Gray Matters

Idelle Davidson last wrote for the magazine about Korean grocers in Echo Park.

A few hobble in with canes or walkers. One sits in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank. You can spot several hearing aids. But forget the body. Margot Reiner's "World Events For Seniors" class, which meets every Tuesday at the Roxbury Park Auditorium in Beverly Hills, is for sharpening the mind. Never heard of India's Sonia Gandhi? Not up to speed on the European Union? Confused as to which executive powers are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution? Haven't read your national newspapers, listened to public radio or watched political TV news shows? Can't substantiate your views? Then don't even think about raising your hand.

Over there on the right is Evelyn Zuckerman, wearing her black felt beret. At 97, she's the oldest and quite possibly the smartest, once filling in during Reiner's vacation. She was born in New York and earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1931. Don't mess with her. She'll giggle, then tell you exactly why you're wrong.

Behind Zuckerman, near the paneled wall, are three cranky men who harangue about the stock market. Rumor has it in this sea of mostly liberal Westsiders that the trio are closet Republicans.

Across from Zuckerman, facing the American flag, is Julius Bendorf, age 90, a sweet-natured man with snowy hair who chuckles constantly at the lively exchanges in class. Only reluctantly does he mention growing up in Germany and surviving six years in concentration camps. To his side is Jack Silvers, 79, who quit school at 14 in Belgium when the Nazis rounded up Jewish families. He hid in attics, safe but robbed of an education. He and his 81-year-old brother, Harry, never miss a class, unless they're sick. They could be twins, both athletic looking, with gray mustaches. Harry attends with his girlfriend, an elegantly dressed woman with manicured nails and matching pumps and handbag. She's eight years his senior. The two met in a gym class. Behind them are Stan Bernson, 78, and his wife, Lenore, 75, who grew up across the street from each other in Beverly Hills.

Bendorf, Jack Silvers and Stan Bernson form their own triumvirate. Nothing pumps their electrolytes more than proving Reiner wrong. They're rarely successful. "She thinks the middle class pays more than 50% of the taxes," Bernson says. "But I found facts and figures that say that isn't so. I presented them and she says, 'Well, what's your source?' You have to be able to document everything."

The Bernsons are relatively new kids in class. This is their fifth year. Zuckerman is pushing 10 years, and it's close to 20 years for Jack Silvers and Bendorf.

"I'm madly in love with her," Bernson says.

Reiner ignores their chatter for a moment. She sweeps her unruly hair out of her eyes and draws a loose representation of bricks on the blackboard. Then she pops up onto her stool. Hers is the Socratic method: teaching through questions and a healthy portion of provocation.

"People! People!" she screams, relying on volume and the sheer force of her personality to control this rowdy crowd. "Today I am speaking to you as a representative of the Capitol Brick Company, like building the cabinet, building new regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and the United States. Well, as President Bush says, he has a mandate, he has some capital. Did he say anything that surprised you? That encouraged you?" She cocks an eyebrow, steadying herself for the onslaught.

"He said that the Social Security system is running out of money and privatizing is his way to save it," says a man in the back row.

Reiner corrects him. "He said for the next generation. Singular," she says. "Does that communicate anything to you? Does that mean that Social Security may no longer be an appropriate activity for the federal government? Is it your perception that the incumbent labor force could be filled with angst?"

"That's quibbling," says Zuckerman, forgetting to raise her hand. "This is not a guy who carries the Webster under his shirt. And so if he says one generation, he could mean three for all we know!"

"I heard him say generation too, the singular," says a blond woman who could pass for 40. "He said it very clearly. It's very upsetting. It's like 'starve the beast.' "

"It's opposite what Hoover promised--a chicken in every pot," says someone else.

Then Reiner baits them. "Is the nation not listening to the president?"

"Society very often doesn't listen to itself," Zuckerman says.

"Is that good?" Reiner asks.

"No!" Zuckerman answers. "That's why we had the kind of election that we had. Because they don't listen to themselves. This is it: We know that Bush wants to take care of big business in the United States. There's nothing wrong with big business. It has brought this country to where it is, and we thank God for it!"

"God brought us big business?" Reiner mocks, hand on hip.

The students hoot, elbowing each other, clearly entertained by Zuckerman on the hot seat. "I mean Halliburton and all the rest!" she says. "Every once in a while when we don't feel so good, we say, 'These are monsters! They're horrible!' But if you think about it in a lucid moment, they've done us a lot of good."

Reiner doesn't let go. "So you're saying shouldn't these entities that have brought us into prosperity get a little gravy?"

"It's the principle of capitalist society," says Bernson.

"I want people to remember 1929!" says Jack Silvers, roaming off topic.

Reiner rolls her eyes. "The Depression is what we're talking about?"

"Oh no, no, no, no, no!" says Zuckerman, jabbing her finger in Silvers' direction. "That's because everybody bought things on margin. Just forget it!"

The class, including Zuckerman, dissolves into laughter, and Reiner swats her arm over her head, as if to say: I give up!

On some days Reiner stands before her "esteemed colleagues," opening and closing her arms. It's aerobic exercise, she tells them. It's an inside joke, a sight gag. They know what it means: Open the newspaper, don't just read page one. Now when Reiner misses something, her students show her the exercise.

"They should go inside the paper because sooner or later that stuff's going to creep its way to the front page," Reiner says. "Clearly the AIDS crisis began on the health pages of large city newspapers. When Milosevic gave his national speech in Yugoslavia, saying the Serbs were superior, certainly we had a clue that he wasn't going to stop with just a speech. When Mugabe in Zimbabwe started his program of land redistribution, clearly that indicated he was going to consolidate his power."

Reiner, 60, has seen world events from the inside. After graduating from Douglass, the women's college of Rutgers, and working briefly as a congressional aide, she joined the Foreign Service in 1966. Her 17-year career took her to Saigon during the Vietnam War, and to Argentina, Peru, the Philippines, Brazil and the United Nations headquarters in New York.

It also set what is now called the "Reiner Precedent." Due to an administrative foul-up--the State Department purportedly lost her performance file--Reiner was passed over for promotion for several years. Her case was so egregious that she sued the U.S. government and won. In a landmark decision in 1982, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the State Department must assume the burden of proof in certain personnel actions, and for the first time provided retroactive promotions as a remedy.

"She paved the way. It was a major decision. Her courage has benefited many Foreign Service members since then," says Bridget Mugane, a veteran grievance attorney specializing in Foreign Service cases. "Fighting a federal agency is not easy. Her persistence was extraordinary."

"This was not the way I wanted to make a name for myself," says Reiner, who remains firm in her support of the mission of the Foreign Service and speaks frequently in class about the sanctity of law and the U.S. Constitution.

By the time Reiner left the Service in the early 1980s, she had developed a proposal for a TV talk show on current events for kids. She moved to Los Angeles to market it. "I was not whelmed by the response," she says, still hoping to produce the show one day. But someone forwarded her proposal to Joseph Sabol, then the director of the Beverly Hills Adult School. He thought she might like to teach students at the other end of the age spectrum.

"He was a lovely man," Reiner says. Then she lowers her voice to imitate him. "He said, 'I don't care what you have to do, Margot, keep 'em happy! You have to understand that some of the people are coming because there's air conditioning at Roxbury Park, and they will sleep on you. That's one reason we offer the class, so that they can do that.' "

How could she resist? Reiner agreed to a four-session tryout, and sure enough, on the first day, one man slept throughout her presentation. "I'm thinking, 'My future here is doomed,' " she says. Still, she kept showing up on Tuesdays--for 21 years now.

Reiner has since expanded her workload to teach other adult education classes for the City of Beverly Hills, the Emeritus program through Santa Monica College, and for private groups. But she considers her ongoing Tuesday course--free for seniors, $60 for everyone else--her flagship. "We're completely unfettered. I don't want to be hindered in free thought and exploring possibilities," she says. "In fact, I want to get us all T-shirts that say 'I am intellectually incontinent,' because that is what I would like our sessions to be."

It's 3 o'clock, time to go. Reiner reminds everyone that there will be no sessions during winter break.

"What will you do with your Tuesdays?" someone calls out.

"I'll sleep!" Reiner barks, then grins.

"With who?" one of the three cranky men whispers to his friends. They laugh like sophomores.

Zuckerman grabs her black leather jacket and she's out the door. About 10 students mob Reiner, still fired up about Social Security.

"I plan to be here for the next generation," says a man with a cane.

"If not," Reiner says, "we'll need a note from home."

Class dismissed.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°