Watching the Couples Go By
Why is this basic woman so valuable to this basic man whose arm she holds?
By Herbert Stein
One of my persistent fantasies used to be of sitting at a sidewalk table at a
cafe in Paris. I would be writing with my pen (la plume de ma tante) in a
notebook (un cahier) while smoking a Gauloise. I would not be writing economics.
One cannot write economics while sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Maybe that is why
there have been so few distinguished French economists. I would be writing a
novel, or perhaps poetry, or even a philosophical treatise. But I would
frequently raise my eyes to watch the girls (les filles) go by.
I no longer have that fantasy. I do, however, eat from time to time at an
outdoor table in front of a small restaurant on the street leading to the
Kennedy Center. I don't try to write there. I can't write with la plume de ma
tante. I am addicted to the word processor. I suppose I could use a laptop
computer. But that mechanism would destroy the romantic illusion. Instead, I
watch the passers-by.
I am not concentrating on the girls. I am concentrating on the married couples.
How do I know that those men and women walking two-by-two up to the Kennedy
Center are married to each other? Well, 75 percent of all men between the ages
of 30 and 75 are married, so if you see a man in that age group walking with a
woman to the Kennedy Center--which is not exactly Club Med--it's a good bet that
the two are married, and almost certainly to each other.
I look particularly at the women in those couples. They are not glamorous. There
are no Marlene Dietrichs, Marilyn Monroes, or Vivien Leighs among them. (It is a
sign of my age that I can't think of the name of a single living glamorous movie
actress.) Some of them are pretty, but many would be considered plain. Since
they are on their way to the Kennedy Center, presumably to attend a play, an
opera, or a concert, one may assume that they are somewhat above average in
cultural literacy. But in other respects one must assume that they are, like
most people, average.
But to the man whose hand or arm she is holding, she is not "average." She is
the whole world to him. They may argue occasionally, or even frequently. He may
have an eye for the cute intern in his office. But that is superficial.
Fundamentally, she is the most valuable thing in his life.
Genesis says, "And the Lord God said: 'It is not good that the man should be
alone; I will make him a help meet for him.' " And so, "made He a woman." It
doesn't say that He made a pretty woman, or a witty woman, or an
any-kind-of-adjective woman. He made the basic woman.
Why is this basic woman so valuable to the man whose hand or arm she is holding
as I see them making their way up to the Kennedy Center? I think there are three
First, she is a warm body in bed. I don't refer to their sexual activity. That
is important but too varied for me to generalize about. I refer to something
that is, if possible, even more primitive. It is human contact.
A baby crying in its crib doesn't want conversation or a gold ring. He wants to
be picked up, held, and patted. Adults need that physical contact also. They
need to cuddle together for warmth and comfort in an indifferent or cold world.
At least, they need to be able to do that. The plain woman and plain man I am
watching do that for each other.
But conversation is also important. These couples may have been talking to each
other for 30 years or more. You might think they have nothing left to say. But
still they can talk to each other in ways that they cannot talk to anyone else.
He can tell her of something good he has done, or something good that has
happened to him, without fearing that she will think he is bragging. He can tell
her of something bad that has happened without fearing that she will think he is
complaining. He can tell her of the most trivial thing without fearing that she
will think he is bothering her. He can count on her interest and understanding.
The primary purpose of this conversation is not to convey any specific
information. Its primary purpose is to say, "I am here and I know that you are
Third, the woman serves the man's need to be needed. If no one needs you, what
good are you, and what are you here for? Other people--employers, students,
readers--may say that they need you. But it isn't true. In all such
relationships you are replaceable at some price. But to this woman you are not
replaceable at any price. And that gives you the self-esteem to go out and meet
the world every day.
So this "ordinary" woman--one like about 50 million others in America--has this
great value to this man she is going to the theater with. He surely does not
make a calculation--doesn't mark her to market. He probably never says how much
he values her, to himself or to her. But he acts as if he knows it.
I see that I have written these views entirely from the point of view of the man.
That is only natural for me. But I don't for a minute think that the
relationship I have been trying to describe is one-sided. On the contrary, I am
sure it is reciprocal.
I can hear you saying: "How do you know all this? You are only an economist,
practitioner of the dismal science. You aren't Ann Landers." That is all true.
But my wife and I walked up that hill to the Kennedy Center many times.
Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was
chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He
is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.