When I started college in 1982, one thing I was looking forward to learning about, besides calculus, was drinking. Until then I had done essentially no drinking, though in hindsight I was probably a little buzzed at that dinner party my dad’s colleague hosted – and of course my sister would tell you about the notorious incident concerning a Unitarian youth group meeting and a bottle of elderberry wine. But other than that, I was a neophyte.
Another thing I was looking forward to finding at college was a family, or at least a community. So when I visited a fraternity house, I figured I had found two-in-one: a Drinking Fellowship!
I arrived on campus in Chicago on a Saturday night, dropped my duffel in my dorm room, and headed for the bar in the basement. As I passed through the lobby, an oddly-knotted group struggled in through the front door: two men were dragging a third, enormous, unconscious man across the floor. One of the conscious men, a fellow with a flaming red afro and lily-white skin, spotted me and cried, “Hey Pledge, come lend us a hand with this guy! Let’s get him upstairs to the john.” The other conscious fellow, very tall with a buzz-cut and sallow skin, flung the Lifeless One’s right arm across my shoulders.
The Lifeless One was vast. He stank of sweat, beer, and vomit, and was soaked in all three. As we heaved him up the stairs, I had a fleeting sense of living the wrong life, like the elephant in that Far Side cartoon who suddenly finds himself seated at a concert piano.
We maneuvered our cargo into the bathroom, kicked open a stall, and to my horror, Buzz and Red stuffed Big Boy’s head into the toilet, and flushed. Then they stood back; Red seemed pleased and satisfied.
“There! That’ll do him. Y’all right there, Poose? Hey Poose!”
“‘Poose’?”I looked at Red quizzically.
“Yeah, his name is Stavros Stephanapoulos or something, so we call him Poose. Hey! You’re the new Pledge! The one who visited last spring!”
“Yeah, I, uh–”
“Well, I’m Boze, pleazta meetcha!”
“Yeah, like Bozo, get it? And this is Head, like as in Muscle Head.”
Whereupon Head grunted.
“Head. Boze. Glad to meet you too, and… Poose…”
“Well, we’re glad you’re here. Hey, let’s go downstairs and get drunk, come on!”
I had come to engineering school to study the physical sciences, in the vague hope that understanding the workings of the Universe would help me find my place in it. I was newly aware that I possessed formidable intellectual possibilities. I had been accepted at some pretty toity schools, but I was at this one for my freshman year only due to the shoddy state of international mail service in those days. I looked down at Poose, a two-hundred-pound pile of pickled meat that used to be an engineering student, swilling in his own waste and crawling around in a toilet bowl. I had the distinct feeling that a destiny-defining moment was upon me. Without looking away from Poose, I replied, to my own surprise, “I don’t drink.”
“What?! Of course you do, everyone drinks, or at least they do after they start, so let’s go!”
I looked at Bozo’s shoes and repeated, “I don’t drink.”
“You understand it’s on the house, right? Open bar, no tab, gratis–”
Poose’s filth was soaked into my shirt; my neck stank of his armpit. I looked Bozo straight in the eyes and repeated, “I don’t drink.”
He blinked twice and said, “Oh! Oh, you mean you don’t drink! You’re a non-drinker, you mean, like, you don’t drink.”
“Wow, I can really respect that… you don’t drink. Wow.”
Head grunted “Wish I didn’t drink.”
Boze responded, “Yeah, me too… So let’s go! We’ll share a rum-and-coke, right? The coke for you, the rum for me!”
Head uttered a series of grunts that I interpreted as laughter. They put their arms over my shoulders and steered me downstairs.
That’s how I began my career as the Token Straight Guy. I was generally the last one standing; did most of the cleaning up; and had the clearest recollection of the fraternity party scene. After four years of college, it seemed like a healthy habit worth keeping, so I have more or less abstained from drink to the present day. Now, back then I did not know much about addictive behavior; also, I was unaware of my own father’s issues with alcoholism. I feel like I dodged a helluva bullet that day.
I don’t know how things turned out for Poose, though I think about him once in a while. But he sure had a life-defining influence on me. Thanks, Stavros.