JT has taken the glass chessboard from its place on the coffee table and moved it to the kitchen island, what feels like the beginning of a drug ritual. He looks like the actor Ron Howard, boyish and wholesome, but there’s an underlying malice too, the kind you see in the eyes of psychopaths. It could be the drugs because it’s rumored he’s into the hard stuff. He’s one of the few in our fraternity who’s of legal drinking age and lives in a condo at the top of the hill. It is a high quality chess board, the surface marred with razor cuts. So Gibbard, he says, what are your plans?
My plans are to avoid making plans, to react to opportunities rather than make them. But he doesn’t mean life plans, he wants to know about the fraternity. Do I want to move up, to hold office after I’m done being a pledge? JT is leading a faction against the current president, his rival James Esplen. In fact they are both named James and he is James Taylor, but apart from the drugs I don’t see any similarities between him and the singer.
When you become a brother there’s a graduation ceremony where you get a jacket with your letters and a nickname, and that name gets stitched onto the jacket. The best nicknames are the ones people actually use, and everyone calls JT JT because it suits him. The best names also have a back story only known by the inner circle. JT’s roommate is nicknamed Captain Jack, a reference to a Billy Joel song (“Captain Jack will get you high tonight / and take you to your special island.”) In a sense we are all islands in the fraternity, a grouping of islands, an archipelago.
I become a pledge not long after starting college to distract myself from missing my girlfriend and because the jackets are really cool, red and black with a laughing skull on the side. I’m not worried about getting hazed because they swear that no one uses paddles anymore even though the Hegemon (Greek for pledge master) grips one as he marches up and down the line, smacking it into his hand, swinging it through the air, making a dramatic “thwack.”
Instead they put blindfolds on us in the basement of some shit rental and make us memorize things and shout back in unison. We lock arms at the elbows in a form of male bonding rooted in psychic abuse. One night they divide us into groups with half of us taken to the woods and the other half locked in a dark basement, forced to listen to a CD of animal distress sounds used by hunters, played on maximum volume and infinite repeat, everything from wounded coyotes and rabbits to bleating fawns. They tie us together and aim strobe lights at us but because we got high beforehand we just giggle our way through it like it’s a Pink Floyd concert.
The pledging period, which spans three months, combines this kind of mistreatment with pleasantries, like being invited to private mixers with sororities or a brother’s bedroom for bong hits. The brothers go between yelling at us one moment to acting like we’re family the next, which feels oddly familiar to how many of us were raised.
In fact Greek life mimics the same behaviors we knew before college, namely the idea of an exclusive club, same as the cliques we formed in high school or on the elementary school playground, the key difference being we added drugs and alcohol and girls.
But from the frat house to the real world and corporate life it doesn’t change much. We clump together with those we want to be seen with, form loyalties to protect ourselves, assign secret names. We gravitate to places we’ll be accepted for a level of status we can’t attain on our own. Or make the mistake of thinking that will differentiate us, when in fact it just makes us the same. And that is the true mission of elite social clubs, to perpetuate the same.
The irony is that when I’m done being a pledge in hindsight those memories are better than being a brother. There are nights at the frat house we are covered in cheap beer and slipping on the dance floor, and I think this must be what they mean by true religious ecstasy. Drunken teenaged boys and girls singing in unison in the dark. We are all growing up and figuring it out and this is how we do it, with songs by the B-52s and the Fine Young Cannibals. We don’t realize it’s the soundtrack of our lives.
These times come back to me in my dreams, characters and scenes from the past. They are all still there, bottled and shelved in a dark basement of my mind. At night I maunder down the steps and sample one or two, and they commingle and mix like it’s an ad hoc party of ghosts. When it’s done I make my way to the kitchen, start the coffee, and there in the dark is my old fraternity brother JT. He just says so tell me Gibbard, what are your plans?