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How Fraternities Work

I certainly didn’t want to fight with him. I did, however, want to shout, “Listen, you son of a bitch, life isn’t all a ******* football game! You won’t always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss” — all those things I so cherishly cuddled in my self-pitying bosom. I didn’t, of course, say any such thing.
— “A Fan’s Notes,” Frederick Exley

From the Auburn Sigma Pi website. No, have no idea if they were Sigma Pi's. And this looks like West Virginia, 2010.

“What was that Malzahn? A draw on third and 13? Really? You’re terrible. I coulda made that call, and I don’t get paid millions!” yelled a fresh-faced frat wannabe in his red tie and his wrinkled white button-up with the sleeves rolled, his blue blazer in a beer-stinking stack beside a bloated brother-in-training who looked to be somewhere between beer four and smuggled and shaker-stirred rum and coke three. “Booo! Booooo!”

“Shut up.” I was looking up at him from two rows below. There might’ve been an explicit modifier in there somewhere. Our eyes met. I’d stopped him mid-boo. “I said shut up, you idiot.” You idiot — you child, you imbecile, you absolutely clueless cretin. His hate was immediately redirected from Gus Malzahn and Auburn’s lethargic offense to me. His fury had a face. And it wasn’t a particularly intimidating or threatening face. It wasn’t a face that causes pre-fight recoil. It was a very punchable face. The face was smiling, probably smirking. The face looked superior. The face felt superior.

The booing pledge went crazy. Cursing, spitting, challenging, straining against the bonds of the bloated brother and another pledge. I looked past his animated reddening head to AUHD only five or so rows above. Auburn 0 Clemson 17. At that point, Auburn had less than 50 yards of total offense. On the stat-framed screen was probably a shot of dudes in Polos and khakis surrounded by beautiful blondes jostling and scrunching and trying very desperately to let the cameraman compress their personas into bits and bytes. We’re #1! War Eagle!

I looked back at the angry pledge. He was still screaming, still gesturing, still shouting personalized threats. A strange sense of calm came over me. I remember this calm more than any of the half-truth details listed above. For a few seconds it felt like I was observing outside my own body. It was almost as if the whole experience was occurring on AUHD and I was just a spectator like everyone else.

And then, feeling like some sort of omniscient alien shifting the gears and levers of an early 20s human male, I turned around to watch the on-field action, leaving my left arm and the middle finger of my left hand behind. The one-finger salute lasted for a minute, maybe two. I’d always thought the expression “howled with anger” was hackish and clichéd. But he literally howled, a kind of agonized yip. Here I was, a lanky kid in a faded orange Auburn shirt, a nonentity in the world he was fervently attempting to join, challenging his manhood, his very identity even, in front of his peers. Two attractive brunettes in sun dresses and cowboy boots were watching. I think one was his date.

A pledge dressed in an identical red tie and white button-up sitting beside me turned and put his arm around the shoulder of my lowered left arm. “I don’t think you want to do that,” he said. His eyes had the roving unfocusedness of the recently drunk. We were about the same height. He had curly brown hair and his jawline was covered with red splotches signifying emerging acne. He was white. He was no doubt middle class. It was like looking into one of those fun house mirrors. “Do you understand how fraternities work? We stick together. If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. Like we could all just join forces and beat the [blank] out of you.”

“I don’t care,” I said. I’m not trying to recreate myself as a tough guy. I’m really not. I spend most of my time talking to my 11-year-old Miniature Schnauzer as I lay in my bed playing Mario Kart. The one time a fist met my face I was knocked unconscious . . . on a baseball field . . . by a teammate . . . during the 2005 Tennessee state semifinals. (We won and I played one of the better games of my baseball career. Even if I don’t remember the 3rd, 4th, and 5th innings.) Tough or not, I do have self-respect, and I’ll be damned if I was going to let a bunch of confused kids partaking in what is at least in part an antiquated and silly search for identity intimidate me. “I don’t care if you all joined in and kicked the [blank] out of me. Do it. I don’t care. I’m not scared.”

I glanced back at the angry pledge. He was no longer being restrained. He looked like a frustrated and tired infant. Like most pre-fight productions between young American males his actions were all theatrics for the crowd. To back down, to not get hysterical and crazy talking about how much he wanted to “kick my ass” and “[blanking] punch me in the face you [blankity] [blanking] [blanker],” would be a sin against his manhood, and thus a sin against his future brothers.

Do you understand how fraternities work?

Auburn Student Center 1st floor bathroom

I told my parents while eating at an Outback in Ohio I was thinking about joining a fraternity for a year and writing a book about my experiences. After my graduation from Auburn, I’d enroll in Ole Miss or Arizona State or the University of Texas, transform myself into a Fraternity Man, keep copious notes, and write a best-selling book about the whole ordeal. The book would be an outsider’s insider look at what it means to be in a fraternity at a large party school with a rich Greek tradition. I wasn’t going to necessarily bash the fraternity life. I’d probably have a couple close friends among the pledges. And they’d probably be thoroughly decent guys. The book would be more about their evolution than my own. I’d explore the drinking and the women along with the pathos of the pursuit of parties and the hedonistic path. In my head, it was a brilliant book.

But, when I thought for more than 10 seconds about this plan of action, I had to admit it was just another attempt to remain an adolescent and keep the “real world” and its uncertainty away for another year. Who wouldn’t want another year of irresponsibility and girls and parties and general tomfoolery? The best part, the most insidious part, was that I would technically be working toward this whole goal of writing. It’s not the worst idea, and I do think it could be an interesting book, but it’s not for me right now. And I don’t think I came to that conclusion out of some fear of failure. Besides, the whole A.J. Jacobs, life-as-experiment nonsense is stale by this point. I’m not sure I want to build my foundation on the shifting sands of gimmickry.

I’ve become an amateur anthropologist of the greater Auburn area. Four, sometimes three, nights a week my job delivering for Willie’s Wings and Stuff allows me to momentarily peak into the lives of 15-40 strangers. For the time it takes to find a wallet or sign a credit card receipt I get to imagine (often times judge; I’m human) what the food recipient’s life is like.

And that often means peaking into the domestic life of Auburn’s fraternity population, as a large chunk of Willie’s business is inebriated frat guys. (Willie’s slogan: “We don’t care how you got the munchies, just how you get rid of them.”)

I was going to crystallize all my delivery experiences into a jumble of generalizations, walking you through what a typical delivery to a Fraternity Man’s living space is like in a humorous, caricatured kind of way, but one particular instance will do the trick.

Through the door, the song being blared sounded like the National Anthem. Turns out it was “Night Moves” by Bob Seger. The guy who opened the door was wearing khaki shorts and a maroon front-pocketed T-shirt advertising a rodeo of some sort. Behind him, melting into two different couches, were an assortment of tall, tanned, short-haired dudes in assorted Guy Harvey shirts and Greek memorabilia. Two NBA teams were playing on a flatscreen television sans sound. Chris Paul missed an open three to We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit/ We were just young and restless and bored/ Living by the sword. Natural Lights were lifted in time with Seger’s gravelly inflection. It was all sublimely appropriate.

I stumble into a scene like the above or I look around the student section in Jordan-Hare or I walk around campus with my eyes open and I think, Who are these people? I mean, really, who are they? How did they become like this? Is this preferable? Is that a sound life path? Should I be emulating them in some way?

You might get the impression I hate frat guys and Greek culture. I don’t. Or at least I don’t despise the whole enterprise like a lot of independents at Auburn. Because what a lot of the GDIs don’t realize is that forming your identity on not being something is the same, as “bad,” as basing your identity on that something — it’s the same conformity mislabeled as nonconformity. A fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist. Polarization leaves no room for nuance. That’s why I have a hard time with politics. Democrats and Republicans are different sides of the same crazy coin. (Like The Layman Group and Greeks. Like the hipster crowd and Greeks.) And the marginalized parties have no power and change nothing. Sometimes it seems hopeless.

I’m perplexed by Greek culture. Part of me, the part young and male, is envious of the world they’ve created. Joining the right fraternity sets a young man up with business connections, ready and easy access to sorority girls, and a large group of gregarious friends to spend lazy spring days tossing football with. Buy the ticket, take the ride. I’m not sure how much of my idea of fraternity life is demonized and how much is idealized. The truth of it all probably exists somewhere in the middle.

I guess this whole writing exercise is my attempt to come to terms with my diverging life path. I came from their middle class background, I played their sports, I moved in the same circles, I have their look, but I’m not a part of their group. At some point I became an outsider. But not an outsider by circumstance. An outsider almost by choice. I don’t think that says anything particularly revealing about me or my character. Or maybe it does. Maybe it says everything. But joining a fraternity and wallowing in its excesses doesn’t necessarily implicate the joiner as a terrible, unaware human being. Sure, plenty of dumb, unthinking, spiteful people are fraternity members. A lot of dumb, unthinking, spiteful people are Auburn fans. A lot of dumb, unthinking, spiteful people are human beings. Embrace the nuance.

I guess I’m saying God Bless America.

At the end of the Clemson game, after the then unique Auburn second half comeback, after the Kyle Parker overthrow, and the missed field goal in overtime, I glanced at the curly-headed pledge beside me. Cam Newton and Trooper Taylor had just chest-bumped and the Auburn sideline was spilling onto the field. The pledge looked up and we locked eyes. Without hesitation he took one step toward me and put his arm around my shoulder.

“War Eagle, man.”

“War Eagle.”

I didn’t look back at the angry pledge, but I like to imagine he was smiling and hugging his neighbors.

Keep Reading:

* The Secret History of an Underground Iron Bowl
* Pretty Auburn girl. In the Philippines. Saving Toomer’s.
* Rare candids of Pat Sullivan at the 1971 Heisman banquet
* My first meeting with Dean Foy
* Pompadours on the Plains: the 50s revival at Auburn
* Bear Bryant’s lost year at Auburn
* Classic punxploitation flick features broadcast of Auburn game
* Auburn students stand in for Joaquin Phoenix, stars of Space Camp (1985)
* The G.I. Joe from Auburn
* Videographer behind AU hype videos wasn’t initially sold on “All I Do is Win”

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