I caught up with my frat bros a few times this year. The first time was in March when a bunch of us went up to Vermont to go skiing at Killington. I went to a Mets game with a few of them in April. Then, in May, a bunch of us went to Pennsylvania for our friend Josh’s funeral.
When you’re choosing whether or not to be in a fraternity, the bros already in the house can give you a hard sell. They’ll tell you about the fraternal bond and how you may not know these guys now but they’ll be your closest friends. These are the guys who will be at your wedding and so on and so forth. Even at eighteen, my bullshit detector was pretty finely tuned and I knew that they just wanted guys to join. The only problem is that it turned out to be kinda true. I’ve been to a bunch of weddings of my bros. I’ve even commiserated with a few over a divorce. No one ever mentioned funerals, though, not for a forty year old.
I pledged my fraternity in 1996. For all you mathematically inclined types, that means I pledged twenty years ago. I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m old enough to have done anything twenty years ago but so it goes.
When people express surprise that I was in a fraternity, I take it as a compliment. The term du jour for an entitled male asshole is “bro.” (By appending “bro” to any group, you can actually create an impromptu assholish subset of that same group. Try it with any group no matter how progressive or well meaning. Seriously. Feminist bro. Peace Corps Bro. Soup Kitchen Bro. Syrian Refugee Bro.) The antecedent or spiritual godfather of the bro is the fraternity brother or “frat bro.” Bro-ish behavior in popular culture fell squarely on the shoulders of frat bros. You watched 80’s movies, you know what I’m talking about.
The frat bro, found in his natural habitat – the dank basement of a mansion among kegs of beer, ping pong balls, red Solo cups, and roofies – wears chinos and a short sleeved polo shirt with the collar popped. He’s white and blue eyed, majors in business, loves George W. Bush, and would most likely address a female brain surgeon or police officer as “sweetie.”
But then I found myself at a college with a really large Greek system. I came back to school in the winter of my freshman year to rush (the process by which you go around to different fraternities and meet the bros in that house, hoping to get a “bid” or invitation to pledge and eventually join that house). The guys that I met weren’t William Zabka in Back to School or Ted McGinley in Revenge of the Nerds (or Bradley Whitford in Revenge of the Nerds II). And rushing was fun. You eat free food, go out at night and drink free beer and generally behave like eighteen year olds. So, I decided to do the unthinkable and pledge a fraternity.
And I embraced it, too. I loved living in the house. On a couple of occasions I waxed on about the integrity of my house, its traditions, and its rigorous initiation process that truly prepares one for brotherhood. One summer, at home in Rochester, my parents invited our neighbors over. They were a thirty-ish couple and in the course of the conversation I found out that the guy was in my fraternity at NYU. But he said, “I don’t remember the secret handshake or anything.” Then his wife chimed in, “he just did it for housing.” I barely concealed my disdain. One does not enter a fraternal order merely for a roof over one’s head! Furthermore, if you have forgotten our fraternity’s grip, I shall not be the one to teach it to you again! Good day, sir!
Suffice it to say, I’ve mellowed a bit since in my frat politics.
But, for those of you who weren’t in a fraternity, I’m sure you’re curious. Were we just a bunch of entitled, misogynist, homophobic, white pricks?
Did my bros and I talk about women in a manner unbecoming of young gentlemen? Yeah, we did that. A few women were assigned unflattering nicknames but I only remember two. One was based on size, the other on promiscuity. On the other hand, a bunch of guys were in relationships and married their college girlfriend. (And no, no roofies.)
Were we homophobic? By way of explanation and not excuse, there is a certain amount of homophobia that comes simply from being a straight eighteen year old male around other straight eighteen year old males (and those eighteen year old males pretending to be straight). This might not be the case in 2016 but it was in the nineties. I heard a story about a guy who was before my time not getting a bid because he was gay. Though, a few years after I left the president of our house was gay. A few guys have come out since graduating but I’ve never asked them about their experience.
Were we entitled? There’s a distinct possibility that we were so steeped in our own privilege that we couldn’t tell but, frankly, we were no better or worse than anyone else at our college. For the most part we were middle to upper middle class guys, though not all of us. We were smart, we worked hard (and by that I mean “went to class”), and we turned out alright. From my pledge class there are a few doctors, a few surgeons, a couple of lawyers, software engineers, a civil engineer, a hedge fund manager, and, well, me.
Were we all white? Eh, sort of. To list the races of the guys in the house would probably sound backhandedly racist. (“There were actually several Asians!” See?) A bunch of the guys were first generation Americans with parents from Russia, Syria, Greece, India, and Vietnam and about a third of the house was Jewish. Look, color blind utopia it ain’t but we weren’t WASP-y popped collar nightmares, either.
We were frat bros.
We drank copious amounts of beer under duress, then of our own free will, and often times because of the way a ping pong ball may or may not have hit a plastic cup of beer. We did stupid secret stuff, stupid public stuff, got yelled at for not memorizing stuff, then yelled at others for not memorizing stuff.
And here we are twenty years later and now these frat bros are simply my friends.
I’ve watched my friends get married and become parents. Some of them have become accomplished and successful. Some are me. Some I talk to every few weeks. Some of them drifted away and fell out of touch. And now I’ve seen a couple of them pass away.
About ten years ago, I got a call from my ex-girlfriend at one o’clock in the morning. I’ve since learned that late night calls from someone you don’t hear from regularly are rarely good. “I think Erik Larson died,” she said.
Larson was a year ahead of me in school and light years ahead of me in life. Tall, thin, scruffy, and gruff voiced, Larson was nothing if not intense. He wasn’t corner you in a room and lecture you about politics intense but everything worth doing it worth doing 300% intense. He always had a girlfriend, though, more likely several at the same time. His drinking and pot smoking were prodigious even for a group of thirty plus young men who drank and smoked pot.
He had bad nights but we all did, right? Before he graduated, some of his friends gave him an intervention. Overall, though, I thought he kept it together.
After he graduated, we never lived in the same city, so, I never knew how bad it got. I only heard stories later of entire bottles of liquor disappearing from people’s apartments, a car crash, a night or two in jail.
The last time I spoke with him was at a wedding of a fraternity brother. He was sober at the time. He told me about a recent relapse. He had been doing fine and thought he could have one drink. Two weeks later he lost everything and had to start all over. I didn’t press him for details.
The night my ex called, she was right. Larson had passed away in his sleep. There are details but I don’t feel like giving them.
A couple of years later, I was having a cigarette with Larson’s best friend Sam at yet another fraternity brother wedding (that “these guys will be at your wedding!” thing was really prophetic). We had stepped outside for a cigarette and he handed me his Zippo. “Check it out,” he said, “this was Larson’s.” He said he was holding up alright about it but caught himself because my parents had recently died and he said, “well, I don’t have to tell you about loss.”
The thing that I thought and didn’t say at the time is that parents are supposed to die, best friends aren’t.
And yet they do and they will.
I can’t speak for the other guys but, for me, Larson dying was the first lesson that nothing is guaranteed. As children and young adults, you think that you can screw up and make amends and you’ll have an infinite number of chances. But that’s not the truth. The truth is you can screw up for good. It was the first time I felt like we aren’t kids anymore.
What happened with Josh, though. I mean, intellectually I know that it happens. People get cancer. People pass away. But he was forty. He was supposed to get better.
So, real quick, I’ve got to mention that I don’t think I ever called him Josh to his face in his life. He was Gorg, named after the Fraggle Rock characters who were large and oafish. (Truth be told I don’t remember them, I only remember the fraggles and the doozers, the little builder guys. I guess they gave the nickname to Josh because had a big head.)
I knew that he had been diagnosed with cancer but he had gotten better, miraculously. He was supposed to come up to Vermont with us this past March until his doctor called him with bad news. When he emailed us, he actually wrote that his cancer “spread all over the place.” It made my heart sink but it also struck me as so perfectly Gorg. I didn’t know whether to cry or shake my head and say, “fuckin’ Gorg, soften it a little.”
He passed away a few months later.
My memories of Gorg, all involve food. When I was rushing he told me a story about how a member of his family (a great uncle?) woke up every day and ate a pint of vanilla ice cream and drank a bottle of vodka. Most Gorg stories were like this, kind of unbelievable, a little folksy, and, quite possibly, true. He told me he rushed just to gain weight. He came to the house because they were having an event with surf and turf. He filled his plate, sat in a corner and didn’t speak to anyone else. One of guys in the house before me told me that Gorg almost didn’t get a bid because he ate with his hands at a formal event.
Somehow he got a bid. He would go on to be president of the fraternity. Sophomore year he’d meet his wife and they would have two boys. At the funeral they played a video of Gorg in his final days just talking about some things. His favorite band was Metallica, his favorite movie was The Incredibles which strikes me as a very Gorg-like combo.
The church the funeral was held in was large and it was full. He’ll be missed.
So, suffice it so say, I’ve had my bros on the brain recently.
The trip that we all took to Vermont in March was great. We had an inn all to ourselves. One of us had a co-worker who just, like, owned an inn (as I said, some of us have become very successful, some of us are me). It was like having an impromptu frat house again. We had our own rooms, a living room with couches to hang out, and a big kitchen where we all ate at the same table. Girlfriends had become wives and children were running around. I’ve heard it said that when you meet someone, you will always think of them at that age. So, it was truly bizarre watching a bunch of college freshman with their wives and children.
I watched my friends discipline their children, count to ten. I watched my friend bargain with his son, hiding under a piano, to take off his pajamas and get dressed like the rest of the kids. This is a man who, twenty years earlier, if I were holding us up going to a party, would implore me to get the sand out of my vagina. Looking at my friends’ children, I realized that I possessed so many stories that I will never tell them. “You know, pal, I still remember your father’s first time doing ecstasy…” “Come here, you two, I remember it like it was yesterday… I came up to the landing and I really had to use the bathroom but I couldn’t because your parents were fucking in the shower…”
We talked about jobs, kids, homes, whatever. We even made a video for Gorg on someone’s phone. I don’t know if he ever got it but I hope that he did.
Are we a fraternal order? Hell, I don’t know. Are we brothers? I don’t have biological brothers, so, I can’t really tell. Maybe we’re more like cousins: the people you grew up with who you may not see all the time but who know you in a way no one else ever can.
The trip was over so fast. We all drank almost as much but went to bed much earlier. On Sunday, when we were preparing to leave, children were put in car seats, bro hugs were given (low level rumble of goodtaseeya, firm pat on back). Everyone had to be home for bedtime. I don’t know about anyone else but I was hungover for two days. We’re not kids anymore.