One of the last essays I wrote before receiving my Bachelor's degree in English from St. Louis University, was one in which I tried to mimic Joan Didion's tone and writing style in her essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which was written in the style of New Journalism in the 60s. While writing, Didion was living under cover in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, mingling with the hippie, and pretending to be one of them, all the while writing an all together damned account of their lifestyle, and consequently painting a bleak picture of the country's future. My essay, Slouching Towards the Billiken, written in May of 2009, is obviously an homage to Didion's 1968 piece.
Slouching Towards the Billiken
The center is still not holding. The country is in a state of crisis. Though we came together for a few brief weeks over the election of the first African American president and his promise of change, the sad fact remains that America is still a very divided country. We are divided politically, economically, and still, unfortunately, racially. In these times, I find it difficult to imagine a better future. The question on everyone’s mind is “where are we headed?” What’s next for America, once the greatest nation in the world? In an effort to answer this question I turned to America’s youth. In the spring of 2009, I spent a few weeks in St. Louis, Missouri, living amongst the students of Saint Louis University, affectionately dubbed “SLU.”
Remember those walls I built
Well, baby they're tumbling down
And they didn't even put up a fight
They didn't even make up a sound (Beyonce).
I wait with about ten others outside of Sean’s apartment, as someone comes down to let us all in. It is a warm, April night. The mood of the group is excited- exited for the party, but also in anticipation of summer and months away from SLU. Sean lives in a building called The Coronado, an imposing, elegant brick building, which looks more like a fancy hotel than a building that houses many students. There is a café in the basement of the building- Nadoz, a self-proclaimed “Euro Café & Bakery.”
As we wait, boys chat about sports, and girls compliment each other on their clothing and hair. After a few more minutes, John, Sean’s roommate, comes to let us in. “Dude,” a boy in jeans and a green polo says to John, “that took forever,” and they slap hands in a high five. “Sorry man, it’s crazy up there,” John replies.
The entryway of the building leads into a grand foyer, with marble flooring, high ceilings, and dangling chandeliers. The Coronado doubles as a banquet hall and ballroom for big events, and though the actual apartments are not that fancy, tenants pay dearly for the elegance of the first floor and the convenience of its being right across the street from campus. Singles range from $725-1000, doubles start around $1200, and triples range from about $1475- 2000, depending on layout. For a typical SLU student, $600 a month is “not that bad” for rent.
We all pile into an elevator and take it up to the sixth floor. “Last door on the right!” John calls out, unnecessarily, as the blaring music makes it quite obvious which apartment is throwing a party. The bass on the stereo is so high we are practically thumped down the hallway. The door of 602 opens to a swarming mass of twenty somethings and a blast of Jay-Z:
If you're havin' girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
Once inside, John calls out “five dollars for a cup!” and motions to another boy standing in the kitchen next to a beer keg, holding a stack of red Silo cups. I reach my hand into my pocket and pulled out some crumpled bills. I walked over to cup boy and handed him a five. “What’s in the keg?” I ask.
“Natty Light,” he shouts, “or there’s jungle juice in the cooler if you’d prefer.” He motions to a blue Igloo cooler on the floor next to the fridge. Natural Light is the beer of choice for SLU keggers. Anheuser Busch, which is based in St. Louis, pretty much monopolizes the drinking scene. Not only is Natty Light one of the only beers you can get by the keg, but it’s also the cheapest. Best of all, due to its watery, “light” taste and texture, it can be easily consumed in large quantities- ten to twenty glasses, or more, in a night.
The other drink offered, Jungle Juice, is somewhat of a phenomenon in itself. Wikipedia defines it as “huge quantities of hard alcohol mixed with arbitrary juices” and says that “generally, it is believed that the name originates from the drink's potency, causing an extreme state of inebriation and thus causing the drinker to exhibit animal like behavior” (Jungle Juice). Though part of the fun of jungle juice is not knowing what is in it, it isn’t hard to figure out the recipe of this blend; the counter is littered with emptied Kool-Aid Fruit Punch packets and a bottles of alcohol; Absolut Vodka, Malibu Rum, and of course, the main ingredient, Everclear. A girl in a very short “shirt-dress” and stilettos stomps into the kitchen and throws herself worshipfully down next to the cooler. She lifts the lid and dips her cup into the free-standing, red liquid, trying to avoid the solid lumps that are floating around, and which I can only hope are pieces of fruit.
I decide to go with the Natty Light, and hand my Silo back to cup boy, who is also the keg boy, as guests are not allowed to pour their own beer in an effort to keep it in cups and off the floor. He pours me a cup that is more foam than beer and I realize with not too much disappointment that it will be a good five minutes before I can take a sip.
The song changes, and the girl in the shirt dress jumps up, dripping jungle juice all over the floor, and runs to the living room to join several other shrieking young ladies who are all obviously very excited with the song that just came on.
I've had a little bit too much, much
All of the people start to rush, start to rush by
A dizzy twisted dance, can't find my drink, or man
Where are my keys? I lost my phone, phone
“Oh my god, this is like, my theme song!” One of the girls calls out.
What's going on on the floor?
I love this record baby but I can't see straight anymore
Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?
I can't remember but it's alright, a-alright
Just dance, gonna be okay, da da doo-doo-mmm
Just dance, spin that record babe, da da doo-doo-mmm
Just dance, gonna be okay, d-d-d-dance
Dance, dance, just, j-j-just dance
The song, “Just Dance,” by Lady GaGa, has been on the billboard top ten for weeks now. I’ve heard it at least twice a day around campus and at least once at every party. All the girls are dancing around the living room, arms flailing, with moves that are attempts to look sexy but tend more towards awkward. Despite this fact I can’t help but feel a little bit envious of their lack of inhibition, even though I’d attribute it more to the Jungle Juice than any sort of personal conviction.
The party consists of clusters: the dancers; the “dudes,” standing in the kitchen trading sports stats; the non-drinkers, who sit on the living room couch pretending to like what’s in their cups; the girls who are too cool to dance, and the game-players. There are two games going on at this party, Beer Pong in the living room and Circle of Death in the dining room. Beer Pong is THE game at SLU parties. It has a simple premise; there are two people on a team and each team stands at one end of a long table. Each team lines up ten cups of beer arranged in a triangle at their end of the table, and they take turns throwing ping pong balls at eachothers’ cups. If one team sinks a ball in a cup, the other team has to “chug” that cup. The first team to knock out all of the other’s cups wins. Beer Pong games are usually run tournament style- the winner keeps playing till they lose. Currently, two girls are playing against two boys. Both teams are equally terrible and the game has been going on for over twenty minutes. Ten or so partiers flank each side of the table, enthralled by the game, and waiting for their chance to play.
Around the dining room table, six people are playing Circle of Death. This is a card game which is well liked because it usually gets all the players pretty “wasted.” One game just wrapped up and another is beginning so I walk over to see if I can join them. A tall, thin blonde boy is arranging the cards face down in a circle around a cup of beer in the middle of the table. He looks up at me and says “Hey, you wanna play?”
“Sure, I say,” and take a seat. A few more people sit down at the table, and we start the game. No one introduces themselves, but some people already know eachother, and it doesn’t really matter- we’ll all be best friends by the end of the game. The girl to my left pulls the first card, a red five, and the blonde boy calls out “Ohh! Red to the head, Katie!” Katie says “damn it!” and takes a five second swig of her beer. Cards with numerical values 2 through eight represent seconds one must drink for. If you pull a red card you drink for that amount of time, hence, “red to the head,” but if you pull a black card you choose someone to else drink for that amount of time.
The next card pulled, a Black Ace, prompts a disagreement. A dark haired boy named Jim pulls the card and calls out “waterfall!” and stands up. Across the table a brunette says “I thought aces were for categories.”.
“Kings are categories,” Jim says.
The brunette shrugs and says “whatever.”
“Ok, everyone up,” Jim says, “and we’re going counterclockwise.” In a waterfall, everyone stands in a circle and starts drinking their beer at the same time, and each person cannot stop until the person before them does. Luckily, Jim called for counterclockwise, which means only he and Katie to my left have to stop before I can. This is the part of the game which allows each player to show off their drinking prowess, and stopping before you should is very looked down upon. Some people however cheat and only pretend to drink for their allotted time.
I want yo body. I need yo body.
As long as you got me you won't need nobody
You want it, i got it. Go get it, i'll buy it
Tell them other broke niggas be quiet
Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
We can pop bottles all night
Baby you can have whatever you like
I said you can have whatever you like (T.I.).
The game continues for another half hour or so. As each card is pulled, the player has to place it on the rim of the cup in the center of the table. The game continues until either every card is pulled or until someone knocks all the cards off of the cup. If this happens, that person has to drink the whole cup of beer. The tall blonde boy, whose name is Alex, had this honor. He drinks the whole beer in one impressive gulp, and the game is done.
I head to the bathroom, which is locked, and while waiting outside I take a peak into an open bedroom. I’m not sure if it’s John or Sean’s room. I notice the Phi Delta Theta plaque on the wall, but this is not very helpful- they are both Phi Delts. There are a few posters on the walls; a Jack Daniel’s ad hovers over a neat desk and a Sports Illustrated cover featuring a bikini clad Marissa Millers faces a bed covered with hunter green flannel sheets- the kind Moms pick out from Bed Bath and Beyond when they take their sons to college.
Just then the bathroom opens and two girls stumble out, giggling. One grabs for the other’s iphone saying “Oh my god, do not text him right now- that is a horrible idea!”
“But I want to see him!” her friend responds.
“Maybe he’ll be at Humps later,” the other one says referring to Humphrey’s, an on-campus bar, “and anyways he can’t come, he’s a Beta.” Since John and Sean are Phi Delts, the party is open to all girls but only to boys who are also members of their fraternity.
In the bathroom I am forced to crouch uncomfortably over the toilet seat, as someone has recently vomited all over it and the surrounding floor. I wash my hands thoroughly and I wonder if anyone else at this party is worried about getting the Swine Flu. Exiting the bathroom, I hear a loud cheer coming up from the kitchen and a chorus of “chug chug chug!” I walk in to find five guys hoisting John upside-down over the keg for a keg-stand. John drinks for an impressive eighteen seconds before spewing Natty Light all over his refrigerator. His friends lower him down lightly, and Sean pats him on the back, saying “nice, dude.”
“Who’s next?” A boy in a polo (they’re almost all in polos), jeans, and a backwards Cubs hat says calls out “Bridget!” Bridget, a petite, shy looking brunette in a shimmery tank top, jeans, and flip-flops says, laughingly, “Oh my god, no way!”
“Come on Bridget! Do it!” Cubs hat boy says, and before she can even reject, the boys have grabbed her, lifted her in the air and upside down. Poor Bridget puts the tap in her mouth and drinks for only about 8 seconds before she starts hitting one of the boys on the shoulder and screaming “put me down, put me down!” They oblige and she runs to the bathroom, covering her mouth. More vomit.
Shawty had them Apple Bottom Jeans [Jeans]
Boots with the fur [With the fur]
The whole club was lookin at her
She hit the flo [She hit the flo]
Next thing you know
Shawty got low low low low low low low low (Flo Rida).
The music is louder now, and a few more boys have joined the girls dancing in the living room. Couples “grind” with (on?) one another, relishing the physical contact. The non-drinkers have mostly left by now, and it’s ten past one in the morning. I notice Bridget wobble out of the bathroom leaning on a blonde’s arm. I start to consider leaving, when suddenly the music stops, and a boy calls out “The cops are here! Everybody out!”
Panic strikes. Everyone sobers up, even if just for the moment, and we run around grabbing purses, jackets, cell phones and bottles. People run out the door and down the hall to the emergency exit. I follow, trotting behind two boys, one of whom says “Man, I’m so sick of this shit, it happens every weekend.”
“I know,” his friend replies, “I mean, everyone in this building is in college. What kind of loser reports party? It’s like one a.m., it’s not even late.”
We manage to get outside without seeing the cops. Some kids are not that lucky however, and I wonder how strict cops are with underage drinking around this campus. I’ve heard that mostly they just let people off with a warning.
A small group forms down on the corner of Lindell and Spring, about fifteen of us, and the question on everyone’s mind is, “where next?” Katie checks her phone and says “there’s a party in the Village that I heard is pretty good.”
“Let’s go to Laclede’s,” Alex proposes.
Laclede’s is another on-campus bar. On the weekends, starting around midnight, there is a line out the door to get in, and every other student on campus is already inside. Drinks are cheap, and the music is loud. The dance floor is like a sweaty, clothed orgy, moving in step with whatever rap song is most popular that week. Laclede’s is where people go to “hook up.”
“I can’t go,” one of the dancing girls says, “I don’t have a fake.”
“I know a guy in De-Mat (referring to DeMattias Hall, a dorm) who makes them for fifty bucks,” Jim offers, “you really should look into it.”
“I heard those kind of suck though,” the dancer replies.
“Yeah, but it’s Laclede’s,” Alex says, “they barely even look at your I.D.”
Laclede’s is very popular with the underage crowd as they are notoriously lax about showing proper identification.
After a few more minutes of discussion, the group splits; those of age or with a fake go to Laclede’s, and the other half decides to go to the party in The Village. I decide I’ve had enough for the night and head home. I say goodbye to the few familiar faces in the group and walk toward the clock tower. A flock of girls- a flurry of skinny jeans, short dresses, straightened hair and perfume- stomps past me purposefully. One lags behind, having trouble walking in her four inch heels and talking, rather slurring, into her cell phone. “Guys, wait up!” She calls, but her friends are chattering too loud to hear. She turns her attention back to her phone call.
There’s something happening here
what it is ain’t exactly clear
During my time at SLU, I met a lot of kids with ambitious goals and big dreams; the stuff leaders are made out of- leaders who unify their country and set things straight. I did see glimmers of hope, here and their, flickering about campus. But what I did see wasn’t nearly enough. What I saw mostly was indifference. I heard more rap music than conversation. “Are they not concerned?” I often wondered, and I couldn’t help but think not. There is a fine line between ignorance and apathy, but at SLU, I’m not sure one even exists at all.
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down (Buffalo Springfield).
I turn left and head towards Grand. Lots of students are out still, and the campus is alive under the moonlight. I pass a couple cuddling on a bench. Ahead of me I see a group of boys - jeans, polos, baseball hats; they are standing outside of the Bauman Eberhardt Center, huddled close, murmuring and laughing. They quiet down as I pass by, and eye me rather suspiciously. I pretend I’m not at all interested and carry on my way. A moment later I look back over my shoulder just in time to catch one of the boys walk up to the statue of the Billiken, his school’s mascot, which sits proudly outside of the gym. Without hesitation, he unzips his pants and pees all over it. Tomorrow, one of his friends, a SLU “Ambassador,” will guide families on a tour of campus. He will stop in front of the statue and tell his group “don’t forget to rub the Billiken’s belly! It’s good luck!”
Beyonce. “Halo.” I am…Sasha Fierce. Columbia, 2008.
Flo Rida. “Low.” Low. Atlantic, 2007.
Jay-Z. “99 Problems.” The Black Album. Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003.
"Jungle juice." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 6 Apr 2009, 03:05 UTC. 5 May 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jungle_juice&oldid=282023834>.
Lady Gaga,. “Just Dance.” The Fame. Interscope, 2008.
T.I. “Whatever you Like.” Paper Trail. Grand Hustle/ Atlantic, 2008.
The Buffalo Springfield. “For What It’s Worth.” Buffalo Springfield. Atco, 1966.