When I left court the day before Thanksgiving, I said goodbye to my Cuban friend, Roberto, our security guard. We hugged and wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.
The day after Thanksgiving, when I arrived with friends at the restaurant at which I had made dinner reservations, the maitre d asked me in a friendly tone, “Who are you?” I am sure my immediate response was off-putting. I said, “I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?” I quickly realized this was a good way to lose the dinner reservation, so I quickly apologized and blamed my response on Emily Dickinson. He did not seem upset and asked if she would be added to our party. I told him that she was a 19th Century American poet who wrote a poem entitled “I’m Nobody.” I then recited it for him:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
He liked the poem and asked again if Emily would be joining us. I told him I did not think she would be able to join us, but promised to send him a copy of the poem. He sat us at a good table.
You may be wondering what this poem has to do with Thanksgiving and Roberto. The simple answer is: everything.
This poem speaks to me, not because I think I’m nobody. I mean, I do have some body. Wait, that did not come out right. I mean, I am some body, I mean somebody. Still does not sound right‑‑either way.
My point is simply that at times I realize I am nobody special. Sorry, I know this is getting tiresome, but it still does not sound right. It reminds me of the term we learned in law school, “negative pregnant.” It implies that most of the time I feel like I am somebody special, and only now and then, when I acknowledge I am nobody, do I feel kinship with Emily. But that is not the case at all.
I have concluded that Ms. Dickinson’s seemingly self-deprecating pronouncement about who she is, “nobody,” does not stem from one or more public incidents in her life. For example, had she, like me and my colleagues, experienced a “reversal” by the United States Supreme Court or even a few by the California Supreme Court, she would not conclude she was “nobody.” She might wonder how the High Court justices could be so wrong, or take comfort that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) 483 U.S. 825 was five-to-four.
And had the Supreme Court “affirmed,” I believe Ms. Dickinson might conclude, as have I, that the affirming justices would feel as much admiration for me or her as would a bog for a frog. I think Ms. Dickinson’s “nobody” paradoxically is the unique special “somebody” who she, who we, who you, truly are, and not the public “you” who might have a title or apparent indicia of success. Ironically, I so admire Ms. Dickinson, that, for me, she is both somebody and nobody.
And all this relates to Thanksgiving and Roberto. He and I are about the same age. I had been to Cuba in the early 1990’s, and I wanted to know how he had survived the revolution. I prevailed upon the reticent Roberto to tell me about his life. Over several months, he related to me a compelling story that taught me what Emily Dickinson was talking about.
In 1959, Roberto was a young man in his early 20’s, living with his parents in Cuba. He was not political, but had the misfortune at that time to be a cadet in the Cuban Air Force Academy when Castro’s revolution took place. A few days before the Bay of Pigs invasion, he and thousands of others were arrested and taken to a castle near the center of the city. He survived each day on water and one meal of beans and rice. The weeks dragged on, but, every few days, some detainees' names were called over a loud speaker. For whatever reason, these detainees were immediately and unceremoniously released and told to go home. It was apparent that most detainees had no idea why they had been arrested or why they were being released. Roberto speculated that the authorities did not know what they were doing, but thought that, because he had been in the Air Force Academy, he had little chance of being released.
After two months in detention, Roberto got a lucky break. The authorities called the name of a friend of his that he knew had already been released weeks earlier. He answered, “Here,” and they let him go.
Roberto hid at his parents’ house for a few days, and then left with a friend who arranged passage for them to a small island off Cuba. He spent several months there and formulated a plan with several families to put together a small flotilla of boats to head for the United States.
The departure date had to be moved forward when they learned that Castro's brother was coming to the island the next day. They were not prepared to leave, but had no choice. Within a few hours, they tied ten boats to one another and headed out to sea in the middle of the night. After a day or two, a sudden storm tore the boats from one another. They were adrift with enough provisions to last only a few days.
For nine days they floated aimlessly at sea with little food or water. During that time a young woman on board gave birth to a baby boy who miraculously survived. Just when they were losing all hope, a ship from the Cayman Islands appeared on the horizon and rescued them. The U.S. Coast Guard picked them up and restored them to good health. Our government granted him asylum. It was heartening to hear him tell how kind and supportive the Coast Guard officials were to the "boat people."
Roberto lived for several months in what came to be called "Little Cuba" in Miami. He eventually made his way to California where he and his friends lived in a rooming house on Vine Street across from the American Federation of Musicians, the musician’s union. I then lived in Hollywood with my parents, just a few miles from the musician’s union. I remember the opening of its new building in 1950 when my parents took me to hear a concert at the union hall. Ferde Grofé conducted the orchestra in his composition, “Grand Canyon Suite.”
I think that was the time I decided it would be “cool” to be a musician. In 1960, when Roberto found a place to stay across from the union hall, I was agonizing over whether I should go to law school or be a jazz pianist and starve to death. I often drove past the union hall and dreamed of hanging out with the other “cats” and playing in jam sessions. In fact, at that very time, Roberto, on the front steps of his rooming house, was listening to the music wafting across Vine Street.
Roberto worked hard, learned English, became a skilled machinist, and was able to bring his parents and sister to the United States. To keep busy, Roberto now works at the court.
While Roberto struggled to learn English, I struggled to answer the impossible questions my law professors put to me. While Roberto was looking for work, my parents plunked down the astronomical sum of around $200 for admission to law school at the University of California. While I wrestled with a workable notion of freedom, having witnessed the stultifying conformity and political witch hunts in this country during the 1950’s, and then experienced the tumultuous excesses of the 1960’s, Roberto had to flee the stifling repression of Castro’s dictatorship. Roberto recently survived another challenge, his battle with cancer.
This brings home to me that throughout our lives, in heat and frost and seemingly at random, we come upon paths taken and not taken. Luck and sometimes a glass of milk and a cookie play a significant role in the choices we make, whether to take this path or that one. But, as Louie Pasteur said to me one night over coffee, “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
A skilled and successful lawyer argued a case in my court a few months ago. In the middle of the argument, he turned into a Gatling machine gun and began asking me questions in rapid succession. I automatically began thinking of answers until it dawned on me something was amiss. “Wait a second,” I said. Something is wrong here…. Give me a minute…. I’ve got it. I ask the questions.” Everyone laughed. For the moment, I was the somebody who asks the questions. But I knew I was nobody. And I suspect that the sharp-witted lawyer knew he too was nobody.
At this past Thanksgiving, and at unexpected times throughout the year, I give thanks that I am nobody. And I give thanks that I am friends with Roberto, who is so special because he is somebody and nobody.