On Driving Drunk: Bloody Idiot

In the terrible, often carefully hidden, mental category of ‘things I have done in the past that I am not proud of, and indeed ashamed of,’ my driving drunk–on many occasions–must take dubious pride of place.

I learned to drive as a teenager, and often drove during my college years–through New Delhi’s even-then chaotic roads–borrowing our family car from my mother. These were short trips, and I did not ever, it seems, drive to and from a party where alcohol was consumed. Matters changed once I moved to the US for graduate school.

Shortly after I secured myself my first teaching and research assistantship, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand car for commuting. I bought a Toyota Corolla, and used it to drive to campus, to my classes and my work at a campus research lab. I also used it to drive back home after an evening spent drinking in pubs–either on or off campus.

I was not a light drinker (international students were notoriously prone to heavy drinking.) I drank beer by the pitcher; I liked to keep drinking till I could tell the alcohol had changed my perception of myself, the people I was surrounded by, the world I lived in, my take on states of affairs around me. That is, I drank till I was good and drunk. As I continued to drink, I would discover the wisdom of the old adage, ‘you don’t buy beer, you rent it.’ And then, when I was done drinking–in all probability, because I had run out of money, or because the campus pub was closing, or because I had become ravenously hungry–I would stagger out, head for the parking lot, get into my car, and drive home.

This pattern continued after I began working at Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey. I drove thirty miles each way to work–in a Toyota pick-up truck–and often went out for drinks after work with my colleagues. We drank beer for hours, and sometimes closed out the night with a whisky or two. We snacked during our drinking–something I did not do in my graduate school days–but there was no doubt that our BAC was still alarmingly high when we left to go home.

I never got pulled over; my only ticket for speeding came when I was stone cold sober. I never ran across a DWI check on a local road. I got lucky, very lucky. But I flirted with death and negligent homicide nevertheless. Two horrifying recollections from that period: on one occasion, I drove into the divider on a state route, badly damaging my front tires; somehow, I managed to pull the car to the side of the road, walk to a pay phone, and call a tow truck before a police car showed up. On another, I woke up in the morning, unable to remember where I had parked my car.

I do not know why so many of ‘us’ drove drunk. We were young and male, and that had something to do with it. Bad things happened to other people, not to us; and besides, we knew what we were doing. Or so we thought. Drunk driving was not approved of by many around us; but we forgot about that social norm once we were three sheets to the wind. One of us got busted for drunk driving, and lost his license; he was a repeat offender. We clucked our tongues and went right on driving drunk. Sometimes, I would chastise myself and resolve not to do it again. But I think I broke down all too often.

Shortly before I quit my job and went back to graduate school, I sold my truck. Thanks to insurance hassles, I was sick of driving that damn thing. And I was going to go live in New York City; I did not need a car. From that point on, a night of drinking would end with me in a subway car, or, when I could afford it, a cab. And when I didn’t drive, the horror of what I had done in the days when I drove drunk sank in.

But nothing quite reminded me of the distance I had come and of the catastrophes I had been singularly fortunate in avoiding like a Brooklyn College student’s thesis, written on the topic of New York State’s efforts to combat drunk driving–through a combination of laws, market pressure, and social norms. She was writing it in memory of her uncle, killed by a drunk driver on a highway. Sitting in my office, talking to her as she struggled to maintain her composure while she explained the impact of that tragedy on her father, her family, her cousins, I confessed to having been a drunk driver in my past, even as I could not look her in the eyes.

Never again.

Note: The title of this post is derived from an Australian anti-drunk driving campaign slogan: If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.

“Look Out of the Window, Camel Jockey”

Twenty-seven years ago, I arrived in the US, and shortly thereafter, began graduate school at a small technical school in Newark, New Jersey. Once classes picked up speed, I spent increasing amounts of time in our grim library–rather inefficiently if I may say so–struggling to stay awake while finishing my readings and programming assignments. To this end, I would often park myself in one of the many carrels that ran along the walls of the library. Thankfully, some of these were positioned next to windows through which one could cast despairing, if drowsy, glances at the world outside.

It was on one of these desks that I spotted a bit of illegible graffiti in Arabic. Written below it, clearly in response to its provocations, was a blunt and sharp message:

Look out of the window, camel jockey. Do you see any sand? Do you see any camels? No? Then learn how to speak English or fuck off back to where you came from.

My graduate school’s student body was richly populated with international students (like me then). Most of them, unsurprisingly, originated from the usual suspects–India and China/Taiwan–with the rest drawn from the Middle East and other far-flung corners of the world. They were often a source of much perplexity to the college’s administration, which desperately sought their tuition payments, but didn’t quite know how to cater to their visible and vivid presence on campus. Neither, it seemed at times, did the staff, the faculty, or the rest of the local student body; stories of brusque, unhelpful, rude, or racist behavior were all too common. Administrative staff disliked the daily negotiation with unfamiliar accents and incomprehension of bureaucratic procedures; faculty were made irate by the constant, anxious requests for fellowships; local students found the international student’s cliquishness annoying and intimidating.

International students found their own ways to combat this prickly response to their presence; some retreated, as noted, into cliques; yet others into heavy drinking. And some began counting down the days to their graduations and onward movements to jobs or returns back home.

One member of that demographic had decided to lazily doodle on a desktop in the library; perhaps he or she was thinking out loud about distant homes; perhaps a witticism or rude joke or dirty ditty had occurred to them, which needed immediate commitment to concreteness; perhaps, sloppily, a note was being left for a fellow student.

Whatever the reason and rationale, the effort had not gone unnoticed. It hadn’t been appreciated. It had reminded someone of the ever-present imposition of the unfamiliar on the previously familiar; it had evoked prejudices and disdain of all sorts. It provoked thus, a sharp and pungent retort, an exhortation to remove themselves from the premises if they were unable to abide by its rules.

I wasn’t from the Middle East; I didn’t speak Arabic; I was not a “camel jockey.” But I was unnerved anyway. I knew that for those who could and would write graffiti like that, these variations were irrelevant. It certainly kept me on my toes.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

An Independence Day of Sorts: Beginning a Migration

15 August 1947 is Independence Day in India. It is also my father-in-law’s birthday, a midnight’s child. And it is the day I left India–in 1987, forty years later–to migrate to the US.

My ‘migration’–such as it was–consists of pretty standard fare: I began as a graduate student, armed with an admission letter to a graduate program in technology and engineering, headed for a small technical school on the US east coast; later, after obtaining full-time employment and a visa change to a ‘skilled worker in short supply’,  becoming a ‘permanent resident’ and after returning to graduate school to initiate a career change via a move to a different academic field, I would become a naturalized citizen.

But it all began with a one-way journey on a British Airways flight to London and then on to New York. My mother drove me to the airport after a sleepless night; my flight left at 6AM, which meant checking in at 3AM. I had never flown in an aircraft before. (Well, as an adult; apparently, I had accompanied my mother on a short flight in the Indian northeast when I was a six-week old baby.)

The flight to London felt long and tedious, its monotony only partially relieved by the awe-inspiring landscapes occasionally visible through our windows, and the beers we drank and the cigarettes we smoked. (I was accompanied by a pair of acquaintances also headed for graduate school in the US, and yes, in those days you could smoke, at high-altitude, inside the pressurized cabins of transcontinental airliners.)

After arrival at, and departure from, London’s bustling and intimidating Heathrow, I finally arrived, a little wide-eyed despite the exhaustion engendered by yet another eight-hour flight, at JFK airport.  The dreaded INS officers were little softies, and soon I was in the arrivals hall, waiting for an old high-school friend to pick me up.

Through the glass walls of the terminal all I could see was an airport. But I knew I was in a different land. Outside, it was America.

Later as I was driven back to my first night’s digs in Hicksville, Long Island, I marveled–like a good old-fashioned rube—at the cars, the crowded expressways, the gleaming supermarket–and the dazed and confused cash register clerk–where we stopped to pick up supplies. My first meal was microwaved pizza washed down with a Löwenbräu. It was not a particularly distinguished culinary kick-off and gave me some inkling of the nature of a very particular deprivation that awaited me.

15 August 1987 was a longer day than most. I traveled from summer to summer, traversing ten time zones and spent most of the day, ironically, at rest, cramped and uncomfortable, even as I traveled thousands of miles away from all that had been familiar and comprehensible for twenty years. I moved to a place I imagined I knew well but which was to prove, unsurprisingly, far more intractable to my understanding than I might have reckoned with.

Twenty-six years ago, I began the process of placing quotes around ‘home.’