The following excerpt is from one chapter of a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools around the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation’s most interesting colleges. In the following chapter, the author accidentally goes undercover at a Tennessee fraternity and is shocked when the members begin telling him their secrets.
Chapter 6: University of Tennessee (excerpt)
My visit to the University of Tennessee happened by accident. I started to get tired while I was driving through Knoxville, Tennessee, so I pulled into a Walmart parking lot to sleep in my car for the night. As I was falling asleep, I received a text from Randy from Auburn.
“Where you at?” he asked.
“Knoxville,” I said.
“You going to the University of Tennessee?”
“Is it in Knoxville?”
“Yeah. My buddy says it’s Boxing Weekend. You should check it out.”
I googled Boxing Weekend. It was some sort of fraternity boxing tournament, supposedly a huge college event. Damnit, I thought, I guess I have to go.
My hair was gross, so I bought shampoo at the Walmart then left toward campus. I parked along a strip of bars, walked into the bathroom at a fast food fried chicken place, then washed my hair in the bathroom sink. Next I bought two 24oz beers. I hunched down in the back of my car, drank both beers, then changed into nicer clothes.
A little drunk, I walked up and down the strip of bars and got talking to a bouncer about Boxing Weekend. He told me that Boxing Weekend is a Greek event where each fraternity sends their best fighter to a three-day boxing tournament. Around 5,000 people attend each year, and it’s held away from campus at a convention center. The night I was there was the second of the three nights, and I had unfortunately already missed the boxing that night. However, all the Greek guys and girls should be headed back to campus for their after-parties.
“Are they usually open parties?” I asked. “How does it work?”
“You probably need to know someone or be a part of the fraternity,” he said.
“Do you know if Tennessee has the fraternity called PBT?” (This is a made-up fraternity name, so they can stay anonymous.)
“Yeah, it does.”
The reason I asked about PBT was because a close family friend of mine who is much older than me was once a member of PBT at The University of Texas. I figured he might know how to get into their party, so I gave him a call. He answered drunk.
“Yo, buddy, what’s going on?” he asked.
“So I’m in Tennessee, and PBT is having a party here I want to write about. How would I get in?”
“Dude, just tell them you’re a PBT.”
“Do I need to know anything? Any passwords?”
He tried to explain the secret handshake, but it was extremely difficult to understand over the phone.
“What do you mean the index finger slips behind the thumb?” I asked.
“Are you fucking stupid, Drew? Your pointer finger goes behind his thumb.”
“Around his thumb, or over it?”
“Goddamnit, dude, behind it!”
“No, no, behind it doesn’t mean shit if I don’t know which way I’m looking from. Anyway, what should I say I’m doing here if they ask? Why would I be in Tennessee?”
“They don’t give a shit, but just say you’re on spring break or something. Nobody’s going to ask you shit at the door. They don’t want to talk to you.”
“But why would I be showing up alone?”
“I don’t know, your friends got lost or something. Nobody cares, you’re going to walk right in without talking to anybody.”
“Alright, alright. Thanks.”
I found my way across campus to Greek Row. The streets were quiet except for the occasional group of students walking past. I walked around looking for the PBT house. Then, nestled on the back end of the street, the PBT house sat waiting for me to enter. The alcohol still in my system soothed my nerves just enough for me to walk up and go to their party. I knocked on the door.
A guy poked his head out without opening the door all the way.
“Hey man, what’s up?” I asked.
“Yo man, I’m a PBT from Texas.”
“Cool, what’s up?” He opened the door a little wider, and I could see inside the house. I saw no people and heard no music. It was empty.
“Not too much, man, I’m just hanging out,” I said.
“Well, you wanna come in?” he asked.
A possibility I hadn’t considered had occurred: there was no party at all.
“Cool, man, yeah, sure,” I said. I didn’t want to go in, but I felt powerless to eject myself from the social context that I had established.
He closed the door behind us. The reality of the situation was setting in: I would either have to tell him the complete truth right now, or lie like hell. Another option was to calmly walk out the front door and then immediately sprint away, but I didn’t have the guts to do that.
“So what are you doing here at UT?” he asked.
“The only real UT is Texas,” I joked. I had learned at South Carolina that there’s a chummy rivalry between USC South Carolina and USC Southern California about who is the ‘real USC,’ so I figured the same joke might exist between Tennessee and Texas.
“Yeah, yeah,” he laughed politely. He wore a big Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts that cut off at mid-thigh.
“I’m on spring break right now, so I thought I’d check out Boxing Weekend and stuff,” I said.
“Cool,” he nodded.
Another PBT walked down a distant hallway. The first guy yelled to him.
“Frank! C’mere, this is a PBT from Texas.”
Frank walked over, and I traded names with both of them. The first guy was Chuck. Then Frank introduced himself as one of the fraternity’s officers, one of the worst people I could meet. He seemed to have a lot of respect.
“What’re you doing in Tennessee?” Frank asked.
This was getting more intense, so as a precaution, I started to feign a slur in my speech and speak with extra excitement to indicate being more drunk than I was. If I said something that didn’t make sense, I could blame the alcohol.
“We’re on spring break, man,” I said, “just checking things out.”
“I thought you guys go to South Padre for spring break.”
“Oh yeah, we do. I’m not going this year though. Fuck it, man.”
“Who’re you with?” he asked.
“Oh, right. Yeah, my friends got drunk at the bar, so they’re all still there. I was trying to come check out some Boxing Weekend stuff.”
“Are they PBTs too?”
“Yeah, man, we’re all PBTs.”
“How many of you guys?”
“Eight.” Shit, why did I say eight?
“Big group,” he said.
“Yep. Had to caravan. Two cars.”
“And you decided to come here for spring break?”
“Nah, we’re headed to Panama City Beach.”
“Yeah, big loop. We picked up a buddy at Oklahoma, now comin’ through here, then gonna head down.”
“Oh cool, is he a PBT at OU?” Frank asked. He had a tone that made me think he knew the PBTs at Oklahoma pretty well, so I would have to say that my buddy wasn’t a PBT at OU.
“Nah, he transferred from Texas,” I said. “He was a PBT at Texas but didn’t stay active when he went to OU.”
“Why would he do that?” Frank asked.
“Shit, man, that’s what we said. He’s a dumbass.”
“Fair enough,” he smiled. “What other schools are headed to PCB?”
“Whoever’s there, man. We just heard it was wild, wanted to see what it’s all about.”
There was a lull in the conversation. The guys weren’t intentionally interrogating me, just curious to meet another PBT and to figure out why I showed up drunk and alone at their front door at midnight.
“How many guys are in your chapter down there?” asked Chuck.
“It’s about 200 or so,” I said.
“Yeah, something like that, the exact number just changed.”
“That’s fucking huge. I had no idea you guys were so big. Is that the biggest in the country?”
I had no idea how big fraternities were. “Yeah, we’re pretty damn big,” I said. “Not sure if we have the most.”
Frank nodded. “So what do you guys think of your athletes down there?”
This one I especially had no idea how to answer. I said, “Ah, you know, it’s kind of a love/hate relationship.”
“Yeah. Same here,” said Frank.
Chuck asked the next question with the exact kind of casual tone as all the other questions:
“Are there any black guys in PBT at Texas?”
Again I had no idea, so I took a guess. I said, “Nope.”
“Good,” he said. “Same here.”
I was shocked, but I had to hide how I felt. I pursed my lips and nodded. I would have to reserve my judgment for later.
“There’s a half-black legacy here who’s rushing,” he continued. “We’re trying to keep him out.”
I was amazed by how easily those words came out. Chuck seemed to have no fear that I might not also be a racist. I had no idea how to respond.
Frank noticed my discomfort and changed the subject. “What’s your president’s name again? I know I met him at Nationals.”
I was glad to move on to a new topic, but this was an extremely tough question. I had no choice but to name a name. “Kyle,” I said.
“Hm. No, it wasn’t Kyle. I can’t think of his name right now.”
“Well, it’s Kyle.”
“He’s sort of tall and lanky, right?”
“Nah, I sure wouldn’t call him lanky,” I laughed.
“You sure?” asked Frank.
Chuck laughed. “Is he a fatass?”
“He’s a big guy, yeah,” I laughed.
Frank searched his memory. “Weird, because I met him at Nationals, and then I was actually in Austin last year and hung out with him again.”
“I don’t know, man, you must have met somebody else.”
Frank’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God, and when I was there they showed me your basement. Jesus.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I played along. “Oh man, don’t even bring up that fucking basement!”
“I can imagine,” he said. “How was pledgeship down there?”
“Pretty good, pretty good,” I said.
“Pretty good?” he asked, confused. It was clear now that his question really meant, “Tell me, just how awful was pledgeship?”
I corrected myself. “Ah, well, you know, pledgeship. It is what it is, you know? You just do it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I feel you.”
The front door opened. Both PBTs lost track of our conversation and instead shifted focus to the guy who walked in. It was their boxer, Jonathan, who had won his fight that night and would be fighting in the final rounds tomorrow. He said he needed to sleep early but first wanted to eat, so we all hopped in a car to grab some fast food. I attempted to talk a lot whenever the conversation was about something other than PBT so that my silence would not seem odd when they were discussing the fraternity. I was wearing dark jeans (fraternities are all about white-wash jeans), a sports coat, and some brown suede shoes, so I preemptively told them that I’m referred to as the ‘hipster’ of the fraternity. Eventually the guys invited me to boxing the following night and told me to bring all my PBT buddies for their pregame in the afternoon. I said, “For sure. We’ll all be there.”
Back at PBT, they let me sleep on one of their couches in the main room. Guys were coming and going from the room all night, and I heard a few ask, “Who’s that on the couch?” with the reply, “Some PBT from Texas who stumbled in.” It seemed I had done a good enough job with my lying.
That night the fire alarm went off. Everybody had to stand outside on the porch until the police came by and gave us the ok to return. The back window had been smashed, and the police found fresh blood on the glass. But this wasn’t of any concern to anybody and appeared to be a regular occurrence. One of the other fraternities, they figured, had smashed the window as an act of boxing rivalry.
In the morning, I awoke on their couch, came to my senses, then bolted out of there before I had to answer any more questions. There was only a slight relief in leaving, however. It all felt unreal. I realized that I had told them I’d be back that afternoon with seven other PBTs from Texas to get drunk at the pregame, then ride on their buses to the boxing tournament. This was, of course, impossible, unless I rounded up seven professional actors, and going back undercover with more lies seemed ridiculous. I just needed to get out of Tennessee.
Sitting in my car, parked far from campus, I called my family friend and told him what happened.
“Dude, you should have gotten your ass kicked,” he said with the groggy voice of a whiskey hangover.
“I know, I don’t know how I didn’t,” I said. “Should I go back tonight, or is that suicide?”
“Well, you’re writing that book, right? It sounds like you have to go back.”
“What am I supposed to say? I told them I’m traveling with a bunch of PBTs.”
“Dude, I don’t know. If they ask, tell them your buddies met some swampdonks at the bar last night and one of your friends is a total pussy and he’s trying to get his dick wet because he hasn’t gotten laid in over a year.”
“What’s a swampdonk?”
“A swamp donkey—an ugly girl. Be like, ‘Yeah, my buddies met some DGs and they’re trying to get one of my buddies laid because he’s a total pussy and hasn’t gotten his dick wet in over a year but the chick is a total swampdonk and I wanted to get the fuck away from that situation.”
“What’s a DG?”
“Jesus, Drew. A girl from Delta Gamma, a sorority. I’m pretty sure your mom was a DG. How do you not know this?”
I took a deep breath. “Fuck.”
“Or, you can just get really drunk and avoid all of that conversation,” he said.
“What if those guys have looked up the name of the current PBT president at Texas?”
“I don’t know, just say you were super wasted last night.”
“Yeah, I might have to use that one.”
All day as I stayed in Knoxville, I felt terribly paranoid about running into the guys I met the previous night. I ate breakfast at a really expensive diner, figuring it would be the least likely place to see them. I looked online for the list of active PBT members at Texas and tried to memorize a few names in case somehow I was quizzed. I read the “PBT Creed” online and tried to memorize at least the beginning of it. I paced in circles around my car, reciting little segments of speech I might have to use that night: “He was trying to get his dick wet, but she was a swamp donk.” “He’s tryin’ to get his fuckin’ dick wet, but she was a total swamp donk.” “Fuckin’ get his dick wet.” “Bitch was a total swamp donk.”
I had no conviction. It wasn’t working. No amount of preparation settled my anxieties about showing up again at the fraternity house. I drove around the city and wanted to leave, thinking I might drive right then and there to the next school and skip this stupid plan.
But just as I was about to give up, it hit me. Randy’s voice echoed in my head—“Put on something fratty.” Yes, yes. Put on something fratty. I just needed to look the part. What was the frattiest thing a guy could wear? What one piece of clothing was only ever worn by the badasses of the Greek system? There was only one option. A baseball cap of the specific brand everyone knows, worn backwards. (I won’t mention the brand for fear of being sued for associating the brand with racism.) Absolutely everyone in fraternities was wearing this exact hat while I was writing this book. And you had to wear it backwards. Instead of referring to this hat by its brand name, as everyone else did, I will refer to it as a “fraternity hat.”
I did a metaphorical fishtail and drove straight to the nearest retail shopping mall. Inside I wandered through the department store looking for the fraternity hats. I couldn’t settle for mediocrity here—I had to take this to the max. Across the store, I saw the display case for the hats. As I approached it, a bright yellow hat with a navy logo seemed just a touch brighter than all the rest. I picked it up. Standing in front of a full-body mirror, I held the hat in my hands with the brim sticking back behind me then put it on top of my head and slid it down until it locked into place. My head tilted back, my shoulders relaxed, and my chest reflexively puffed itself out. My hip joints seemed well-oiled, my fingers settled comfortably by my sides with no nervous fidgeting, and I even looked a few inches taller.
I gave myself a smug smile, then said, “Nah, man, I tried to bring ’em to Boxing but one of my buddies is back at the bars tryin’ to get laid, which I support, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
It was horribly embarrassing, but I thought it might work. I bought the hat.
Now I looked the part, but I would still have to act the part. I bought four beers and a small bottle of whiskey, parked near campus, crawled into the back of my car, then drank all four beers as fast as I could. I wasn’t proud of my need to get drunk in order to show up, but I had to do whatever it took to get me to that party. While drinking alone in the back of my car, I sent the same depressing text to two different people. I wrote, “Do we drink to seek pleasure or to avoid pain?” Both people wrote back and said, “Seek pleasure,” but I felt I knew the truth.
The pregame had started 30 minutes earlier. As I walked up to the house again, I made sure my shirttail wasn’t covering up my whiskey, which stuck fashionably out my back pocket. I would be putting everything I had learned so far on this trip to the test.