Sunday, February 26, 2006


The trading floor has often been compared to a fraternity house. Practical jokes, scatological humor, camaraderie, a decadent sort of joie de vivre are among the aspects both milieu share. More women on the trading floor has changed that comparison to some extent--nowadays a guy has to be careful lest even a glance might be misconstrued as an ogle--but the trading floor in still a man's world, or should I say a boy's world.

Fraternities have gotten a bad rap over the past few years. The perennial news story of a pledge dying from the forced drinking of a quart of Thunderbird has tarnished the frat image, which reached its zenith of coolness after the release of the movie Animal House in the late 70's.

I got to thinking about fraternities at a recent dinner party with six other couples. Opting to be naturally right instead of politically correct, we decided that the boys would sit at one end of the table and the girls at the other. The women launched into their Chatty Cathy chorale. Given that four of us gents had attended the University of Virginia and had been members of the same fraternity, we didn't waste any time before recounting the familiar animal house lore.

By the time the creme brulee had arrived, my sides had split and tears were trickling down my face, which I imagine was baby butt red from laughter. God, I hadn't laughed like that since, well since I was a college punk hanging around the SAE house. I had forgotten how madcap my college years had been. Puffed-up pretensions about one's university degree--an affliction pandemic to the New York metro area--does funny things to the memory over the years.

Stories flowed as freely as the wine. There was the one about Marvin, the biology major from Alabama, who had a fetish for women's purses. More specifically, Marvin had a thing about placing unusual items into the handbags of visiting "imports" from Hollins, Sweetbriar, Randolph Macon. At one Thursday night mixer, he was inspired to deposit elephant stool specimens absconded from the university lab into a few randomly selected purses. And then there was the one about Chester, the polo player from Memphis, hijacking during a football game the horse from under the Cavalier, our mascot whose function was to canter up and down the sidelines, exhorting the crowd to cheer. Waving a bottle of Jack Daniels in the air, Chester was chased up and down the field by referees and security personnel for a good fifteen minutes. He finally came to a halt under the goal post, reached up and grabbed the cross bar and performed a gymnastic feat made possible only by his state of thorough inebriation. Meanwhile, the horse took the opportunity to relieve his bowels directly over the letter "V" of VIRGINIA spray-painted across the end zone.

I chimed in with the story about how I and five other fraternity brothers decided one night after an Isley Brothers concert in Roanoke to make an impromptu excursion to New Orleans. Afterall, Roanoke was one-tenth the way from Charlottesville to New Orleans, so why the hell not. Off we went, six of us crammed into a Cutlass Supreme, nothing on our collective personages except a gas card, twenty dollars cash, my checkbook and big ole bag of pot. Twenty hours later on a lovely Monday afternoon, we had stationed ourselves on the patio at Pat O'Briens. After six rounds of Hurricanes and after being presented the tab, we informed the waiter that he would have to accept a check without supporting identification as I had left my wallet in my dorm room twelve hundred miles away. Needless to say, the establishment summoned the cops but we luckily escaped before they arrived. Five days later, we made the drive back to Charlottesville, just in time for Homecoming weekend festivities.

In the midst of this story-telling, someone at our merry little table had the genius to shout, "It takes a fraternity, not a damn village," referring to Hillary Clinton's book, which one of the women at the table had told everyone she had just read. And so we had found the rallying credo for the evening.

I'm not looking to pick on Hillary Clinton. Who knows, but she might be the next president. That a family needs the support from others outside the nucleus goes without saying. However, my suspicion is that the village HRC has in mind is not the small and close-knit village typical of sub-Sahara Africa, whence the proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" supposedly originated. Her village is the one located along the swamps of the Potomac River and inhabited by all kinds of pygmies, cannibals, witch doctors. Who would argue with her that much of our development occurs during the first two years of life and needs all the nourishment that it can get? But personality continues to develop and be shaped long after that. College is usually the last frontier before we enter the daunting expanse of adulthood. We have attained mental, physical and sexual maturity by the time we pack off for college, but what might be called "character" is still a work-in-progress.

The main difference between this last lurch toward maturity and prior ones is that we are now out of the house, away from our parents, who up to this point had been the main influence in our lives, the sculptors of the little masterpieces that we think we are. And even though the university is a village of sorts, we at first find it strange, chaotic, lonely. But help is everywhere. New arrivals run a gauntlet of helping hands. It isn't long, though, before we find that village within a village where we are comfortable and feel accepted. That sub-village for me was the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house. Call it a village of idiots but a village nonetheless.

An anthropologist would have a field day with the SAE house, a place with its own caste structure, value system, rituals, in short its own culture. And what are these values--okay, I'll go out on a limb and call them virtues--that the SAE house inculcated within me? One word comes to mind to sum up my fraternity experiences, namely WILDNESS. We were boys three-quarters of the way to being men and none of us liked that one bit. Getting wild was a statement, an act of rebellion against growing up, one last desperate affirmation of adolescence. College was the one time we could get away with anything short of murder. We knew that luxurious freedom wouldn't last long, that all too soon we would be toting briefcases and wearing suits and saying "Yes, dear" to our wives fifty thousand times a week. And so getting wild, doing crazy and stupid things became a rite of passage. And the more insane and bizarre the act or stunt, the higher the value placed on it.

A case in point....imagine a beautiful mid-May Saturday afternoon in a picture perfect meadow. The boys of SAE are celebrating the near end of the school year with a picnic and softball game. Okay so far...idyllic, pastoral, wholesome. But then the trash can of grain alcohol is carted onto the field. Grain alcohol mixed with green food dye and into which a jock strap had been thrown for extra seasoning. We gather around the trash can with plastic cups in hand and liberally partake. It doesn't take long for the high octane crap to kick in. The first tell-tale sign might be that the softball game is degenerating into a rugby match. Maybe the turning point is when Harlan Decker decides to dump a large wooden bowl of potato salad onto his head. Anyway, the door comes unhinged. A few guys are hanging around a stack of split fence rails. They are laying the rails across two saw horses. They are leaping high into the air and landing on the split rails, splitting them in two. They are laughing maniacally as they do so.

A 1969 Ford Fairlane mysteriously appears at the top of a knoll. We all stop and gaze expectantly toward it. It then comes bounding over the sun-lacquered meadow toward us. The auto's owner, Peter Grantling, smiles blithely as he cruises about the meadow, everybody hooting and hollering at him, splashing the car with beer and grain alcohol as it passes by.

Suddenly...something comes over me. I watch the car as it turns to make another pass toward us. Something sets me off. As the car comes at us, I inexplicably charge toward it. Peter is going about twenty-five miles per hour and doesn't slow down even though I am now standing directly before him, daring him to run me over. But at just the right moment I jump flat-footed into the air. I land on the hood and my forward momentum causes me to spring off the hood and into the air. I somehow manage to execute an almost perfect half-gainer with a twist in mid-air above the roving automobile. Looking up, I see the car roof three feet below me. I seem to hang suspended upside-down over the car for an eternity. I land hard on the trunk and roll onto the ground.

For the first time that afternoon, the crowd is dead silent. Green-ringed mouths are hanging wide open. The president of the fraternity is wondering how he is going to tell my parents that their beloved son is dead.

But then like Lazarus, like a jack-in-the-box, I spring back to life, jump to my feet and shaking my fist in the air, pursue the automobile beast. The mob has been whipped into a frenzy by my act. Thirty-three guys junping up and down, their mouths green from the grain alcohol, many half-naked, one guy wearing nothing but a trash bag like an oversized diaper, some holding in their hands pieces of fence rail like savages holding spears. Everyone gives me a high five as I prance by. Someone stops me to wipe the blood from my mouth caused by my landing on the trunk. I am a hero.

Was such a crazy and dangerous stunt heroic? According to the culture of wildness it was. All my brothers that afternoon judged what I had done as greatness. I strutted around that pasture like manic King David dancing into Jerusalem. I could have been forgiven for thinking I had done something courageous instead of reckless, stupid. But courage requires the sacrifice toward a greater cause, whereas getting wild is done for its own sake.

Nonetheless, twenty-six years later I still admire the daring-do of the stunt. In the process of becoming a stodgy, stolid, solid citizen, I feel nostalgic for that devil-may-care attitude. In a sense, flipping over that car was courageous. The act was not so much death defying as just plain defiant. I do have to admit, however, that I hope my ten and eight year old boys will be a bit more cowardly when they are in a college.

Another aspect of college wildness that I fondly remember is the absurdity of it all. A sense of the absurd as finely developed as Samuel Beckett's is higly valued by the cult of wildness. A case in point...imagine a pleasant cocktail party is taking place. Men are wearing ties and blazers and women party dresses. The SAE house is looking its best, the pledges having scrubbed it down all afernoon. Low-key R&B wafts throughout the house. I turn from a conversation I am having with a cute co-ed about some nonsense, like the differences between the Athenian and Spartan societies, and see something so startling that I almost spill my drink. In the middle of the room stands Evan Stone. (The fact that Evan is the only Jewish member in a house dominated by Southern preps has enhanced his finely developed sense of the absurd.) Evan is buck naked. Next to him is a toilet. Evan has lugged the toilet from outside the back of the house where it had been dumped after a new one had been installed in the downstairs bathroom. Everyone stops what they are doing and stares, too shocked to laugh. Evan then sits on the toilet. His face strains and he grunts out loud as Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man" sounds from the stereo. The room fills with howls.

The best minds of my generation howling...with laughter. And, believe it or not, we did to some degree represent the best minds of our generation. In my pledge class of ten or so guys, two went on to Wharton, one to Yale Divinity, one to Yale Architecture, one to UVA's law school, a couple to UVA's business school, one to Georgetown's School of Foreign Affairs. We were not just a bunch of ne'er-do-well, layabout lunkheads.

But despite, or maybe because of, the respectability and success we had attained to varying degrees, we relish rehashing these old fraternity stories. The telling enables us to remember what it was like to be irreverent and outrageous, when we were untouchable, unfamiliar with nagging wives, arrogant bosses, demanding clients, when we didn't have to worry about the care of kids, the year-end bonus, kissing ass for a club membership, or the fact that others might be moving faster and farther than we. We could drink green tinted grain alcohol, jump over cars, drag a toilet into the middle of a party, get naked and march around with cabbage leaves adorning our heads, burn our underwear in public, dress like Klingons for Star-Trek parties, play tackle football in the front yard at 2:00 AM, go beserk just from hearing a song.

Certain values instilled in me then and there are still with me here and now. Those values are less pronounced, more subliminal than consciously asserted because they are for the most part anti-establishment and naive and I am, alas, now seeking to become established and in the process have become more cynical. But they are still in the back of my persona, like that butt bone that evolutionist claim is the vestige of a monkey tail. I can no longer afford to be reckless but I still love to take a chance. I can't say that I am irreverent as I was then but I do have a nose for phoniness. I can't flaunt rules and regulations like I once did, but I know questioning them can be a lot of fun. The unexpectant, unconventional, uncalled for still tickle me. My spontaniety surprises my wife sometimes, like when I took her on an unannounced trip to New Orleans. I am better able to handle life's vicissitudes as long as I have Earth, Wind, Fire and all that other great music that we partied to. And I know that my sense of humor owes a lot to those zany days.

Maybe such wildness is common to every college kid no longer under his parent's roof and rules. It's probably not even limited to college kids but hits kids in their late teens and early twenties, girls as well as boys. But for me to fully know and appreciate what it meant to be a wild boy, it took a fraternity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love your writing..