The Last Liberal

“The University brings out all abilities, including stupidity.” — Anton Chekhov

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” — Winston Churchill

I am an assistant dean in the college of liberal arts at a public urban university.  Part of my job is to help students solve the myriad of problems that can interfere with their studies.  Believe me, in my three months on the job, I have seen enough to fill several blogs and perhaps a couple of novels. 

Since I am in the College of Liberal Arts, I feel the urge to address the subject of liberal education and its decline on the modern college campus.  Liberal education is one of the few things that I find sacred; and as a professor I was a zealous disciple.  I could not understand (or accept) the fact that my students were not true believers as well.  Reactions to my teaching varied considerably.  On course evaluations my students usually wrote that “my expectations of them were unreasonable.”   On more than one occasion I even heard some of my African-American students call me a racist because I dipped freely into the Western canon for material for my history classes.  I had a few African students who had been educated in the European system.   Interestingly, they found my classes “engaging.”   Some faculty colleagues fretted that my methods would upset the classroom status quo and bring unwanted scrutiny to the department.  Others applauded my efforts, but told me privately that they were doomed to failure.  The rising generation, they warned, did not value learning—or at least, not the type of learning that was familiar to me.

I believe that we have become afraid to expect more of ourselves and our students.  Our consumer-oriented society and the escalating cost of college tuition have convinced us that education is just another product to be purchased; and thus, it must therefore be as attractive and non-threatening as possible to the largest number of potential customers.  True liberal education demands that assumptions be challenged, and ideas be twisted and pulled, and exposed to extremes of opinion.  In my view, to be educated is to be conscientiously uncomfortable.

Ignorance, to update Derek Bok’s familiar adage, is not only expensive, but also user-friendly.  Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.

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Seven Things You Can Never Say In Politics

(In Memory of George Carlin, Requiescat In Pace)

When George Carlin died last year, I was deeply saddened.  He was one of the Great Comedians I had listened to from my childhood onward.  Indeed, I do not recall not knowing about Carlin, in the same way I do not recall not knowing how to read.

Anyway, the many obituaries and tributes that poured in paid homage to Carlin’s considerable talents, including his genius for skewering the human condition.  And, of course, they all mentioned his legendary “Seven Dirty Words.”  For a Black Baptist growing up in rural North Carolina, hearing these words was like discovering a lewd and truncated mirror image of the Ten Commandments.  (I should point out that my extremely devout grandparents, who would have cringed at Carlin’s unabashed use of the “Seven Dirty Words,” nevertheless allowed me to listen endlessly to Redd Foxx’s incredibly raunchy comedy records–on Sunday, at that.  Perhaps it had something to do with the way Black people tell stories.  Hmmm.  Methinks I have the subject for another post….)

Anyway, for some reason I felt inspired to write a little list of my own.  I have no idea why I chose politics as my canvas.  Perhaps the ghosts of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s recent resignation or the Monica Lewinsky scandal were clanging around in my head.  Who knows?  I humbly submit my “Seven Things You Can Never Say in Politics”:

  1. “I will never raise your taxes.”
  2. “Go ahead and follow me.  I have nothing to hide.”
  3. “S/he was just a staffer.  I never knew her/him personally.”
  4. “I welcome the opportunity to take my case before the American people.”
  5. “I never accepted gifts of any kind from that individual.”
  6. “I pledge to serve my full term.”
  7. “I am looking forward to spending more time with my family.”

Looking again at my list, I no longer find it as amusing as I did when I created over a year ago.  I guess you had to be there. 

Do not worry, Mr. Carlin, wherever you are.  I have no plans to give up my day job and try to do what you made look so easy for so many years.  You, Sir, were the Michelangelo of Mirth. 

[Expletive deleted.]

Morehouse Man In The Mirror

Now, if you’re blue
And you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umberellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz

      — Irving Berlin, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”

Morehouse College, one of the flagship HBCUs in the country and the alma mater of generations of prominent African-American males, including Martin Luther King, recently conjured up some controversy by establishing a dress code on campus.  The new policy prohibits do-rags, hats, sunglasses, hoods or offensive clothing in class.   It also bans such items as “decorative orthodontic appliances” (A white female friend who is much more “Black” than I am tells me that these things are known, in the vernacular, as “grillz.”), pajamas, sagging pants, and bare feet.

However, the part of the policy that has drawn the most attention from the media — including a certain Philadelphia Negro — states “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.”

Some believe, and I think that they are correct, that this policy is a not-so-subtle attempt by the College administration to control homosexuality and transgender identification on campus.  Homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues in the so-called Black community; and it is an open secret that Morehouse has a large population of gay men.  For the record, I do not believe that Morehouse is atypical in this regard.  College is (or should be) a place of experimentation and exploring boundaries.  If we expect intellectual awakenings on a college campus, why should we be surprised that sexual awakenings occur there, as well?  Given the generally conservative orientation of Black society, the freedom of expression generally associated with the college campus can be even more powerful for young Black men who do not define themselves — openly or otherwise — as heterosexual. 

By choosing to implement a dress code that at least appears to target a specific population of the College community, Morehouse is treading on difficult ground: the fault line between individual expression expected in an academic setting and the culture of conformity — including the “rules” of what it means to be a Black man.   Though I have certainly ranted against the extreme informality of undergraduate dress and — in my angrier moods — have even advocated a dress code, I find that ultimately, I cannot support this kind of regulation.   While being a “Morehouse man” does carry a certain mystique — in more ways than some would care to admit — attending Morehouse is not, or should not be, like joining the military.   The latter needs to engender conformity in order to prepare its members to undertake the serious business of killing people.   (The armed services can talk all they wish about education and training opportunities; but the bottom line is that they train people to inflict harm upon our enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.)   Like other institutions of higher learning, Morehouse should encourage the creativity and diversity of its students — even if it means that a few of them look rather stunning in a nice frock.    

Each day I am more conscious of the fact that I am from a different time than the one I share with my students.  I wear button-downs and khakis, and whistle Mozart and Cole Porter.  I voted for Ronald Reagan.  The Establishment works for me.  I like it.   Would I prefer more “conservative” apparel on campus?   Yes.   But fighting for this is a waste of powder.   Morehouse would be wise to invest its resources in the development of young men of character and not the regulation of cravats.    

Ultimately, the late Bart Giamatti said it best when he chose to call his book about the purpose of the university Free and Ordered Spaces.   He believed that on a college campus (and everywhere else), freedom should not be subordinate to intolerance disguised as discipline.   He was right.

Little Barry Gets A Gold Star

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free

Now that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Lemme tell ya, them guys ain’t dumb

Maybe get a blister on your little finger

Maybe get a blister on your thumb

— Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”

I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for forcing me out of my long hiatus from my duties as a blogger.  I could not have imagined a greater gift that its decision to award the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama.  H. L. Mencken is most assuredly spinning in his grave.

I must have missed something in the last nine months of the Obama presidency.  Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended?  Have the Israelis and Palestinians committed themselves to peaceful coexistence?  Have Iran and North Korea given up their ambitions to become (overtly, at least) nuclear states?  Has the genocide in Darfur ceased?  No?  Then why did Obama win what is arguably the most important and recognizable prize in the world?

My liberal friends and other Obama sycophants insist that the President’s actual achievements in the area of world peace are far less important than his potential to do good.  (I wish I could get my credit card company to accept that logic: surely my potential to pay my bill means more to them than getting a silly check from me every month.)

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who had actually done something in the area for which they were being recognized.  Some of Obama’s predecessors in the Oval Office have amassed an impressive record for peace–and they did not get the Nobel Prize for their efforts.  For instance, Jimmy Carter brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to the negotiating table. (Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Prize.  Carter eventually won the Prize in 2002.)  Ronald Reagan restarted nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviets and pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to unleash democracy in the former Soviet Union and its satellites.  (Gorbachev won the 1990 Prize.)  Bill Clinton hammered out peace in Northern Ireland and got Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands on the White House lawn.  (Arafat, Rabin, and Shimon Peres won the 1994 Prize.  Bill is, I am sure, actively campaigning to get the Prize before Hillary does.)  Even Presidential also-ran Al Gore managed to finally win something: the 2007 Prize.

To be sure, achieving peace anywhere in the world–or even down the block–is an elusive and frustrating goal; and prior Administrations could not and did not accomplish everything that they might have desired.  And President Obama faces challenges that his predecessors could not have imagined in their worst nightmares of global Armageddon.  Be that as it may, he has not yet met what should be a very high standard to join such exclusive company.

Awarding Obama the Nobel Prize for his potential as a peacemaker is disturbingly similar to the current practice of giving children prizes, certificates, etc. for just about anything that they do.  (I mean, how ridiculous is kindergarten graduation?)  Greater minds than mine have proposed that this ready availability of praise cheapens its value and creates an expectation that merely showing up merits getting an award.  Hard work, sacrifice, and determination are dismissed as unnecessary or even foolish.  Obama, of course, could not have achieved such amazing success before reaching age 50 had he subscribed to this point of view.  But accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace now ironically contradicts the amazing and (I admit) inspiring narrative of his life.

President Obama should do the right thing and refuse the Nobel Prize for Peace.  I am pretty sure that he will get another crack at it.

You Can’t Come Home Again

“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama.  Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.

Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton.  And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.

The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University.  The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History.  I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus.  Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind.  I loved it.

One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room.  Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember.  While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus.  The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers.  My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.”  I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!”  We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night.  I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes.  About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and discovered my friend.  She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.

“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay.  They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.”  She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind.  We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway.  (Why?  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.)  He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults.  Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.

My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was.  I was conflicted.  Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job.  What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her?  He followed his instinct and had been wrong.  But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life.  Maybe mine.

I comforted my friend as best I could.  I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day.  Inside, though, I was deeply hurt.  It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last.  What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.

The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.

Bully Pulpit

Bulls 1, Runners 0.

This week a young man who went to the Pamplona Festival in Spain to run with the bulls rode into the Hereafter on the horns of a bull.  He is probably having drinks and cigars with Papa Hemingway even as I write.  Lucky bastard.

In the aftermath of this man’s death, many people have commented on the “safety” of the festival and whether the event is an example of animal cruelty.  I am, frankly, amazed by this discussion.  First of all, OF COURSE running with the bulls is unsafe — probably one of the most dangerous things that someone can willingly do!  Remember Hemingway and his masterpiece The Sun Also Rises?  People (and by “people” I mean men, though I imagine that there must be some women among the runners) participate in this activity to recapture what it is like to be alive.  Nothing focuses one’s attention on living in the moment like the prospect of an immediate and horrible death, especially in the form of an angry, snarling, and deceptively fast bull.

The considerable threat of death aside, the Pamplona Festival is, in many ways, a relic of a faded and heroic past in which life was more volatile and, perhaps, more precious.  We now live in a world where risk has been reduced to something on the financial pages of the New York Times.  Lawyers must remind us that the cup of coffee we get at Starbucks is — gasp! — hot.  Toys come wrapped in so many warnings that we are afraid to let our children play with them.  Soon cancer warnings will be printed on the side of cigarettes themselves.  And do not get me started on food.  The pounding heart of our civilization has become but a murmur.

So let us take a moment to consider the second claim of the aforementioned ridiculous discussion: that the Pamplona Festival is cruel to the bulls.  Even I would be hard-pressed to deny that it is.  But at least the bulls are doing what they were meant to do.

Are we?

Michael Has Left The Building

Like much of the rest of the world — or at least that segment of it that cares about such things — I was shocked by the unexpected death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, last week.  News of the passing of Farrah Fawcett saddened me as well.  (The Pinup of My Generation had the misfortune of crossing the River Styx on the same day as MJ, and thus received diminished press coverage.)  Her death was actually more disheartening to me — perhaps because she had lost her struggle against cancer.  And though it may be harsh to say it, one expects — at some deep, dark, unspeakable level — that cancer is going to win most of those heroic battles.

MJ’s final departure from the stage was stunning because he, unlike Farrah Fawcett, was a part of my life almost from the moment I became aware of popular culture.  My cool cousins who lived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D. C. had Jackson 5 albums on 8-track cassette.  (I listened to the songs so much that even today, I remember when the cassette player would “click” as it switched tracks during the music.)  I watched the Jackson 5 cartoon on TV and saw “The Wiz” in the movie theater.  And years later, as a student at a residential high school for North Carolina’s freaks and geeks, I sat spellbound in a crowded and hushed room as MJ’s “Billie Jean” premiered on MTV, then a fledgling upstart cable channel that previously had only played music videos by White artists.  From that point onward, my life could be divided into two epochs: BMJ (Before Michael Jackson) and AMJ (After Michael Jackson).  Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration; but his music was the soundtrack of my adolescence.

The King of Pop’s personal eccentricities and later scandals, when I cared to take note of them, were in turns amusing and deeply troubling.  But the thing that really grafted MJ to my cultural DNA was his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.  Elvis is the real musical love of my life; and though I participated in the joking about MJ’s relationship with Lisa Marie, I was secretly jealous of him for having wooed and won the daughter of the King.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I had foolishly believed, like most people in my generation, that MJ would always be with us .  We would grow old together and someday — many decades from now — die together.  None of us expected MJ to check out early.

Our 24-hour news and entertainment cycle is, at least for the moment, obsessed with measuring MJ’s impact on music, culture, and society.  That is well and proper as he was a figure of global stature, whether or not we wanted that to be the case.

But there is a small part of me that hopes against hope that the King of Pop is not really dead.  Maybe he just got tired of it all and decided finally to accept Elvis’ offer to join him at his villa in Argentina.  Rumor has it that Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina had a good time there.

Let’s Do It!

“Birds do it.  Bees do it….Probably we’ll live to see machines do it.”  Cole Porter wrote his classic toe-tapper “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” in 1928, decades before the first computer and the birth of what we now call AI (Artificial Intelligence, not the basketball star Allen Iverson).  Yet he somehow foresaw a time when machines would not only think like human beings; they would also fall in love and—presumably—have sex like humans as well.  That makes me wonder if Porter, another proud Yale Man like yours truly, was a visionary like the British mathematician and computer science founder Alan Turing—or just a pervert ahead of his time.  Or maybe he was just after a clever song lyric—of which he was an absolute master.

Anyway, suppose that we do someday create machines that can fall in love with each other and quite “naturally” desire some type of “physical intimacy.”  What would that look like?  Would computers overload their servers with streams of erotic (to them, at least) code?  Would there be such a thing as computer porn?  Would humans pay to see it?  (Of course we would.)  Would global networks crash as the supercomputers that control every aspect of our modern, continually-connected lives spend all of their time generating real cyber-porn instead of working?  Would computers want to marry and reproduce?  Would computers be a single gender or some new binary conception of heterosexuality?  Or would they cast off the concept of gender entirely?  Would some computers be homosexual?  Would same-sex relationships between computers be allowed?

Cole Porter and his wonderful little tune really open up a can of worms for us.  How are we going to deal with the coming onslaught of super-intelligent, love-struck, and horny machines who want equal rights—and can freeze our bank accounts and shut down the Internet?

Literature and popular culture are awash with works that examine the uneasy relationship between people and machines that see themselves as something more than their human creators had intended.  Two favorite examples come immediately to mind.  In his classic 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick explores the meaning of humanity and the moral consequences of ridding society of synthetic beings (androids) who appear human in every meaningful respect.  At the other extreme, The Terminator franchise imagines a world in which sentient machines decide to exterminate humanity.  Between these two poles of annihilation fraught with moral ambiguity, Cole Porter’s quaint notion of machines falling in love sounds, well, de-lovely.

Land of the Lost

A couple of weekends ago a friend and I saw Will Ferrell’s new movie Land of the Lost, which is based upon Sid and Marty Krofft’s classic Saturday morning TV series in the 1970s.  The movie hit all of the right notes: it paid the appropriate amount of homage to its source material and contained enough wry self-mockery to keep the viewer from getting too nostalgic for the days when dinosaurs, obese black kids, and talking Great Danes were about as raunchy as cartoon fare got.  The capstone of the cinematic experience was, of course, Will Ferrell, whose reverence for and mastery of physical comedy makes him an indisputable heir to such legendary comedians as Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Don Knotts.  Indeed, Ferrell’s gleeful willingness to use his flabby, pasty, middle-aged body as his central prop was a welcome reminder that human actors will always be superior to their CGI counterparts, no matter how amazingly life-like the latter may be.

The premise of the film is simple: disgraced scientist Ferrell and his companions are stranded accidentally in a place where time has no meaning and where creatures and artifacts from other eras and planets are dumped as casually as a fast food wrapper.  Our heroes must then survive the myriad of perils confronting them in this “land of the lost” and find a way to return home, restore their reputations, and make a fortune through self-promotion.  I laughed.   I cried.   I wondered if a world like the Land of the Lost could actually exist.  It did not take me long to realize that this alien dimension was, in fact, quite real.   We know it, however, by a different name: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Now before fire and brimstone begin to rain down upon my head—and I assure you, Dear Reader, that it will—let me make a few things clear.   First, my parents and nearly all of my siblings graduated from HBCUs, as have many of my closest friends and most valued colleagues.  I began my academic career at one of the most respected HBCUs in the country.  And I have spent most of my professional life working on behalf of HBCUs by helping secure the financial, human, and intellectual resources they need to achieve their collective mission of providing education and opportunity to a population whose needs and potential have been ignored and underserved by majority institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it is my wide experience with HBCUs that gives me the confidence to say that they embody some of the signature traits of the Land of the Lost.

For instance, the Land of the Lost is ruled by a cantankerous dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Grumpy”.  Likewise, many HBCUs are governed by “tyrant kings”—presidents whose philosophies and leadership styles are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university.  They foster cults of personality (theirs), eschew transparency of process, and stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas among the faculty.

And what of the faculty?  They are the Sleestak, the lizard-like humanoids who inhabit the Land of the Lost.   Like the Sleestak, which are confined primarily to their subterranean realm, HBCU faculty members are prisoners of crushing teaching loads and the demands of innumerable departmental and university committees.  Rarely are they able to escape these duties and engage in the research and scholarship from which new knowledge flows.

That leaves the students at HBCUs and the prickliest analogy of all.  They are the Pakuni, the primitive, ape-like creatures who resemble human ancestors. I do not nor would I ever suggest that HBCU students—or any students, for that matter—are apes.  For me, the Pakuni represent innocence and potential.  When exposed to the right opportunities at the right moments, the Pakuni demonstrate the capacity to learn, adapt, and excel beyond what would normally be expected of them.  By and large, such has been my experience teaching and working with students at HBCUs.  However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society.

Brighter minds than mine have debated whether HBCUs still have a role to play in our “post-racial” society.  Both sides have made compelling arguments; and I doubt that I could add much.  I do believe that HBCUs should compete in the modern educational marketplace.  However, these institutions can no longer rely solely upon their historical and moral mission to survive in the twenty-first century.  HBCUs must embrace the best practices in leadership and governance, institutional advancement, faculty development, and student retention.  They must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.

If HBCUs fail in these vital tasks, they will be trapped forever in a time-warp.  And they would deserve to be.

Montgomery County Prison Blues

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.

— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

I go to prison every day. For once, I am not speaking in metaphor; and I am not trying to be clever, which I certainly am. I do not own a car, so I ride the 93 Bus from my apartment in Collegeville to Norristown. One of the stops as the bus meanders through the countryside of Montgomery County (“Montco” to those in the know) is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The bus slows down at the checkpoint; and the guard waves it through: no drug-sniffing dogs or mirrors passed under the vehicle – a good thing, as we are on a schedule. The bus stop is just a few yards from the main prison building, a low brick structure that in many ways looks like a high school. Coincidence?

I watch the people who stream onto and off the bus and wonder about them. Do they work at the prison? Are they here to visit someone incarcerated inside? Is the prison a symbol of hope (i.e., employment) or a reminder of how their lives have gone tragically wrong? There are young African American and Hispanic men who laugh and joke with each other; and young White men talking loudly about how hard it is to get a job and keep making child support payments. There is even one guy in a wheelchair who reminds me of the Fonz: complete with the white T-shirt, leather jacket, and pompadour hairdo. There are also women: usually thin White women with bad teeth and stringy hair—modern-day molls who have seen much better days. Or have they?

I am seized by the sudden realization that these people have experienced a segment of life that has never occurred to me. And worse, for me at least, is the fear someone might assume that—because I am on this bus—I too might have some connection to or business at the prison. The very thought shakes my Ivy League-educated, card-carrying elitist self to the core. I clutch my laptop bag tighter, as if it is some sort of ancient talisman that will protect me from demons. I try not to look at anyone else and promise myself that I will start saving money to buy a car. Right after I get a Venti coffee at Starbucks.