At the beginning of tenth grade, there was a boy named “Ronnie” who sat in front of me in homeroom class. We became acquainted, and after a week of brief, but friendly chats, he invited me to join his fraternity.
Having grown up an only child, and a rather lonely one at that, I was elated at the prospect of being “accepted” by a group of my peers, and finally having some real “friends”. Ronnie gave me the address of his fraternity, and suggested that I drop by the following Saturday afternoon, to “meet some of the brothers.”
A few days later, I took the city bus uptown, got off twenty-five minutes later, found the address and climbed the stairs of a rather run-down, three-story wooden building, badly in need of a paint job. It was in the “Victorian Section” of Savannah.
I knocked on the door and was invited in by none other than my old friend Cecil, who shook my hand, welcomed me to Sigma Epsilon Chi fraternity (S.E.X.) and showed me around the place.
After a perfunctory tour of the facility, I witnessed one or two teenage boys I did not recognize sitting around in worn out “comfy” chairs and reading old Playboy magazines. There were more men’s magazines scattered about a wooden spool table which appeared to have been salvaged from some back alley.
We ascended the stairs to the third floor, where I was shown into a dusty old room with dirty windows. A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling over an unmade bed. With a knowing look on his face, and the glint of saliva on his lower teeth, Cecil confided to me that this room was set aside by the “brothers” for the private entertainment of female “guests”.
While I may have had one or two impure ideas regarding females up to that point in my life, in reality, I had never so much as even said “Hi” to a girl, and thus, I was completely horrified by the thought of what sort of things– and what sorts of girls– might make use of such a room.
Nevertheless, my need to belong, to feel a part of something bigger than myself, to have “friends” and to be accepted by my peers burned strong within me, and so, I readily accepted his invitation to return one week later to be “interviewed” by the brothers.
The following week provided ample time for daydreaming and fantasizing about what my life would be like once I was a member of the fraternity and instantly one of the “cool”kids. I imagined that girls at the school, who I liked and secretly admired, would suddenly notice me and be interested in me. I started to picture what kind of clothes I would have to wear to school in order to maintain the correct image that was expected of me by the other brothers. I anticipated being invited to wild parties where people would be drinking alcohol and dancing and conversing with each other and luridly with members of the opposite sex. Once I was one of “them,” people would finally have a real reason to like me and to accept me and I would be a person to be admired and respected. Then, as I happily pondered the excitement of my new life, these and other thoughts suddenly made me nervous and it all seemed so very different from the way my life had been that I started to panic at the thought of it all.
Nevertheless, the following Saturday, I awoke early from a troubled sleep, took a shower, brushed my teeth three times, got dressed in my “coolest” clothes, paid fifteen cents and took the bus to the corner of Drayton and 31st Street.
I thought I looked pretty sharp in my Gant shirt, khaki pants, Madras belt, Burlington socks and Weejuns. But, so far, anyway, no one had paid much attention to me, treated me any differently than usual or asked me where I was going. Not the people on the bus stop, not the bus driver, not any of the other passengers on the bus or any of the passing motorists.
Undeterred, I proceeded to the address of the fraternity house and climbed the stairs, just as I had exactly one week earlier and rang the bell. But now, something felt different.
This time, the door was answered by someone I did not know. He was not particularly “brotherly” and I was rudely instructed to take a seat in a room with all the other prospective members who sat around rather nervously eyeing each other and me sheepishly. I was informed that I was to come into another room when my name was called.
One by one, the other candidates for admission into coolness were summoned by name and timidly arose from their seats and disappeared behind a door into another room. The process was repeated about every seven to ten minutes.
Finally it was my turn. The door opened and the stranger I had met before stood in it and said, “Parker….?”
I was ushered into a large room and directed to take a seat on a tall wooden stool which had been strategically placed in the center of the room for the apparent amusement of twenty or twenty-five of the “brothers” who were seated in chairs and on several couches which were arranged around the perimeter of the room so that each person had a good view of the proceedings. The room was dark, and I could not see the faces of any of my future “brothers”, but there was one light overhead, the kind with a green metal shade, the type of light that might hang over a pool table in a seedy part of town–and it shone down directly– and solely, on me.
For the first time in my life, I did not enjoy being the center of attention.
I sat rather awkwardly and uncomfortably upon the stool as someone from behind me shot me in the back with the first question. I immediately realized I was about to be subjected to a rude form of interrogation, designed to humiliate me or make me look stupid, but I was willing to play along with it, for a chance to belong, but my desire to be one of them and my chances were quickly slipping away with each passing second.
“Okay….what’s your name…and where do you go to school….?”
I remember thinking this was a stupid question. I went to the same school as most of them. And besides, if they didn’t know who I was, why had they invited me inside the sanctity of their fraternity house and, for another thing, why hadn’t my old friend Cecil told them I was coming. I felt tricked and a little betrayed.
My natural inclination was to be funny, and for a moment, I considered making something up, saying something like “Seymour Butts….” going for the cheap laugh, but it didn’t seem like the kind of situation where anything I said would be getting any laughs. So I just told them my name and told them I went to Savannah High School.
Then someone directly behind me asked another question. This question was asked in a somewhat louder voice than the question before, and I could feel the tension building in the dark room, as out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the brothers begin to squirming in their seats in anticipation of the fun that was to come.
“What grade are you in?” At least, unlike in Mrs. Wade’s math class, they were asking questions to which I knew the answers.
“TENTH!”, I shot out, momentarily emboldened, and seeking to regain the high ground.
Then, from directly behind me, another brother wanted to ask me something. I swiveled around in my seat. I was getting good at that.
His voice sounded vaguely familiar, and almost friendly. As I was wondering if he might be Robert Schuman, a boy whom I liked and had known since first grade, he inquired of me,
“If we asked you to go downtown to the women’s section of a department store and buy some women’s underwear, would you do it….?”
I thought about the question for perhaps ten or twelve seconds… pondering it seriously… suspecting that it might be a trick question, while at the same time understanding on some level that this might be the pivotal question they would ask me, and the very question which I must answer correctly– and the one question upon which any chance I would ever have of being one of the “cool” people, might hang.
I remembered that once, when I was somewhere, someone, maybe it was a teacher, had told me:
“Honestly is the best policy.”
So I decided to be honest. I thought they would respect that. I thought they would want to accept into their midst someone who was forthright and honest, someone who would know right from wrong and try to do the right thing in any given situation. So after what must have seemed like a long time to some, so long in fact that one or two may have even forgotten what the question was….
I simply said, , “NO….I wouldn’t.
Someone across the dark room shot out indignantly, as if he hadn’t heard me,
“No, you wouldn’t WHAT??”
“No I wouldn’t buy you any women’s underwear….”
Then it was all over.
Another anonymous face, someone who hadn’t spoken before, but seemed to be in authority said, “”All right, that’s all….you can go now.”
Someone opened the door for me and as I walked through it told me to wait outside in the other room for a minute. I felt a tremendous sense of relief as I sat back down in the reception room to await my fate. One or two others, who were still waiting to be interviewed looked up at me as I sat back down, and, I felt a little sorry for them– and even sorrier for myself.
I knew that I had failed– and would never be one of the cool people.
While I was coming to that realization the door suddenly opened and one of the brothers handed me a folded up piece of paper and said,
“Don’t open this up, until after you have left here.”
Always able to follow simple instructions, I stood up and let myself out. I descended the stairs and stood on the sidewalk in front of the old white Victorian building which badly needed a paint job. I unfolded the paper and read it. They had reached a decision.
“NO!!!” was all it said.
I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. It was a few miles. For a moment, I felt a little like crying, but my feelings of rejection were gradually replaced by a steely determination never to speak to anyone at that school ever again for the rest of the time I was there.
And so I went home. And went into my room and closed my door.
Then I lay down on my bed and tried to accept that I would never be one of the cool people.