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.

Brooklyn College And CUNY Owe Reparations To Student Activists

Yesterday, I made note of my attendance at a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College and the City University of New York; the ‘defendants’ were two students accused of violating the Henderson Rules because of their participation in a ‘mic check’ at the February 16th Faculty Council meeting. Yesterday, I received news from the students’ counsel–the folks at Palestine Legal–that the students had been acquitted of three of the four charges. The one violation was of Henderson rule #2, and for that they received the lightest penalty: ‘admonition.’ A formal written ‘judgment’ will be issued next week. And this farce will come to a long-awaited close. But CUNY and Brooklyn College should not be let off the hook.

During my testimony, I was asked if the students had caused any ‘damage’ or ‘harm’ by their actions and speech. I emphatically denied that they had. Now, let us tabulate the damages and harms caused by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s administration. This is a charge-sheet the college and the university administrations need to answer to:

  1. The students protesters were immediately, without trial, condemned in a public communique issued by the college president and the provost. It accused them of making “hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.” As I affirmed, no such comments had been made. Anti-Zionism is a political position; it is not hate speech. And nothing remotely anti-Semitic was uttered by the students. More to the point, the two students on the stand had not even chanted ‘anti-Zionist’ slogans. This condemnation by the college administration resulted in hate speech and abuse being directed at one of the students, a Muslim-American woman, one of our best and brightest, literally a poster child for the college because she appears on posters all over campus advertising our Study Abroad programs. The stress and fear this provoked in her can only be imagined; when she brought her concerns to the college administration, little was done to help her other than making note of the incident and asking to be informed if anything else happened again.
  2. The student protest occurred in February; the hearing was conducted yesterday, three months later, a week before graduation. Three months of stress and tension, and uncertainty about their academic fate for the students–because expulsion was on the cards. Three months of embroilment in a ridiculous charade that in the words of the Brooklyn College president Karen Gould, was supposed to teach the students that ‘actions have consequences.’ Yes, great wisdom was imparted to the students: that speaking up for causes near and dear to you, engaging in political activism, thinking critically–especially if you are a student of color, as both these students are–will provoke retaliation from insecure college administrations, unsure of the worth of their academic mission.
  3. Considerable CUNY resources were marshaled to prosecute the students: CUNY’s legal department was at hand yesterday, an external ‘judge’ had to be brought in from another college to chair the meeting, and at least a dozen faculty members spoke either against the students–for shame!–for for them. We could have spent yesterday reading, writing, attending to scholarship; instead, we had to spend hours waiting in sequestration chambers. I’m glad to have spent that time for a good cause, but it infuriates me that it was ever required.

The true ‘damage’ and ‘harm’ to CUNY and its community has been done by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s punitive and mean-spirited action against the students. Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due.

Brooklyn College’s Punitive Retaliation Against Student Activists

On February 17th, I wrote a blog post here about the student protests at Brooklyn College that took place during the monthly faculty council meeting held the day before. Today, I attended a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College–to determine whether two of the students who had participated in the protests should be ‘disciplined’ for ‘disrupting’ the meeting by violating the so-called Henderson Rules. (As Palestine Legal notes, they are charged with “violating Rules 1, 2, 3, and 7 of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) code of conduct, or the Henderson Rules. The charges against the students range from intentional obstruction and failure to comply with lawful directions to unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct. The students may face penalties ranging from admonition to expulsion.”) My attendance at the meeting was as a ‘witness for the defense’: I testified on behalf of the students.

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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.

Letters to the Editor, Big Mouths, and Getting Slapped Down

By definition, a blogger is a bigmouth. He or she wants to say things out loud, write them down, and have others read them. As I noted in my ‘Happy Birthday Blog’ post last year, I intended this blog to be a ‘letter-to-the-editor plus notebook and scrapbook space,’ one where I could sound off and be sure of my ‘complaints’ being published. Part of the reason for that desire was that my publication track record with letters to the editor was pretty dismal: 2-for-God knows how many. But one of those two got me into trouble.

In 1988, having finished my first year of graduate school and cohabitation with three other graduate students in a small tw0-bedroom apartment, I was ready for a change. My living quarters felt both cramped and expensive. An advertisement for a graduate resident assistant at my graduate school promised deliverance; I’d get room and board. And not just any old ‘room and board’, I’d have my own room. I promptly filled out an application, sent it in, and was called in for an interview.

The interview went well. I met the director of student affairs and a couple of the current resident assistants; I was quizzed about hypothetical disciplinary situations and my responses seemed to evoke favorable responses from my interlocutors. I emerged from the meeting feeling mildly optimistic about my chances. A day or so later, one of the resident assistants contacted me to tell me that he thought my chances were outstanding, that I had ‘impressed everyone.’ I was ecstatic. A better living and financial situation awaited.

Around the same time, an event described as ‘World Week’ was being staged in our graduate school. This was a pretty generic business, designed to cater, somehow, to the diverse international student body: there were posters, food stands, music performances. You get the picture. But on the very first day of this carnival of conviviality, I noticed something amiss: a poster, issued by the Chinese Ministry of Tourism, featuring a Tibetan landscape with the slogan: ‘Beautiful, Mysterious, Tibet’.

I was enraged. An occupied territory being advertised thus? Why had the organizers permitted this propaganda mongering? I walked over to the nearest computer lab, sat down and dashed off a letter to the student newspaper, one brimming with pique at this slight to the Tibetan people, finishing off with a flourish: ‘It is ironic that an event which purports to increase our knowledge of other cultures has served instead to showcase the organizers’ ignorance.’

A few days later, my letter ran in the student newspaper. I picked up a copy, saw my letter and my name in print, and feeling absurdly pleased, carried it home with me to show to my roommates. My elation didn’t last long. My friend, the incumbent resident assistant, accosted me in a hallway a day later: ‘Are you fucking nuts?! Do you know who organized World Week? R____, the director of student affairs, who interviewed you for the RA job. He’s mad as all hell. He can’t believe someone wrote such a nasty letter to the student paper.’ My response was equal parts incredulity and dismay: ‘Are you serious? He’s not going to hire me for the RA position because of this?’ Was the director of student affairs really so thin-skinned?

Two days later, I had my answer; I received a polite rejection letter in the mail. No rent-free room; no room of my own on campus. Back to the shared bedroom, the suburban commute. And whenever I ran into R___ again on campus, he walked past me with nary a trace of recognition on his face. I never applied for a RA position again.

But I’m not sorry I wrote that letter to the editor.