This is not a story I enjoy re-telling, but I guess the embarrassment has faded with time – it’s been 17 years, for crissakes – and now it’s just sort of a stupid inside joke with the only friend I keep in touch with from this episode in my life. More on him later.
I was 17 years old when I started college at the University of Maryland. Not because I was some sort of a boy genius or anything, but because I had a December birthday and my parents decided not to hold me back in school as a child. I joined the marching band, and there I met Norm, who to this day remains my best and closest friend. He and I were both tuba players. We bonded quickly over baseball and the fact that we both wouldn’t turn 18 until the next semester.
Norm had an overwhelming interest in the Greek system. His grandfather had been a Theta Chi back in the 1930s at Maryland. He really wanted to join a fraternity, and since we were buddies, he brought me along for the ride. I was game. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I was game.
During Rush Week, he and I went to several different fraternities, but really liked one in particular. They weren’t jerks, they weren’t threatening, or too rich, or anything unsavory. They just seemed like a bunch of chill dudes looking to have a good time.
At the very last minute at their final Rush event, we were prompted to sign up for the bidding process. This required an actual signature – a commitment. Norm turned to me, with us in our dorky button-down shirts and neckties and said, in all earnestness, “dude, I really like these guys. I wanna do this. Are you in?” And without giving it any real thought whatsoever, I agreed. “Uh, sure,” came my reply. “Yeah. Okay, let’s do it.”
That was my first mistake.
We both got bids, and of course we both accepted.
I did not tell my parents until I’d nearly completed the bid process. We were out to dinner as a family one weekend when my normally gentle father almost spit out whatever he was eating at the moment, and glared at me with real anger. “You did what?” he said, in between bites.
Over the course of the six-week pledging process, there were lots of stupid things we did with the other pledges in our class. They didn’t hit us, and they never made us do anything naked, which you tend to hear about in the horror stories of fraternity pledging. But they did haze us, if you want to call it that.
In our pledge class, I ended up being the runt of the litter.
It all began the night we were given our pledge names. We were blindfolded and left to stand before the membership, and each of our names were called, followed by … well, by whatever stupid name the pledge master decided. I later found out his name choices were as arbitrary as cloud formations, totally chosen out of the blue, on a whim. I’m also sure he were high as a kite, too.
My pledge name was Elmo. It sort of … fit. The floppy, silly, naive Muppet of the group. I guess I was Elmo, at least in their eyes.
The thing that really cemented my Elmo-ness to the brothers was a two-part event.
The first happened when our entire pledge class was blindfolded for the umpteenth time and crammed into a tiny, stuffy, top-floor bathroom at the house on College Avenue. We were kept there until the other brothers felt compelled to bring us out one at a time, only to perform some act that might amuse them.
When they called me out, one of them said to me: “Come on, Elmo; you’re Elmo — do the Elmo dance!” And I replied, uh, what are you talking about? What is the Elmo dance? I can tell he’s more than a little drunk. And he says, “Just make something up! Do the Elmo dance!”
Remember, the pledge name was arbitrary. I’d never done anything to earn the name. But I did this time.
While blindfolded, I decided in the moment how to proceed. I would jump around, flailing my arms and legs as a puppet might, while yelling in a very high-pitched voice, “I’m Elmo! I’m Elmo!”
Silence. Then, laughter. The fraternity brothers gathered around cracked up. I couldn’t believe how hard they were laughing. And, I didn’t realize how many of them were there watching until I heard their collective laughter. It was a real show. So of course, they told me to do it again. And again. And again.
It wasn’t just the Elmo dance, it became The Elmo Dance, and it defined me as a member. Every time one of the brothers saw me – in the dining hall, in class, across the quad, wherever – it was an obligatory performance. They all enjoyed the power trip and the oddity of it all. Come on pledge, do the Elmo dance! And being a pledge, I literally had to oblige.
Even after our initiation, when we weren’t at their mercy as pledges, there were a few guys who still urged me to “do the dance, Elmo!” Most brothers stepped in when this happened. Hey, he’s not a pledge anymore, give him a break. But for many of them, the Elmo dance never really went away. I even hosted a party for the brotherhood at my parent’s house when they were out of town in an effort to win them over.
Part two came later that semester. We had our weekly meetings every Monday night in the basement of the house. At the end of each meeting, they held a raffle for all the brothers in attendance. The prize was always a bottle of liquor, which of course, was the bait for the brothers to even attend in the first place.
At my first house meeting, the prize was on display for all to see, during the entirety of the meeting: An oversized bottle of Absolut Vodka. I won the raffle. And, for about 90 seconds there, my Q rating was on the rise. It was like this collective head-shaking of the brothers. If Elmo can win a bottle of booze, maybe he’s not so bad! they all seemed to say, with their handshakes and congratulatory pats on the back. There were real smiles there. It felt good.
The meeting concluded. I grabbed my prize by the bottleneck, and was about to stuff the bottle into my winter coat. It was December, I was a few weeks away from turning 18, and thought it best not to be walking around with a bottle of booze in my hands.
But I didn’t secure the bottle well enough. It was heavier than I had expected. I dropped it. And I didn’t even know I’d dropped it until I heard it hit the floor. The glass bottle – moments ago, it had been my saving grace! – landed with the loudest crash in the history of embarrassing accidents, right there onto the concrete basement floor. Concrete fucking floor. The same floor we, as pledges, had swept and mopped many times every weekend, after each standing-room-only party.
Shards of glass slid across the vodka-smeared ground like tiny hockey pucks in a hundred different directions. The smell stung my nostrils. In what seemed like super slow-motion, I watched an entire fraternity whip their collective heads around, the look on their faces of complete I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing. Jaws dropped. Some buried their face in their hands. Some threw their hands into the air. Some yelled at me. They all stared.
Even though I had no real intention of ever drinking the vodka – I would have given it away to someone in my dorm the second I got home – I felt oddly ashamed. Like I’d let them down.
As they all finally trudged up the stairs, the moment finally over with, one of them walked over, shook his head, and handed me a dustpan and broom. “You know what to do,” he said. “What a fucking waste.” I never lived that moment down. Never. For the rest of the semester, the boys spared no opportunity to remind me that I’d destroyed a full bottle of alcohol. I had committed a sort of sacrilege, a desecration of the holy booze.
Later that semester and into the spring, long after our initiation, I was not totally accepted. They called me a “shiny pin,” which is the term they use for a newly-initiated brother who still gets treated as if he were a pledge.
I quit the frat by the end of my freshman year. I never really interacted with any other of the brothers again in college, though I have run into a handful of them over the years, and they greet me as they would a stranger. Which is exactly what I am to those guys. Odd how each of them are seared into my memory, like characters in a movie I’ve seen a thousand times, and yet to them I’m probably a long-forgotten acquaintance. An unrecognizable face in the crowd.
Norm stuck with the fraternity, even as he remained in the marching band that fall, still hoisting a sousaphone over his shoulder with me each Saturday. He used every opportunity a fraternity affords a young man to party, drink and get laid constantly. He’s even got the actual Greek letters tattoo on his leg.
Maybe this is weird, but even now, every time I pick up a bottle of wine or spirits, that one moment in the basement comes back to me, and it affects all my senses. In a split-second, I feel the bottle slip, I hear the crash, I see the stares. It knives through my consciousness and sends a shudder up my backside.
I realize, of course, that there are far, far worse traumas to experience in life than what amounts to simple embarrassment. Still, I wish I could have held onto the Absolut that night as tightly as the memory grips me still.