From Animal House to Bleak House
At age nineteen, Noah Tepperberg is a nightclub promoter in his native Manhattan, a student at the University of Miami, and a consummate salesman, the sort of fellow out of whose mouth the right words spill. On this particular August evening, he is selling his fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, to the fifteen freshmen gathered before him. But, like any salesman shilling for a product he truly believes in, Tepperberg looks edgy. His hands flutter like birds, and sweat mists his doughy face.
He takes a deep breath.
"Two years ago, when I came through that front door, I was just like you," he says, scanning the group. "I didn't know what to expect. But I can tell you, the stuff that goes on in this house is crazy. Crazy. Last year these guys threw a party and they turned this hallway, right where you're standing, into one big, pink, PUSSY! And let me tell you something, I have never walked through a piece of pussy like that!"
Tepperberg pauses. Confused, the freshmen murmur among themselves. One sniffs at the wall. "Now, when I chose a house," Tepperberg resumes, "I wanted the kind of place that my little sister could come see and she would say, 'This house is the shit.' The shit. Well, that's the kind of house you're gonna get if you go ZBT."
With this Tepperberg begins a breakneck tour of the premises, zipping from room to room on stubby, chinoed legs, spinning tales of libidinal merriment in his cabdriver mutter.
"We didn't actually turn the hallway into a pussy," he concedes later. "That was just a bit of hype."
A bit of hype, as it turns out, is just what UM's frat system needs these days. Recent years have not been kind to the Greeks.
Last spring the frats' governing body, the Interfraternity Council (IFC), convened an emergency conclave at the Biltmore Hotel. Membership was down for the fourth consecutive year. Even the sororities, whose ranks had tripled in the previous decade, were losing ground. If the illustrious tradition of Greek life were to survive at Miami's most renowned university, steps would have to be taken. Dramatic steps.
During this fall's orientation, the IFC blitzed new students with information about the merits of going Greek. They mapped a full week of recruiting events with military precision, and nixed the five-dollar fee for potential members. "We went all-out," explains IFC member David Gershman. "This is the year that will tell us if the frat system has a future at UM."
Gershman is inclined to attribute the drop in membership to complacency on the part of past leadership. The truth is more disquieting. It hinges on a change in the nature of fraternities, one spurred by skeptical administrators, a prevailing spirit of political correctness, and the dread of liability lawsuits.
Once a fount of besotted revelry, a refuge from the regulations of adulthood A a place, in short, to get wasted A frats across the nation have had to publicly refashion themselves as model members of the campus community. Academic aces. Campus leaders. Community volunteers. At UM, a gauntlet of prohibitions, imposed by national frat honchos and a once lenient administration, has sped this sober metamorphosis. Rules now forbid:
Serving alcohol to freshmen during the recruitment period
Serving alcohol at a party without a university-issued permit
Holding parties without a designated "risk manager"
Purchasing alcohol with chapter funds
Purchasing kegs, period
The selling of Greek life at UM has thus become a fascinating two-tongued experience, in which the official script ("Hi! I'm Biff! Wanna read to some orphans?") is faithfully recited until such a time as newcomers can be sequestered for unofficial readings ("Hi! I'm Biff! This here's a beer bong!"). And in which the deeper lure of going Greek -- the adoption of a persona at once relaxed and boisterous -- appears diluted by desperation, like a spiked punch into which some geek has poured far too much Hi-C.
It is the eve of the first day of classes at UM, and an army of color-coded students -- scrubbed clean and sharing an unfortunate inclination toward group cheers -- has invaded the patio that abuts the school's artificial lake. The boys of ZBT are here, dishing out Hagen-Dazs ice cream and sticky handshakes. The Kappa Kappa Gammas, hair frothed to appropriate radiance, speak ardently of their symbolic Anchor of Hope. Even the Alpha Tau Omegas, chronic fuckups to a man, have dragged a snow-cone machine into the fray.
In fact, every one of UM's eleven frats, six sororities, and eight historically black Greek societies has assembled a booth for the annual rite known as Greek Expo. About fifteen percent of UM's 8500 undergrads are Greeks, a vocal minority.
The annual expo marks the official opening of Rush Week, during which Greeks replenish their ranks by courting freshmen with the requisite attributes -- Are they cute? Are they confident? Are they cool? -- while the frosh troll for an identity that, as they are reminded with numbing regularity, will extend from college to grave.
Such stakes might engender considerable angst among the 800 "rushees" who wander the pavilion this evening. But they appear carefree enough. It is the expo's organizers, members of the IFC and its sister group, the Panhellenic Council, who look stressed. Overhead, a veil of bruised clouds hovers, spitting droplets of rain every few minutes.
The impending threat is lost on most of the frats. They are too busy taking a first crack at the new class.
"The truth is, we've done some downsizing," says David George, president of Tau Kappa Epsilon. "We're down to a core group of guys, which means you can come in here and become an officer in less than a year. That's three full years as an officer."
George leans close to the freshman who has crossed his path. "Do you have any idea how that looks on a resume?"
The kid, who has no visible chin, shakes his head.
George grabs a yellow disk from the table behind him and presses it into the kid's palm. "Think about it," the prez admonishes.
Behind him the "core group," which consists of three chubby guys in TKE jerseys, mans the official TKE table, on which sit two small trophies (the larger of them graven with the declaration 2nd place, Blood Drive) and a pile of the yellow disks.
"TKE luggage tags," George explains.
Across the patio, past the packs of tanned Delta Gammas, past the Lambda Chi Alpha video presentation, dozens of beefy Pi Kappa Alphas (known as Pikes) mill in front of their table. While lacking luggage tags, the Pikes do have several Stanley Cup-size trophies.
"We're the top frat on campus," rush chairman Rob Slane says. "We like to win. We win the most intramural sports championships every year. We throw the best parties on campus. We mix with the hottest sororities. Some people consider us cocky, which we probably are a little bit because we are, like, the top frat at UM."
Next to the Pikes, Gregory Gibson, lone representative of the black frat Omega Psi Phi, employs a different approach. "If you are afraid of adversity, or the threat of adversity, I wouldn't go Omega Psi," Gibson bellows at a gangly passerby.
The black Greeks are a serious bunch. Grounded in racial empowerment, they inhabit a world apart from UM's traditional (read: white) fraternal system. Despite recent overtures, the two groups have limited interaction, and the black Greeks' presence at the expo, is, in the truest sense, token. None of the four Black frats or sororities allows new members to sign up until spring semester.
"We don't believe in recruiting," Gibson barks. "Why should I knock on someone's door and ask him to be my brother? Why should he want to be my brother? Because I have a bunch of shiny trophies?"
Gibson has an ally in Jim Taylor, rush chair of the extremely white Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The SAEs are no less cocky than their rival Pikes. But they do not go in for trophies. Or crew cuts. And, truth be told, they can get a little fed up with the rah-rahism that pervades rush. "A lot of it's bullshit," Taylor concedes. "But if it's what we gotta do to keep our frat, we'll do it."
As the freshmen start to drift away, this frustration becomes more apparent. "Shit, when I rushed, the brothers made these great rum drinks," H.L. van Arnem recalls wistfully. "A different one in every room. They they'd throw you into a room with all these girls and you had to, like, deal. Now it's a dry rush, which means everyone has to hide the beer."
Van Arnem, a senior in Sigma Chi, turns to his brothers and assumes a tone of transcendent sarcasm. "Dudes, did you guys get one of those snow cones? They're killer!"
So ends the expo.
Next stop: the Rathskeller, a watering hole that enjoys two distinct advantages among Greeks. First, it serves copious amounts of cheap beer. Second, it is 50 yards from UM's student center.
Within the hour, 400 Greeks and a few bold freshmen are sardined onto a beer-slicked dance floor. On the stage above them, Dave Gershman has gathered his Rho Alphas -- the male student counselors assigned to guide the frosh through rush -- along with a passel of Rho Chis, their female counterparts. Behind them are piles of T-shirts and squeeze bottles left over from last year's rush.
The chant begins: "FREE SHIT! FREE SHIT! FREE SHIT!"
Gershman takes roll first, eliciting whoops from each frat and sorority, then gives the signal. The giveaways go flying.
As the beer continues to flow and the music thumps from hip-hop to disco to Jimmy Buffett, a more familiar image of Greek life emerges. In one corner of the dance floor, a man simulates intercourse with a woman bent obligingly at the waist. Squeeze bottles whiz across the room. Two frats engage in a wobbly shoving match. The drunker begin to drop their beer bottles where they stand. One staggering frat boy, strobe-lit and framed by admirers, falls heroically on his face.
The Greeks have by this time coagulated into their affiliated subgroups. Every few minutes one makes a show of strength, which for the sororities means more hysterical chanting ("GO ZETAS! GO ZETAS! GO ZETAS!") and for the frats involves a more ambiguous ritual wherein all the brothers mosh together and grunt.
By midnight, closing time at the Rat, the room seems to have melded into a single, undulating organism, an organism that -- in marked contrast to its constituent parts as presented hours ago at Greek Expo -- seems intent on doing sin. Their cheers slurred into incoherence ("AAAAAHHHHH-DELTA-UUUHHHHN-GO!), sorority sisters have begun shepherding the drunker among them away from the legions of extremely accommodating frat brothers.
The partyers tumble into the night, the attendant rushees energized in the knowledge that there is more to going Greek at UM than snow cones and luggage tags. Even in this depreciated state, however, the distinction between Greeks and rushees is apparent.
The freshmen are the ones carrying the free shit.
Frat tours begin the next evening. Step two in the men's rush, this affords each fraternity a chance for more intense lobbying. About 400 guys show, most donning baseball caps. They are divided into groups of fifteen and marched across campus by a pair of Rho Alphas.
To those familiar with the hallowed, ivy-and-brick frat houses found in the Northeast, UM's frat row is something of a letdown. The houses, which line San Amaro Drive, are dull concrete structures that might be mistaken for dorms were they not festooned with Greek letters and hemmed by expensive foreign cars.
The first stop is Pike House. After a brief speech by Rob Slane ("You're at the top frat at UM!"), the freshmen are broken into twos and threes and led to rooms for closed-door sessions.
"If you're worried about academics -- and you should be -- remember that Pike has a diverse file of tests, which some of our football-playing brothers have been kind enough to photocopy," one beefy recruiter tells two skinny recruits. "And one other thing. You don't have to be a big guy to go Pike. Look at this scrawny loser." He elbows his roommate.
"Now, prick size," the roommate says. "That's another matter."
At rival Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the approach is more laid-back. The rushees are shown the facilities, plied with chips and soda, then left to mill. The brothers, true to SAE form, are all attired in white oxfords and power ties. They seem only vaguely interested in the freshmen.
"Look at this shit," one says. He is holding a copy of "Pike Illustrated," Pi Kappa Alpha's glossy brochure.
"Chicks with dicks," his friend observes.
At Lambda Chi Alpha, elfin rush chair Ralph Roure addresses the group: "I'm not gonna blow smoke up your ass. I'm an honest guy. I've got to be. I'm short. Now look, guys, last year all the other frats chose us as the top fraternity. What does that tell you?"
"We're going to have a rave party Friday night," adds president Seth Faber. "There'll be a lot of chicks and a lot of pussy."
Though all rushees are given the same sell on these tours, there is an obvious hierarchy of desirability in each group, as befits Greek life. At the top of that list are guys like Jamie Gerdson. A transfer from Boston University, Gerdson is a big, handsome backslapper who plans to row crew. He is already being coveted by several frats. A guy like Hassan Lahrizi is not.
A small, wiry native of Morocco, Lahrizi smokes Marlboros, doesn't shave a whole lot, and wears bell-bottom jeans.
"Those guys seemed nice enough," Lahrizi says, once outside.
"Dickheads," another rushee declares.
"It's all a game, anyway," Gerdson observes.
At Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of UM's two predominantly Jewish frats, the parade of overexcited publicists continues.
"We don't go in for that fucking hazing bullshit, and we have the fucking tightest chapter on this campus," elaborates president Rich Celler. "If someone fucks with you, there are going to be 47 AEPis right behind you to take care of that problem."
After a quick tour of the house, Lieber answers additional questions on the front lawn. "Anything to add, Rich?" he asks Celler, who is watching the proceeding.
"A big penis," the president answers.
Ninety minutes of such repartee has left the rushees drained. They tromp into Sigma Chi, relieved to see two greasy pizzas.
"Spontaneous is the key word at Sigma Chi," reports president Brad Mete. "Stuff gets burned. People get crazy. Last semester we had two sororities Jell-O wrestling right where you're sitting. If you like to eat pussy and drink a few beers, this is the place for you."
As the rushees amble toward Zeta Beta Tau, Gerdson expounds on how to achieve the proper look for a baseball cap. "What you need to do is put it through the wash about ten times, then wear it for a week straight, even in the shower," he relates.
Lahrizi, meanwhile, is explaining for the twentieth time that he is from Morocco.
"Wow," Gerdson says. "I don't meet Arabs very often. See, I'm from Cincinnati. We don't have that many ethnic pockets. I did know some guys from Jordan. Yeah, those Jordarians were real cool guys. Not that Jordarians are the same thing as Moroccans. You are Arab, right?"
It has been a long evening, especially for Lahrizi. But the next evening brings tours of the four remaining frats, none of which has a house and so must run their affairs from large lounges in the Panhellenic building at the center of campus. These smaller outfits, all of which would kill for a house, must instead stress the advantages of homelessness. Cheaper membership dues (a few hundred dollars per semester versus up to a thousand at the houses). Strong brotherhood. Most important, proximity to the six sororities, all of which lease suites in the Panhellenic building.
This last argument becomes especially compelling on the ensuing Sunday afternoon, when some 250 female rushees descend upon the Panhellenic building for the first of a series of rotating parties.
In precise 25-minute intervals, the rushees stampede from one suite to the next, where they are set upon by chanting sisters. Rho Chis oversee the cattle call, dispensing helpful hints such as smiles, girls and just be yourself!
"Rush is like, the ultimate in cheesy," observes Rho Chi Shira Citron.
Augmenting the cheesiness is the fact that each sorority has chosen a theme. The Kappa Kappa Gammas (motto: "A special bond of friendship") have gone "Down Under" with a koala mascot. The Delta Gammas (motto: "Do good") are in Hawaiian garb, a papier-mche volcano in the middle of their suite. The gals of Delta Phi Epsilon (motto: "To be, rather than to seem to be") have lugged stacks of hay into their digs and dressed Western.
While the decorations are varied, the "parties" themselves are fairly monotonous. They consist of one or more sisters peppering rushees with friendly questions and understanding nods, then reporting their impressions to the rush chair, often with brutal candor. ("Meredith from Miami A no. That girl was harsh.")
"We try to steer our girls away from the same old questions," notes Kappa president April Mossberger. "We want to give the rushees a sense of who we are, because first impressions can last a lifetime."
A few snatches of party dialogue:
"Omygod, that's so weird. My cousin knows Johnny Depp."
"Omygod, that's so cool. I love Land's End."
"Omygod, that's such a bummer. Did you try blow-drying it?"
There is no talk of beer. Or Jell-O wrestling. Or pussy.
There is, however, much talk of diversity. Diversity is the buzzword for sororities these days, a polite way of trying to make everyone feel welcome and eschewing the notion that sorority girls are all grinning dingbats on the prowl for a rich hubby.
A common topic is why none of the sororities has a house. The stock answer is that Coral Gables has an ancient ordinance that forbids more than ten women from living in the same dwelling, lest it be considered a brothel. The myth has circulated for years.
While the girls mingle, the Rho Chis meet with Rush Chair Robyn Thompson, who is only slightly more organized than Rommel. "If your girls can't make the next round of parties, remember that they need to write letters of apology to the sororities," Thompson lectures. "Also, don't let your girls get separated from their groups."
Richard Walker, the only male in the room, nods sagely. As associate dean of students, Walker is on hand at almost every rush event. Though technically a member of the administration -- i.e., a narc -- Walker's public advocacy for the Greek system has endeared him to his charges. "At this age they don't like rules," he says, sounding every bit the camp counselor. "They want to party every weekend. But with the liability issues today, you have to be careful. The average member may not understand that, but the leadership does."
The female rush is regimented, Walker notes, to ensure that all the sororities have equal access to rushees. Sorority sisters are not allowed to contact rushees at all during Rush Week, outside of official rush activities. Rules dictate every aspect of these gatherings, from the subjects that can be discussed to the refreshments that can be served.
Any violation of these mandates is considered "dirty rushing," as grave a transgression, in the eyes of the Panhellenic Council, as a frat feeding booze to freshmen. Alcohol, needless to say, is not one of the prescribed refreshments during sorority rush. ("Oh, we run a very loose rush compared to the large Southern schools," says Walker, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon alumnus.)
The sororities will throw two more rounds of parties before each ranks its top 40 or so choices. The rushees will also submit their top choices -- on a Scantron test form, no less. Both lists are fed into a computer, which spits out matches. That way the sororities receive roughly the same number of pledges.
The male rush lacks this scientific precision and its egalitarian results, a fact in glaring evidence on the first night of the frats' invitation-only parties, or "smokers." This evening the only frat throwing a smoker is Tau Kappa Epsilon, the smallest of UM's frats, the giver of luggage tags.
The smoker is supposed to begin at 6:30 p.m.
By 7:00 p.m., president David George is standing in the doorway of the TKE suite in the Panhellenic building, looking forlornly into the distance. The sight of 300 nubile eighteen-year-old girls, all in shorts, galavanting from one sorority to the next, does little to brighten his mood. Behind his tinted Oakley sunglasses, the president is fuming.
None of the 120 invited rushees has appeared. The only people present are seven TKE brothers. Three are playing pool. The rest take turns thumbing through a Trucking magazine. "This is what happens when you deliver the invitations half an hour before a party," George snarls, glaring at rush chair Artie Holzinger.
Another fifteen minutes pass. The brothers begin to bicker.
"Relax, guys," George barks. "We've still got plenty of time left in rush. Let's not look at the glass as half-empty."
"It's completely fucking empty," says past president Jeff Brooks.
"Who stole our fucking water?" mutters Neil Higgins, a sophomore.
The brochures, neatly stacked on a counter next to two trays of catered food, advertise TKE as the nation's largest fraternity, with brethren ranging from Ronald Reagan to Elvis Presley. Though the promotional literature goes untouched, the food is soon set upon.
Higgins stabs at a Swedish meatball and gawks through the door at the female rushees sashaying past. "Should I ask any of them if they wanna bite my balls?" he ponders.
Brooks looks up. "Tickle my pickle and I'll give you a nickel," he says absently.
The Tekes are not the only ones bummed out by Rush '94. For many brothers, the new style of rushing, with its puritanical rule book and cloying supervision, is symptomatic of a larger crisis: the neutering of Greek life.
"You take these kids, man, and they don't even know what a real party is any more," says Jeff Taylor, the fast-talking social chair of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. "We used to throw 25 keg parties, with three bands and a thousand people. Now you walk around here on a Saturday night and it's dead, man. Dead."
Taylor is slumped on the floor of his half-finished room on the second floor of the SAE house. Downstairs an open party for rushees is quietly fizzling, a state of affairs that has accentuated Taylor's dour mood. "Rush is your lifeline," he explains. "A good rush means a good semester and a good year. But when you've got a dry rush, you can't draw kids to a party. The national organizations who impose all these rules are treating frats like a business, and what they don't understand is that undergraduate students are the ones who run that business. And if they don't have a good time, they aren't going to join. Hell, when I rushed four years ago, the bigger frats had 100 brothers. The numbers keep dropping. Everyone's afraid of a lawsuit."
The specific fear is that someone will get injured in an incident stemming from frat-related drinking and sue the university for millions. Over the past decade, students at several schools have died in widely publicized incidents related to alcohol and hazing. Even more frequently, suits have been filed. To date none has been filed against UM.
But the panic over liability isn't the only reason Greek life has waned here. As Taylor sees it, other factors include:
UM's image upgrade: Sick of its reputation as Suntan U., the university has in the past decade made a sustained effort to improve its academic reputation. This has meant raising admissions standards and wooing students who emphasize academics over extracurriculars. Certain administrators have even quietly suggested that the Greek system be scrapped. Instead, at the urging of national fraternity leadership, UM has tightened its rules regarding alcohol use. Though administrators and IFC leaders met two years ago, and publicly have only praise for one another, the common sentiment among the Greek rank and file is that the university wants them eradicated.
UM's sports industry: While varsity athletes crowd the ranks at smaller colleges, few 'Cane athletes have the time or inclination to go Greek. Those who do are usually celebrity members. "You think [former UM star quarterback] Gino Torretta picked up trash after Pike parties? I doubt it," Taylor scoffs.
Dade's nightlife explosion: When you live in a city with both South Beach and the Grove, frat row tends to lose a bit of its luster.
The Sigma Epsilon scandal: Last Spring, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms burst into a UM dorm and arrested Sigma Epsilon brothers Lorence Lapow and Pedro Mata for making fake IDs. The bust caused an uproar on campus. Rumors swirled that undercover cops had actually gone through the rush process. The national Sigma Epsilon office revoked the UM chapter's charter.
"A lot of people believe the administration still has undercover narcs they put through rush. But the way they've got it rigged, all the frats rat on each other, anyway," Taylor scoffs. "And it isn't just alcohol violations. They'll nail you for hazing, too. Nobody's saying you should be allowed to cram alcohol down a kid's throat. But in my day, when you pledged, you were in awe of the brothers. You had to earn their respect."
Taylor's rant is interrupted by a flash report: The party downstairs is still dead. Taylor finds little consolation in the news that the Pikes' party, next door, has lured virtually no pledges, either.
"This year's going to be tough," he concludes. "The kids aren't coming to us any more. We've got to go to them. To take them out and sell them. I don't know; the whole thing feels sort of lame."
One man's hobble, though, is another man's strut, as consummate salesman Noah Tepperberg explains a few days later on the occasion of Zeta Beta Tau's final smoker.
"I've been calling these kids every day," he says. "I've broken them into groups of five and sent them out to dinner with five brothers, to make sure we get that individual bond. And if one of the kids is trying to decide between us and another frat, I'll find a ZBT who thought about pledging that same frat and make sure they have a little talk."
Tepperberg is standing in front of ZBT House, the one he described with such an anatomical flair during the initial tour. His hair is slicked back, his suit sharp, and his eyes keep shifting to the walkway, where rushees are arriving.
"This is going to be a very good year for us," he predicts.
All that remains, he says, is deciding which kids to give an invitation, or bid. "What we do is take a kid upstairs and three or four officers will interview him on videotape. Then tomorrow night we'll show all the tapes on the big-screen TV, and if someone knows the kid from home or something, he may put in a word for him. Then we hold a vote."
Across the street at Alpha Tau Omega, the process is slightly less discriminating.
"Basically, we're trying to figure out who the hell this guy Alex is," says Robert "El Toro" Rodriguez, ATO's ranking member. El Toro is shuffling through a sheaf of sign-in sheets, trying to locate the last name of a kid he thinks should be offered a bid.
"What about Hebes?" whines one of his comrades. "We need some Hebes. There's only two of us as it is."
"Bring out the sheep!" another hoots.
ATOs are not what most consider a paragon of Greek discipline. They are as close as UM comes to anti-establishment. Most ATO brothers would prefer to play music over sports, and weed is smoked in liberal amounts. The other frat houses have swimming pools. ATO has a hot tub.
A couple of years back, the brothers decided to enliven Homecoming by presenting a float with the theme "Death Comes Ripping" and throwing beer all over the judges. They were subsequently put on probation. They also opted to skip the annual Greek Week competition -- a kind of frat Olympics -- last year.
"I think we wanted to spend the money on beer," speculates Richard Bull, ATO's spacey rush chairman.
Bull says rush has been going "okay."
El Toro isn't so sure. He's still looking for Alex's last name.
"Fuck it," he decides. "We're bidding all rushees named Alex."
"SHUTUP! SHUUUUUT-UUUPPP! You guys, c'mon!"
Rush queen bee Robyn Thompson stands encircled by 200 rushees in a conference room on the second floor of the student center. Bid day has finally arrived and the energy level is running high.
"Okay, girls," Thompson says. "I know this sounds queer, but will everyone please join hands? You are all becoming members of the Panhellenic Association and you need to be sworn in. C'mon! This is serious, girls. This is kinda special."
The girls join hands and repeat the creed, vowing to embrace the opportunity for "wide and wise human service, through mutual respect and helpfulness."
Then the rushees are given envelopes that contain announcements from the sorority they have been invited to join. On Thompson's order, 200 envelopes are torn and 200 squeals instantly thrum the walls. Girls jump up and down and hug one another, beauty pageant style. They are then marched downstairs to the patio next to the artificial lake, where the six sororities have gathered, resplendent in pinks and blues and flower-print Greek letters. Groups of a dozen are dispatched to the front of the crowd, whereupon, again on Thompson's signal, they are allowed to run to their sororities, where they are greeted with flowers, gifts, and more hugging.
Watching from the wings are two black female students, who provide a running commentary on the spectacle.
"Oh, please, girl, could you please exhibit a little more false sincerity," says the first.
"Where the black girls at, anyway?" the second asks.
"There's one," her friend says. "Oh, no. She's just got a tan."
"These girls must be so happy. It's like they're being accepted in front of the whole school." She does her best imitation of a sorority girl strut, her breasts jiggling.
A few hours later, the men's bid process begins. Each rushee steps before the collected frats. A Rho Alpha reads his name into a microphone, then the name of the frat he has chosen. Much macho hooting ensues.
For much of the early going, Zeta Beta Tau dominates, bagging almost as many pledges as the other ten frats combined. Noah Tepperberg, master recruiter, is effusive. "This will give us about a hundred members, and make us the biggest frat on campus. The fucking powerhouse of excellence!" he yells.
Nearby, at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon camp, the outlook is less sanguine. Despite snaring Jamie Gerdson, the crew stud from Boston University, the number of pledges is down this year, to eighteen. "Hey, it comes down to money," rush chair Jim Taylor sighs. "Sad as that may sound."
Toward the end of the list of 200 pledges, a chubby kid with a dazed expression stumbles past the Rho Alpha with the microphone. He is announced as accepting Alpha Tau Omega's invitation, becoming the second and final ATO pledge of the evening. After much distracted searching, he locates a few of his new brothers, who are hanging out at the back of the pack.
"I'm not sure where the rest of the guys are," Richard Bull says. "They must be out drinking."
Oblivious to his surroundings, Adam August, UM's student body president and the rush chairman for Sigma Alpha Mu, shouts into his portable phone, hoping to lure a few rushee no-shows. The history books will show this year's rush yielded 208 new frat boys and 190 new sorority sisters, a solid increase for the men, while the women held steady.
But as the affair winds down, officially ending the dry rush, alcohol suddenly becomes the chief topic of discussion. "Here come the lushes," observes a Pike, as two of his brothers teeter toward the group, woefully late. "Let's go catch up."
The plaza is now practically empty, the pledges tucked into their new identities and itching to reach a state of inebriation that will allow them to enjoy their newfound brotherhood. Only a sprinkling of invitations and flower stems is left to mark the events of the past week.
Then a blood-curdling scream sounds, and a herd of Lambda Chi Alphas appears on the raised stage to the north. "Let's go consume," one yells, leading his brothers on a charge across the pavilion. "We're gonna need funnels!" They exit triumphantly, as Greeks should, leaving behind them a trail of garbage but making sure to right the plastic furniture they have, in their lust for drink, knocked over.
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