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.

Ozzie Guillen, the First Amendment in the Workplace, and Bromance

The Florida Marlins’ suspension of its manager Ozzie Guillen for his ‘pro-Castro’ remarks provides yet another teachable moment about the First Amendment and its relationship to the workplace. (Guillen has been suspended for five games.)  Guillen’s original remarks read:

 I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.

(As always with deleted expletives, I’m curious: What did he say? Anything worth reusing?)

After a storm of outrage from Miami’s Cuban community, the most ardent ‘anti-communists’ in the US (* see note below), and a quick suspension later, another familiar storm of outrage: How could this be possible in the US? Don’t we have free speech? What about the First Amendment, eh? Land of the free, Schmand of the Free!

In response to which: The Florida Marlins are private actors; they can abridge speech in their workplace as a condition of employment; and Guillen, if he doesn’t like it, is free to move to another employer more tolerant of his professed opinions. Employees have very few constitutional protections in the workplace; it is where we go to cease being citizens and start being minions. This confusion occurs most commonly with regards to the First and Fourth Amendments (“You mean my employer can search my stuff without a warrant?” Yes, they can). For some reason, most folks don’t think of Fifth Amendment protections in the workplace. Has anyone ever complained that he was forced to ‘testify’ to his boss? Has anyone ever tried taking the Fifth in a work meeting? Abandon all Constitutional Rights Ye Who Enter Here, indeed.

Of interest to me, too, was Guillen’s ‘defense,’ offered, in his own words, on his knees (can you back-pedal on your knees?):

This is the biggest mistake of my life…I’m on my knees. When you make a mistake this big, you can’t sleep. If I don’t learn from this I will call myself dumb. Today is the last day that this person talks about politics. Everyone in the world hates Fidel Castro, myself included, and I hate him for all the damage and all the hurt. I was surprised he’s still in power – that’s what I was trying to say.

I find Guillen’s clarification of his remarks quite convincing. This is because Guillen like many men, likes to express his maverick, contrarian self, his individuality, as it were, by expressing a kind of grudging admiration for other men found ‘too hard’ by the soft, weak, masses: ‘You all say he is an asshole, and I agree, but let me tell you, he’s one tough asshole, you gotta give him that! Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like the guy. But you gotta admit, he’s a tough dude.’ Or something like that.

Note: Two anecdotes: First, many years ago, a Cuban friend of mine bought a Yugo (don’t ask). His mother refused to ride with him in the car; not because she thought it was unsafe, but because it was manufactured in a communist country. Second, another Cuban friend of mine threw out her Billy Joel records–a good move in general, I’d say–after he toured the USSR. If it isn’t obvious, these stories date back to the 1980s, when anti-communist sentiment among Miami Cubans was–if it can be imagined–even more visceral than it is today.