In this week’s email there was a reminder to attend the 65th reunion of the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1954. I am not going.
I do have some wonderful memories of my undergraduate days. Primarily about moments spent with friends, the shared experiences that take place in the short-lived bubble of time when 18-year-old boys are…
… immortal and invulnerable…
My roommate and I are wolfing down malts in a booth at Sophomore Sols, the beeps, bongs, and bells of the pinball machines in the back of the long, narrow storefront competing with the jukebox blasting endless repetitions of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” “Mr. Touchdown, USA,” and Teresa Brewer singing a mind-numbing syncopated rag, “Music, Music, Music.”
A hundred and one new chums - boys from the dorms, nodding acquaintances from lecture halls and classrooms, classmates identifiable by their preposterous freshman caps - crowd by, instantly acknowledged with boisterous shouts, leers, grimaces, punches on the arm, whacks on the rump, the good natured jargon that singles them out from the upperclassmen. Southerners, New Englanders and Midwesterners hobnob, adding their peculiar pitch, tone, and rhythm to a harmony of drawls, twangs, brogues, howdys, and y’alls.
For those first, glorious weeks before fraternity rushing splinters the class into factions representing the worst in snobbery, pretentiousness and vanity, it doesn’t matter where you are from, who your parents are, what prep school you attended, and wonder of wonders, if your nose has a hook, bump, or acute nasolabial angle of Jewish descent.
White buckskin shoes replace my Thom McCann blue suedes with the lizard laces as I begin my transformation from street rat to college boy. I’m acutely aware that the costume often defines the actor and for my role as Ivy Leaguer I exchange my double-breasted, brown serge suit and clip-on yellow bowtie for a blue button-down shirt, gray flannel pants and red and blue rep tie. Dressed for the part, I take on the persona of a graduate of Choate by way of Old Westbury.
I learn to talk without moving my jaw, become a pen pal to a girl at Smith, and to a large extent assume that the world owes me the same perks of power, affluence, and obeisance as any scion of the Pew family of Sun Oil notoriety. It’s a sham, and I have fun playing the part, except when the real heir to the family fortune talks to me like I had just stepped into a pile of dog shit and the girl from Smith asks if I prefer a Presbyterian or Episcopal service.
I shunt my egalitarian views aside. I want to be a fraternity man, to live in a fraternity house, wear a fraternity pin with the Greek letters spelled out in white pearls, to keep forever the secret of the brotherhood’s finger-locked handshake. In my mind, I have a preposterous Roaring Twenties image of myself wearing a raccoon coat and strumming a ukulele as dozens of co-eds dance the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and the Varsity Drag.
… and reminded of who they are and where they are from:
I take courses in accounting, economics, finance, marketing, statistics, and transportation and wear a jacket and tie to class to replicate the office environment of the corporate workplace. I address my instructors as “Mister” and learn the consequence of handing in a paper past the deadline.
“Would this be tolerated by your superior at IBM?”
I know that I have about as much chance of landing a job at IBM as becoming Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, but I get the point.
I took Arlene to my fiftieth reunion. It wasn’t the weekend I thought it would be. There was nothing left of the old campus that capricious memory had mapped so clearly. The fraternity house had been razed, an Institute for Advanced Macroeconomics in its place. The trolley tracks that ran past Sophomore Sols were paved over, the busy street now a meandering lane to a cloister of modern dorms and a cutesy mall with a faux Gothic façade. At the entrance to the quadrangle where the freshman dorms were located a guardhouse worthy of a maximum-security prison barred our way pending picture ID and reason for visit.
The Saturday night banquet was held at the Union League Club. I told Arlene with more than a trace of malice in my voice, “When I was an undergrad, the only way I could have gotten into the club was through the back door as a dishwasher.”
When I looked around the circular ten-top table I estimated we were sitting next to about ten billion dollars of net worth, two face-lifts, and two trophy brides. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, I decided I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone there. It wasn’t as if the scion of the family cosmetics company was uninteresting or the Chair Emeritus of a global electronics conglomerate or the single largest shareholder of the world’s biggest REIT were boring; it was the one-chord harmony of their chorus: “Did you see the WSJ this morning? The president has got to ease off his human rights demands, or bond markets will feel it in the ass.”
It came to me that each man was successful for the same reason: they had a goal and they strove to achieve it, going from point A to point B, no stops in-between. Everything in their lives contributed to the conclusion: the right wives, the right in-laws, the right politics, even the right rehab centers. I, on the other hand, had bounced around like the pinball swatted by the blind wizard’s flailing flippers.
More to the point, I was not that college boy changing colors like a salamander as I made my way. I had learned a new behavior: be who I am.
Bringing up the rear of the March of the Classes wearing an Old Guard sash and a retro Penn dink is not me.
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