Benjamin Nugent sends a postcard from the fraternity scene.
Last week, I drove to my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, to see if the frat boys were following the university’s social distancing rules. It was a breezy Thursday evening, cool enough that you could sit out on a porch without pouring sweat. In a normal year, on a mild, late-August night like this one, I would have seen dense crowds of hundreds of UMass Greeks, happy to be reunited, milling through the streets surrounding the Alpha Sig fraternity and the Iota Gamma Epsilon sorority. I would have seen them scream greetings and profanities at each other, spill down the steps of the wooden porticos, stumble to the ground, sip from Solo cups, and dance to music blasted from weatherproof speakers, while cops monitored the scene from their cruisers, blue lights spinning as the mob flowed around them. It’s a harvest-season ritual familiar to anyone who grew up here, a marker of the end of summer.
This year is different, of course. All over the country, local authorities have traced COVID-19 outbreaks to fraternity parties, and colleges that have tried to resume in-person classes have struggled with students’ refusal to observe protocol. Over at Syracuse, the day before I arrived, hundreds of newly arrived first years had gathered on the quad and roved the campus in open mockery of the required safety measures. Through July, UMass had insisted it was going to bring its twenty-one thousand undergrads back to campus, even though most classes would be taught online, only to meet stiff resistance from locals and staff; the RA union called the plan “suicidal.” In early August the administration reversed course and instructed the students not to come back after all, unless they were taking studio, lab or captstone classes, the only courses that would be taught face-to-face. That meant that only a little more than a thousand kids would be allowed to live in the dorms. Those who lived off-campus—like frat boys and sorority girls—were discouraged from returning to Amherst. And if that wasn’t enough to put Greek life on pause, a movement to ban fraternities, driven by former members, Black students, and students of color, had gained followers through the summer. But nobody could force the Greeks to stay home with their parents. Would they come back to Amherst and try to throw the usual back-to-school rager, despite its potential lethality and despite the political headwinds? The only way to find out was to stalk them after nightfall.
While I was waiting for the sun to go down, I visited my mother, who lives by herself in a new subdivision full of old liberals. There are solar panels nailed to the steep roofs and Black Lives Matter signs planted in the lawns. She wears a mask when she walks her dog, even when the streets are empty, in deference to those of her neighbors who fear infection via aerosols. People in Amherst, she told me, were upset that the students had returned, even though there were fewer of them than usual. The arrival of even a thousand potentially noncompliant adolescents was frightening for the elderly. As we spoke to each other across a swath of her backyard, she told me that one of the most frustrating plague-time developments was the suspension of her dance class. There were Zoom dance classes, sure, but she missed the challenge of dancing with the other pupils. “I like to do it with another person, because it’s almost like a puzzle,” she said. “You have to figure out how to fit what you do with what they do.”
When it was dark I walked through the half-shuttered downtown. The Barts ice-cream parlor, an iconic local shop known for its anthropomorphic cow statue, had already gone out of business. Campus was dead, its complex of dorm towers mostly dark. But around nine P.M., there were stirrings of life in the small cluster of Greek houses set back from the main road. Folding tables materialized on two of the porches, and at the back door of Alpha Sig. Soon, the tables were manned by kids, and other kids presented themselves for a check-in process and were waved indoors. If anyone noticed me, a forty-two-year-old walking the same blocks over and over again, snooping, they gave no indication. I felt a stab of fear that must have derived from my memory of being a townie, a teenage boy whom frat boys had threatened and mocked for being a hippie, a punk, a weirdo. I remembered how once, at sixteen, sitting in the back seat of my drummer’s car as it rolled down Greek Row on the way to practice, I’d watched our bass player thrust his torso out the passenger side window and shout at a couple of Pikes standing on a porch, “Jock gestapo, jock gestapo!” and the curses they hurled back, the breadth of their gym-built arms.
I caught glimpses through the windows of groups of boys and girls standing around talking with beers in their hands. The sight of indoor parties was so alien that it had the aspect of a historical reenactment, a tableau vivant of 2019.
And then, around ten P.M., somebody put on hip-hop at an indiscrete volume and somebody else shouted, “Chill, dude, chill,” and turned it down. The two celebrants negotiated a compromise, a volume level determined to maximize fun while minimizing the odds of the party being discovered. It would have been far safer for everyone, of course, if they’d have danced in the open, outside, in the yards and out in the street, as per usual, but that would have gotten them in trouble.
When they started to dance, I realized I’d forgotten that dancing and music seem to alter the medium through which a body moves. It was as if the air around their bodies thickened, slowing them down. Two of the porches were suddenly full, everyone maskless and packed together. At first, they were tentative, but then they shed their inhibitions and swayed, solving the puzzle that is dancing, fitting their motions to the motions of their neighbors. There’s always an element of infernal beauty in the spectacle of Greek life, but this time the beauty was clearly barbarous, harmful to others. That was part of its power.
As I watched, I felt indignation on behalf of my mother and all of the other gray-haired, anti-draft, anti-apartheid marchers, trapped in their eco-friendly subdivision, hiding. And it wasn’t hard to see a connection between the unprincipled dancing on the porches and the tendency of mostly white, middle-class fraternities and sororities like these to maintain alumni networks that perpetuate old, racist, economic hierarchies. But at my age, I’m old enough to have a gut sense of youth’s brevity, the body’s decline, and the ephemerality of friend groups in which everyone loves each other. An uncitizenly part of me, a stupid part, was indulgent and amused. That part of me felt sorry for them for being young in 2020 instead of 1999. That’s right, I thought. Go on. Rage.
Benjamin Nugent is the author, most recently, of Fraternity, a collection of linked stories from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He’s the recipient of the 2019 Terry Southern Prize.