Next to You in the Taxi

20 Nov

The chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln wrote an essay about a cab ride.  But he couldn’t get through it without choking up, so he asked the Theater Department to recommend a reader.  Someone who will understand it.  Someone who will connect with the audience.

Who better than our new assistant professor?  He’s also a Jew.  Also with a dramatic European past.

So it was my husband who first presented this story to the public in 1994.  That’s why I remember it.

An administrator at a midwestern university grabs a cab with a young couple from Germany and strikes up a conversation with seeming strangers:

I asked if they knew of a small town named Bunde, thinking quietly to myself about this horrid little place where my father’s uncle Willie had been hanged in a storefront window and set afire. Why yes, they lived there! Incredible, I thought, someone from the small town where my family lived for generations.

“My family is from Bunde,” I said. “Is there by any chance a cigar factory that is still there?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed with amazement, “it is our factory!”

I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I experienced in the span of a few moments more emotions than I knew were possible to feel in so short a time. I was stunned by the coincidence, incredibly excited by the opportunity to be able to find answers to a hundred questions that clamored in my mind. I also experienced horror thinking that I was inches away from the person who inherited from his grandfather the very house and business that Hitler had taken from my grandfather.

I suffered a silent rage as I contrasted the affluence of this young couple, who I learned were on a 10-city vacation-of-a-lifetime first-class tour of the U.S., with the poverty my father inherited, and I experienced, spending my first eight years in a working class neighborhood of immigrants on the South Side of Chicago. My father died an unhappy man, never seeming to transcend the reality of his lot, always aspiring to the affluence he might have had but never did.

This young man in the taxi was friendly enough, and I reminded myself that he, too, was a post-war baby. It was not his fault that he owned my family’s factory, I reasoned charitably.

“My grandfather built that factory,” I said with a mixture of revelation and tact. “His name was Gustav Spanier. He left there in 1941.”

“I know the name! Yes, I know that he was the founder.”

He was now a sticky kind of pale, and I felt the very same way. I learned that the factory came to his family immediately after my grandfather was forced to leave it. I learned that it employs 1500 people, and is still the major employer in the region.

. . . .

As the cab arrived at the hotel, I had asked only ten or twelve of my hundred questions. I wanted to know so much more. What did he personally know of the circumstances leading to his family’s acquisition of the company? What was his grandfather’s connection to the Nazis? How did he feel about this twisted injustice?

My husband (who left Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s) understood the story.  He read it, and connected with the audience.

Later that year, we left Lincoln for the University of Utah.

The chancellor, Graham Spanier, left around the same time.  He took up the presidency at Penn State.  And he flourished in that job. Until recently.

There’s a lot of twisted injustice in the world.  Let’s try not to add to it.

Let’s reason charitably: I don’t yet know what happened on the Penn State football team or what Mr. Spanier personally knew about it.  Perhaps his affluence at football-rich Penn State (reportedly over $800,000 in annual income) was deserved and had no bearing on his relationship to the football program. 

Maybe you sense my skepticism. But, I will say that back in 1994, my husband found him to be friendly enough and rather liked him.

For now, I think of Graham Spanier, sitting on the other side of the cab. Facing the silent rage and the horror that many will feel at being inches away from…what? Something.  Anticipating the hundreds of questions we want to ask.

Turning (again) a sticky kind of pale.

36 Responses to “Next to You in the Taxi”

  1. Thomas Stazyk November 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    What an amazing story in every sense! You could build a philosophy class around this post!

  2. Paul Costopoulos November 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    This just came in my in box. I can recall my father’s silent rage when his whole family, not Jewish in any way, was reporting missing in 1940. The Red Cross never found them.
    Over the years I have met with several Death Camp survivors with their tatooed number forever written in their skin. I met Polish Jews exiled to Siberia by the Russians and an ex Hagana officer.
    Curiously, none seemed bitter, sorrow? Yes; bitterness? No. As for dr Spanier is not everyone innocent until proven guilty? I wonder what pink shade he is today?

    • dafna November 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

      hi paul,

      as i have shared before, we have a very small extended family because it begins with my grandfather, his wife and sister who fled to Israel. it is the only reason i exist today, the rest of our family perished in the holocaust.

      not once did i ever hear bitterness. except my sister, who is two generations removed…

  3. david November 20, 2011 at 5:41 pm #


  4. M J Workman November 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    Very relevant; very moving. Your readers are indebted to you for taking something everybody seems to be an authority on and making it feel more real than anything I have read in the newspapers about the disgrace at football-mad and money hungry Penn Sate.

  5. dafna November 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    hi jenney,

    did i understand correctly? now spanier is in the “hot seat” of facing our unanswered questions. if so, brilliant post.

    this expression may be relevant; there are those who make things happen, those who let things happen, and those who say, “what happened?”.

    sadly the majority of people seem to fall into the latter two categories. which can be laughable, except when this type of behavior permits atrocity.

  6. jenny November 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting.

    Mainly, these stories make me think about my own comfortable spot in the taxi cab. Arrived at how? That’s what I’m going on about here. In an oblique way.

    What do I know about Graham Spanier, his grandfather or football at Penn State?

    Signing off to watch a show about Woody Allen on public television. TV worth watching.

  7. Andreas Kluth November 21, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    An amazingly dense, packed post. So many twists and turns packed into so few lines. Several major surprises — first the taxi ride, then the connection to Penn State.

    The connections are so jarring, they jerk us into a kind of philosophical reflection. Everything and everyone is somehow connected, it just depends whether you choose to acknowledge the connections. To good, to evil, to indifferent, to chance and to fate, to justice and injustice….

    Perhaps one could erect a new axiom (Kant 2.0): Thous shalt live in such a way that you will always be able to ride in a taxi with anybody and to answer questions truthfully.

    • jenny November 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm #



  8. Philippe November 22, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    A fascinating and thought-provoking posting – a posting showing once again that, just as PBS is TV worth watching, so Sweat and Sprezzatura is blogging worth reading.

    • jenny November 22, 2011 at 7:08 am #

      Thanks, Philippe.

      Federal funding ain’t what it used to be. Shall I get Peter, Paul and Mary to do a fund-raising concert for Sw & Sp?

  9. Man of Roma November 22, 2011 at 4:20 am #

    I don’t see how Graham Spanier could be held responsible for what happened at the Penn State football premises. But of course I know nothing about this scandal (I just read a few articles to grasp what you were talking about).

    A terribly though-provoking story and post, and the essay about the cab ride is … compelling, don’t have a better word. Yes, there is a lot of twisted (and horrible) injustice in the world.

    On a side note, your husband coming from Russia, I now better understand your connection with such culture. And Woody Allen is my favourite director and film artist.

    • jenny November 22, 2011 at 7:14 am #

      Roma, and I don’t see how the young German couple could be held responsible either.

      I’m not interested in who is “held responsible” but who feels responsible and why and what that feels like.

      It just can’t be that the only question that might interest us in these stories is who should be held accountable.

      • Man of Roma November 22, 2011 at 8:30 am #

        Of course the young German couple is not responsible.
        Besides, and generally speaking, most businesses, colleges, big entities (suffice to think about the Vatican) tend to guard their own reputation. I don’t know to which extent Spanier knew and whether he tried to cover things up or not for saving his college reputation. If he did, it was a mistake, because cases of sexual abuse on minors – as someone commented at the NYT -, apart from their being so dreadful, cannot be kept secret for a long time.

  10. Cyberquill November 22, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    That’s why I prefer cabbies that are too busy jabbering into their cellphones to ask me any questions.

    • jenny November 23, 2011 at 6:46 am #

      Cyberquill, are you connected to Cyber Monday? It’s an improvement on Black Friday.

      I’ll be by your blog this weekend to post my feelings about Scalia. Unsubstantiated and impressionistic, with no citations.

      • Cyberquill November 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

        I’m connected to all things cyber. My ancestors stole the prefix from the gypsies.

        Are you gonna cry on my blog? I guess I’d better post a box of Kleenex in the comment section.

  11. Lynda Bennett de Valladares November 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    Incredible! What do we ever really know? How much control do we have over anything? Are we all in the same taxi? Thanks for sharing Spanier’s story. Really seems like the first part of a historical novel.

    Always enjoy reading the responses here on S & S as well because your blogs ignite so many savory campfires on this screen that often burns much garbage, and the smoke lingers longer from your precious slices of history.

    • jenny November 23, 2011 at 6:50 am #

      We are all in the same taxi, Lynda.

      The same big yellow taxi. Don’t it always seem to go . . .?

  12. Philippe November 23, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    @Jenny – “………I don’t see how the young German couple could be held responsible……..”

    While they’re not responsible for what their grandfather did, they did benefit considerably from the activities of a business that was stolen from someone else, and they would appear to have known all along that it was stolen.

    I put it to you that they are somewhat responsible.

    Therefore don’t they at least have a moral obligation to make a considerable and an ongoing restitution, say to some deserving cause, like an organisation aiding refugees?

    • jenny November 23, 2011 at 7:01 am #

      Philippe, you know very well that I am the wrong person to answer this question because I want to make everybody who owns a factory (especially a cigar factory) pay a big fat restitution to somebody.

      I’m like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of. . .

      (Actually, not even close. Just wanted to appropriate that scene from Annie Hall.)

      • Philippe November 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

        @Jenny – Are you, like, nooorotic and deprassed too?!!!

      • jenny November 24, 2011 at 8:15 am #

        Obviously, Philippe. And I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!

    • Thomas Stazyk November 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

      The philosophy class would spend a lot of time on this question. Your solution spawns lots of questions. By advocating restitution from the young German couple to a “deserving cause,” you are effectively suggesting a guilt tax. If such a tax were to be equitable, it would be necessary to (1) determine how much restitution people would have to pay based on their “guilt.” and (2) allocations to causes would have to be based on how “deserving” they are. Who would make those determinations. For example, is the young German couple more or less guilty than an American couple living in Manhattan (stolen from the Indians). I lived in the US for 40 years. How much guilt for slavery did I absorb in that time? My iPod or my jeans may have been assembled in a sweat shop. What do I owe? I just had a great lunch and there are people starving in other parts of the world. Am I guilty?.

      I’m not criticizing your idea (although I don’t think it’s workable) I’m thinking about how complex the issue is. Maybe guilt should only be measured by how much you could do to prevent or ameliorate a bad situation.

      • Philippe November 23, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

        @Thomas – You raised some of the very issues I hoped would be raised when I made my comment.

        The examples you give for causes of guilt remain pertinent, as evidenced by the continuing public debates about them.

        Examples I would add are those where land and houses have, within the last sixty years, been expropriated for the purposes of getting rid of one group of people and replacing them with another. This was supposed to have ended with the demise of apartheid South Africa. Unhappily, this practice still lingers elsewhere.

        Could it be that some the new owners of recently expropriated land and houses elsewhere, are grandsons or great-grandsons of men whose houses or businesses had similarly been expropriated a couple of generations ago, as happened with Spanier’s grandfather?

        Graham Spanier had said his father had escaped to South Africa. His going to there to escape racial persecution did have its ironies.

  13. Belinda November 23, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Incredible story Jenny, thank you for giving me something to think about this morning.

    • jenny November 24, 2011 at 8:09 am #

      Hi Belinda! Happy Thanksgiving! If I were back home, I’d invite you to go for a walk on the dam this afternoon. 🙂

      • Belinda November 24, 2011 at 10:46 am #

        Its sunny and will be in the upper 50’s today…..a perfect day for a walk. Love and Happiness to you and your family!!

  14. Terrell November 23, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    Wonderful post, Jenny. Very moving, very smart, very even-handed.

    • jenny November 24, 2011 at 8:10 am #

      Thanks, Terrell. I’m pleased.

  15. Cheri November 26, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

    Turns out the Russian woman in my yoga class is a Jew who fled Siberia.
    I asked her why she fled Siberia. I’m Jewish, she said.
    Oh, I said.
    So am I, I said.
    I thought so, she said.
    Why’d you crowd me then? I asked. She ignored that question.
    How are you retired so young? she asked.
    I’m not young, I replied.
    I worked two jobs for a long time. I deserve to rest and have a smidgen of time to myself (for once) I said.
    I’d like to retire, she said.
    You will eventually, I said.
    Thank you, Cheri.
    See you next week, she said.

    • jenny November 27, 2011 at 7:14 am #


      It sounds like old-fashioned Russian expansionism.

      Be careful: The Russian word for peace (mir) also means “the world.” So when Russians say they want peace, they sort of have their fingers crossed behind their backs.

      But, tell me, have you not said to her:

      This aggression will not stand, man. 🙂

    • Andreas Kluth November 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

      Nice dialogue, Cheri. Quite “hemingway-esque”, if you recall the context I’m thinking of (You once compare a dialogue I wrote to one in Hemingway’s…. [eludes me])

      Anyway. Nice connection between two Menschen in a yoga room.

  16. dafna December 1, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    hi jenny,

    apropos of nothing. “little wing” cover by the group corrs 🙂

    • jenny December 2, 2011 at 6:46 am #

      Hi Dafna,

      You have reminded me of the Stephen Dunn poem about optimism that you posted here once:

      I’ve learned to live for the next good thing
      because lifelong friends write good-bye letters,
      because regret follows every timidity.

      How fine, then, to know people who bring along the next good thing, huh? Thanks for thinking of me.

      • dafna December 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm #

        thank you jenny!

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