Most of my Friday nights are spent according to a game plan adjusted based on social events put on by the College and the Greek system; I am no stranger to the different social spaces on campus. Since joining a Greek house, I have begun to become alienated from the party crowd that gravitates toward the big events organized by other houses. To refresh my memory and be able to record the student experience in some of campus’s most frequented social spaces, the Greek houses, I needed a guide.
My guide reminds me of the title character in Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl — “on low-key good terms with everyone in a way that is invisible to everyone else,” so I will refer to him as Greg.
About 20 minutes before we were supposed to meet up and talk the night through at a “pregame,” I got a text. Greg wanted to start sooner than I originally thought. The pace of things was picking up, and I did not want to miss out. I threw on a jacket I had bought at the Salvation Army in West Lebanon, slid on a pair of beat up sneakers with soles still sticky from stepping in dried puddles of beer at basements the previous weekend and rushed outside. We met up on the lawn in front of a house with a small crowd of people in eclectic attire waiting near the door.
Greg exchanged nods and friendly exclamations with many of the people in the foyer. Tails was still wrapping up, so we followed one of the house members upstairs. A boy rushed out from a door to welcome Greg. Voices of the people chattering outside spilled into the room. The mixture of laughter, excited shouts and muffled conversation distracted me, so I almost bumped into a table topped with half-empty beer cans.
Greg’s friend was quick to offer us a drink. As I was picking up a can, I sensed familiar smells seeping through the corridor. But before I had the chance to take a sip, the fire alarm went off.
The three of us gathered at a safe distance, as a Safety and Security officer made his way to the door. With the alarm wailing in the background, the small crowd around us and fire department vehicles parked close made us feel like we were at a crime scene. I was pulled back into reality when Greg motioned for me to follow him. He had checked with some people and figured out another party for us to attend.
The living room of the next house had been emptied out. We lifted a couch and pushed our jackets under it.
The basement, filled with the familiar stink of stale beer, was dimly lit and of average size. A couple of people danced around the space in front of the bar. Most attendees, however, were crammed in a room to the side. Two pong tables took up most of the space in the room. The crowd along the walls cheered for a pair of players. The sounds of intermittent conversations mingled with the clatter of cups and cans rolling around the floor.
Some seniors asked me to snap a quick picture of them. As I pointed my camera at them, I could not help but compare those pictures to the multiple shots they would take in a month, wearing their graduation gowns with radiant smiles and hopeful gazes. The picture I took had them wearing dresses and heels, ripped jeans and t-shirts. Their smiles reflected the promise of the night. In the embrace of the evening, those 20-somethings, like most of the people surrounding them, felt free to take off the facade of being straight-laced Ivy League students and put on that of easygoing youth, dancing and drinking all worries away.
Greg frequently checked his phone for texts; the party at the house was fizzling out. To spend more time in the basement would be a waste. That same time could be enjoyed in the whirlwind of parties unfolding elsewhere around campus, and Greg was on the search again. We pulled our jackets from below the sofa. Greg’s friend who we met at the first house caught up with us on the way out. Fire department vehicles were still parked further down the street reminding us of the would-be party that launched our night.
The street was teeming with groups of students trying to get to their preferred house in time for pong tournaments and various dance parties. They shuffled along excitedly, and the loud voices and laughter of these travelers echoed down the road as we walked down it on the way to our next destination. We were headed toward a house that was hosting a major concert that night.
By the time we arrived, there were no signs of the large line that would trail toward the entrance later through the night. A couple of people were casually smoking cigarettes and sipping beers on the porch. We made our way past them and the doorman to find ourselves in a broad entryway. Three guys guarded the staircase leading to the upper levels of the house. Greg exchanged a couple of words with a small group of people gathered in the entryway. Then he smoothly talked both of us through the self-designated guards to the upper floors where the band was warming up. A couple of rooms on the second floor had their doors open and crowds of people had gathered in each, talking and drinking. We hid our jackets between some boxes in one of the rooms. Greg stopped here and there to greet people he knew. However, the crowd was mostly made up of people neither of us recognized. We finally found ourselves on the third floor, and someone pointed out the room where the band was warming up. Greg knew some of the performers, so he walked in and I followed.
I anticipated the sounds of a rehearsal or instrument tuning. Instead, clatter and a stream of music in the background filled the room. No one seemed to mind us, and after Greg spoke briefly to the band members he knew we settled in a corner where we could enjoy our beers. In a couple of minutes, out of nowhere, a girl in a black dress jumped in between us and pulled out a tape measure. She threw a quick look around. Then, she ordered me to hold one end of the tape as she got on a chair to measure the height of Greg’s friend. She inquired about our names, introduced herself, commented approvingly on the boy’s height and struck up a conversation about religion — inspired, I believe, by the Biblical name of Greg’s friend. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I remember that it centered around an upbringing that involved Sunday church and the like. On the couch next to us, a couple was passionately making out through the course of the conversation. We did not have time to finish our drinks before we were asked to leave. The concert was about to start in twenty minutes and the band needed some time to do its pre-show routine.
As we walked down the staircase, I noticed that the number of people on the second and third floor had increased substantially since we had first come into the house. The rooms and corridors were clustered with people, all laughing and talking over each other. Couples held each other’s hands as they made their way through. A cluster of boys in tank tops and khaki pants raised a toast, beer cans in hand, and splashed the sticky liquid leaving droplet stains on the clothes of those around them. We made our way back to the entryway and sat on one of the benches lining the walls of the room. I asked Greg how he managed to get us upstairs. “You have to know people,” he responded.
We joined a group of Greg’s friends in the middle of the dance floor. The band opened its set with some lively tunes as the crowd became increasingly dense. Familiar faces would pop in and out of sight. People tried to push their way to the front or to some friend, maybe to a past or future lover. At some point it got too hot, and I made my way out. Standing by the wall in the far corner of the room, I noticed an older couple. They would have stood out in the middle of the dance floor but were almost unnoticeable the way they had leaned on the wall, observing. The dim lighting did not allow me to take a closer look at them, so I could not interpret their reaction to the scene. They could have been alumni, reminiscing about the sleepless nights they spent dancing in this very room, or not. Either way, their presence gave me a funny thought. For a second, it seemed like the whole dance floor was a big playground where youngsters were testing their own freedom and occasionally exploring each other’s bodies under the careful supervision of some elders, be they the couple I saw, house members, Safety and Security or any other college supervisor. Then again, perhaps that’s exactly what Dartmouth’s social spaces are — playgrounds for us all.