elfiWest Los Angeles in early July of 1977.

I find myself caught in the force field of a magnetic man. His name is Arthur Doctor. A Jew. Born in Russia – in Vladivostok – but raised in Detroit. Sixty-two years old. Moderate height. Chunky. Pocked and wrinkled face, long flowing white hair – not quite shoulder length – sparkling blue eyes and a friendly smiling face. Somewhat nervous appearing and fidgety. Speaks with a heavy east coast, New York accent. Something like a Garment District Jew who left the garment district many years ago to live in California.

In Yiddish, Luft means air and Mensch means person. The expression, Luftmensch, comes from the small Jewish ghetto towns – Shtetels – of late nineteenth century Eastern Europe. A Luftmensch was a person without perceivable employment status who would leave his wife and children at home each morning and disappear onto the road and into the marketplaces. To buy a little here and to sell a little there, until, out of the Luft, comes enough profit to feed his family and to survive another day. Arthur Doctor was a Shtetel Luftmensch operating in Los Angeles.

Arthur had no family, and his profits exceeded survival needs, but he actually did live by taking advantage of whatever the day brought him. Not only had I seen him do this many times, but I knew his lifestyle because one such day brought me to him. Less than two months after I met him I found myself with the keys to his apartment, the keys to his post office box and to all of his automobiles – four of them, all carefully recycled. I was taking care of his affairs while he pursued an undertaking in Europe! He had put $20,000 into my hands with no legal hold on the funds. His psychological hold was strong.

We had met through an auto accident. To visit a friend, my sweet bride-to-be, Elfi, had borrowed my car, an eleven year old convertible Ford Mustang, which I had been nurturing to mechanical reliability. Its appearance was of no concern to me. It was a well dented car. Reliability was the concern. A rebuilt engine had been recently installed. A mere two hours earlier I had paid the auto mechanic $756.83 for the job. It was nearly a month’s salary. In those days a new car cost about $5,000.

After driving a mile or so, at an intersection in a residential neighborhood, Elfi found herself slowing to a stop behind a car waiting to make a left hand turn. Unfortunately, the driver behind her failed to slow down sufficiently. A collision ensued sandwiching my Lady Elfi in my car between two vehicles.

Elfi had only weeks earlier arrived in Los Angeles from her German homeland city of Berlin. We had met there two years before. Fortunately she was not hurt. But she was indeed distressed. Her English was far from the elegantly fluid speech she came eventually to speak. She needed assistance.

The event took place on Beverly Glen Boulevard at the intersection of a small residential side street called Woodruff. At this very intersection lived Sir Arthur.

The noise of the mishap brought our gallant knight instantly to the scene. One look at the distraught damsel in distress – my Elfi, whose photo adorns this piece – and Sir Arthur took command of the situation. He introduced himself and then proceeded to direct all of the participants on what behavior was expected of them in this situation – the exchange of insurance information, documentation, what to tell the police, etc. This last, Officer Hardman clearly resented. Then Arthur whisked Elfi off in his car to seek me out at my house. He took me back to the accident scene and insisted that I follow the police tow truck in a car which he presented to me on the spot for indefinite loan.

In short, no sooner was my car demolished, than Arthur Doctor – a complete stranger to me – appeared out of nowhere to provide a replacement. He materialized just at the moment of need. It seemed magical. Even more so when, later realizing that I preferred convertibles, he exchanged the car he originally loaned me for a small orange Austin-Healy convertible. Such effusive spontaneous generosity was beyond my experience. Arthur Doctor practiced, on a daily basis, a philosophy which few are even bold enough to conceptualize. Needless to say, I found myself indebted to this remarkable and even charming man.

Arthur’s mode of behavior was to stun people by giving them gifts; by looking after them; and then, later, to find some way for them to return the service. It was a relationship of “mutual favors”. He starts the process. He finds what you need. He does you a favor. And then, of course, you are only too happy to be able to do him one. He looks after you. And he is always very original and inventive on how you can look after him. He sniffs out people’s needs, and like a summertime Santa Claus distributes, in their stockings, the goodies that people pray for. I have seen him do it often. Arthur knows the value of favors. The price of things is, then, a small matter.

He had connections in the poorer sections of town, like Watts, where he could get automobiles repaired and body work done either cheaply or by the exchange of favors. It was he who arranged eventually to get my car repaired. Arthur had a collection of cars parked in the streets. These he sold from his apartment by placing ads in the newspaper entitled ‘car for sale by owner’. It was from among them that he was able to supply me with a loan car.

When some German friends visited Elfi and me, he graciously provided them with one of his cars for transportation. Needless to say, they were delighted at their good fortune. Later he went to Germany to buy the very special models of Mercedes – 1963 to 1970 – which were then importable into the U.S. without special smog device requirements and which sold at premium prices here. He depended upon the help of these very friends of ours to find and buy the cars. They, of course, were glad to help. It was while in Germany on this trip that he found a use for me. I was to move his street-parked cars occasionally so that they would not be found in the same spot on the street beyond the legal one week limit.

“Every year, on May 19, there is a tax sale of land in Utah,” Arthur told me. Building lots are auctioned off having been reclaimed from owners who failed to pay property taxes. Arthur goes there with friends to cover as many counties as possible. He buys lots – land – at cheap prices. For one such lot on the outskirts of a reasonably well known town he paid $100. Back in Los Angeles he sought out a swap. The owner of the INCA peruvian restaurant, a buddy of Arthur’s, wouldn’t lay out cash for some unseen piece of land. But it was a small matter to this chef to make some extra dinners for it. Arthur gave him the deed to the land for $2,000 worth of dinners. The restaurateur was deliriously happy. Those dinners didn’t cost him but a few hundred dollars, and the land was his without a penny. And Arthur could wine-and-dine his friends for well over a year for only one hundred dollars.

Once, while in Florence, Arthur saw, in a shop window, an expensive ring he wanted to buy for himself. He printed himself a calling card with his little portable card printer: ACME Jewelry, Buyer. So armed, he marched into the shop, handed the owner his card and asked the price of a quarter gross of such a ring. The merchants counseled among themselves and finally quoted him a price of so much per ring when bought in those quantities. A price considerably lower than that posted in the shop window.  “Good”, says Arthur innocently, “I’ll take just this one for now”.

Arthur relished finding loopholes in the system. Mail without a stamp is returned by the post office to the person noted on the envelop as the sender. Arthur confided that the addressor and addressee could be reversed. You can put the addressee in the sender’s area on the envelope and mail it without a stamp. Under the impression that they were returning the stampless missive to the sender, the post office would unwittingly deliver it free. Happily all of the many birthday cards my family received from him over the years were, in fact, properly addressed and stamped.

One of the fine pieces of wisdom that guided me over the years came from Arthur. He pointed out that “if you argue with a fool then there are two fools arguing.”

I miss Arthur Doctor. He died some years ago.





2 responses to “Luftmensch”

  1. Peter Chester

    I delight in reading this. He lived by taking advantage of whatever the day brought him. How inspiring!

  2. Sadye

    I absolutely adored this story dad. Pleasently suprised to hear such sweet tales of Arthur Doctor. I got three birthday cards from him. I don’t remember meeting him, but he sounds to be a very influential person. I mean, what a life.