On Being Busted at Fifty

Az m’lebt, m’ lebt alles,” my grandfather began telling me when he was fifty and presumably thought me old enough to understand, “if you live long enough, you live through everything.” And, I suppose, justice being as imperfectly practiced as it is in our world, one could consider getting arrested as inevitable a function of aging as getting cancer. But some people I know would have to reach 150 at least before falling afoul of the law, and others have sat in their first cell by sixteen or seventeen: so there must be some other, more specific reason why I find myself charged with a misdemeanor just past the half-century mark of my life.

Where did it all begin, I keep asking myself, where did it really start—back beyond the moment those six or eight or ten improbable cops came charging into my house, without having knocked, of course, but screaming as they came (for the record, the first of their endless lies), “We knocked! We knocked!”; and producing only five minutes later, after considerable altercation, the warrant sworn out by a homeless, lost girl on whom my wife and daughter had been wasting concern and advice for over a year. It seems to me that the actual beginning must have been, was the moment I got up before the Women’s Club (an organization of faculty wives and other females variously connected with the State University of New York at Buffalo) to speak to them of the freedom and responsibility of the teacher.

I have no record of the occasion (was it a year ago, two?), can remember no precise dates or names or faces—but I do recall the horrified hush with which my not very daring but, I hope, elegantly turned common-places were received. I spoke of the ironies of our current situation in which a broad range of political dissent is tolerated from teachers, but in which no similar latitude is granted them in expressing opinions about changing standards in respect to sex and drugs. I invoked, I think, the names of Leo Koch (fired out of the University of Illinois) and Timothy Leary (dropped from the faculty at Harvard, I reminded my ladies) and ended by insisting that the primary responsibility of the teacher is to be free, to provide a model of freedom for the young.

Needless to say, tea and cakes were served afterward, and one or two members of the Program Committee tried hard to make conversation with me as I gallantly sipped at the former and politely refused the latter. But there was a growing space around me no matter how hard they tried, a kind of opening cordon sanitaire, that kept reminding me of a picture which used to hang in my grade-school classrooms, of Cataline left alone on the benches of the Roman Senate after his exposure by Cicero. That evening there were phone calls rather drastically reinterpreting my remarks (I had it was asserted by one especially agitated source, advocated…

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