny of Dean and Jerry's relationship.

But I'm not really setting out to review the book here (although here's the short review: lightweight start, great read after the first hundred pages, movingly honest and poignant); instead, I'm using a minor point that Jerry made as a stepping-stone for this post.

In discussing the famous incident in which he and Dean were booed after a truly outstanding performance at the London Palladium, Jerry places a great deal of the blame on the WWII-era Lend-Lease Act, during which America loaned England money and goods for the war effort. As Jerry saw it, there were British hostilities because (a) people hate having to borrow from someone else, (b) they end up resenting the lender, and (c) this creates genuine animosity.

Jerry's paragraph, of course, echoes Polonius' entire "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech from Hamlet. Polonius even gave the reason for his advice: "For loan oft loses both itself and friend," he warned his son. And as I ruminated on that passage for a few minutes, I realized that my experiences have, for the most part, upheld both Jerry and Polonius's observations.

(I should point out that, according to his own account, Jerry Lewis was a stickler for repaying loans; the one time he had to borrow a large sum of money from a friend, he told him specifically what day and time he would repay the entire amount, and he did so thirty minutes early, just as he had promised.)

I am not a rich man; I have been fortunate enough to have achieved a certain measure of financial security that means that Susan and I have managed to cover our bills and accumulate some savings. (I credit much of that to the frugality that each of us learned from our childhood experiences, combined with some timely career decisions that afforded us the opportunity to invest some savings and leave them untouched for a time.)

Early in my adult life, there were two times when I had to borrow money from my father. In both cases, I paid him back just as regularly and steadily as I would have paid a bank or any lending company. (In both cases, I suspect he took all the money I repaid him and later spent it on gifts for Susan and me, because that's the way Dad was...) From his generosity, I developed a general attitude that, if a friend needed money or other tangible assets sufficiently to ask me for a loan, I should be willing to make the loan if I could afford to do so.

And in many cases, this has ironically cost me friendships. In one case, I knew even at the time I made the loan that it would do so, but was curious to see if I would be proven wrong. I wasn't.

With only a few exceptions, no one to whom I have loaned money has ever repaid it... even when he or she could afford to do so. I can count on the fingers of one hand the people to whom I have made loans who have subsequently stuck to a steady repayment schedule. One person even said to me recently when making an infrequent payment on a loan, "I don't know why I'm giving you money... you don't need it, and I do." And there was a notice of animosity in his voice that made it clear that he begrudged the payment. (See, I told ya--Jerry and Polonius were right!)

I have had some tell me that they simply couldn't possibly afford to pay me back... only to find out that they could, however, afford to spend large sums on others, to support the bad habits of family members, to make vacation trips, or to make other expenditures that I would have considered exorbitant were I in their place. All the while, they insist that their budget is such that a repayment simply can't be made...

I have sold items to people on promise of timed payments, only to have payments go unmade... and then, years later, when the item has reached the end of its functional life and the payments are still unmade, I've even had the same people proclaim that as far as they were concerned, they no longer owed me the money because the item was no longer usable. (I know that my niece Jessica would have loved to have used the same logic to persuade the loan company that she should be relieved of all car payments after a storm dropped a huge oak on her Honda, which had no comprehensive coverage at the time.)

I've had friends simply disappear from my life because it was easier to avoid me than to make payments. In one case, a friend who wanted a mimeograph and an electronic stenciller I was no longer using took them, promising that I would see him in two weeks with the $50 we had agreed he would pay. For those keeping count, that agreement was made in October of 1988; I have yet to see him since then, except as part of a passing crowd in which he made an effort to avoid me.

You'd be amazed how many people have told me that they really needed the money more than me, making it clear that they weren't happy about repaying me even as they were doing so, as if I should then say, "of course--debt negated!"

Somewhat amusingly, I've had two different people ask what I was going to do with the money when/if they repaid me, only to express their disapproval once I told them what my plans were--as if the acceptability of my financial plans should be a determinant in whether a loan should be repaid.

I should add that there are also friends who have steadily repaid loans, and who have expressed gratitude for the loan with each and every payment. It restores one's faith in humanity...

Jerry Lewis felt that a begrudging attitude regarding a loan led to a group of strangers rudely booing what he felt was the performance of his and Dean Martin's careers. Based on my much more limited experience, I can believe it could be so...

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