It’s a moment that stands out in my memory: super-emblematic of my college years, but also noteworthy for its cinematic impact. No, not the orgy moment — that comes later — but the establishing shot of the question mark that hung above my entire time at Stanford University.
Standing in Stanford’s White Plaza in 80-degree weather, behind a table I had dragged there for the purpose of selling brand-new copies of my self-published magazine, The Birth of Tragedy (the Sex + Depression issue), I watched Donald Kennedy, university president at the time, veer toward the table with some bigwigs in tow. Drawn or, perhaps, transfixed until finally, suddenly veering away, still staring.
Me. In a full-blown mohawk haircut, leather jacket, engineer boots with buckles and a chain for a belt. It was 1981, my second year there, and punk rock had come to Stanford. Staring and staring, deeply it seemed, into my eyes that now held his, there seemed to be an unasked question along the lines of “What the HELL is he doing here?”
It was a very good question.
The presentation that the Stanford rep had made was pure gold: ”It’s half an hour from a city, half an hour from the beach and here are some pictures.”
Sold. And saying sad goodbyes, everyone in New York congratulated me on going to Connecticut. Stamford, Connecticut. You see Stanford’s profile back east in 1980 was so low that they were reduced to calling it “the Harvard of the West.” Yes: exactly.
I’M not going to an ORGY. That sounds worse than hot-tubbing!
But, done with winter, head steeped in Andy Warhol’s advice and California dreaming, I came.
“Are there parrots in the trees out there?” My sister, all 7 years old of her at the time, had asked me. No parrots, but a heightened awareness that we were, for sure, not in Kansas anymore. Or Canarsie. Or anywhere near New York. But where we had landed was a curious mix of young Reagan republicanism and California’s crunchy quasi-cool.
”Let’s go hot-tubbing!”
To a New York state of mind, this sounded like, ”Let’s lounge around in dirty bath water. HOT dirty bath water.” I had no frame of reference. I was wandering back from the gym on my first day on campus, shirtless (all of my luggage had been lost in transit, New York style), and this overheard invitation to party seemed like something you should shake off. It was vaguely sexual, but indirect in kind of a direct way. Realizing I was hearing a local dialect, I shook my head and chuckled at the natives.
This is the third installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.
“You play football?” The speaker now was Mike Doran, currently former Undersecretary of Defense in the Bush II administration, but then? Just a skinny water-polo player busting my chops with the same unspoken question in Donald Kennedy’s stare.
“No. Do you?” New York hostile, sharp, and followed by a heartfelt laugh. The same laughter that greeted the folded mimeographed sheet shoved under my door one day inviting me to attend a “clothing optional party.”
I thought of no one now but Sammy Davis Jr. and his genius take on cultural climbing…
“As in: mostly sent to people who forgot their clothes?” I didn’t get it. My roommate had to explain it to me, complete with raised eyebrows, winks and nudges.
“I still don’t get it.”
“It’s an orgy.”
There. It had been said.
“Well, I’M not going to an ORGY. That sounds worse than hot-tubbing!”
”Hmmm … you should ask yourself something though: How many orgies are you ever going to be invited to?”
My roommate is now a philosophy professor, and his Socratic creep up to the point made good sense even then. The printed instructions set out the rules of the road: a plea for privacy and an instruction that, while clothing was optional, if you were wearing something it should be something that could easily be removed.
I pulled up in front of the room, and it quickly dawned on me that very little that’s private stays secret: Pushing in right behind me were party crashers. Crashing violated what I deem to be the number one rule of orgy participation: Think about it carefully before attending. Specifically, when you bring along your significant other.
If history has taught me anything, it’s that innocence is always your best defense.
As parties go, it was fine. Good music, incense, candles. People ranged along the wall, some chatting, some drinking, some eating fruit (not a euphemism) and some, of course, doing what people do at orgies. Spread out before me were the sons and daughters of name-recognizable government figures and people who didn’t need full scholarships to be here, also doing what people do at orgies — and I thought of no one now but Sammy Davis Jr. and his genius take on cultural climbing: “If they could see me now / My little dusty group / Traipsing around this million-dollar chicken coop / I’d hear those thrift shop cats say, ’Brother, get HIM!’”
But something was amiss. Watching a corner of the room, I could feel a stillness and my spider sense tingling. I followed the eyes of the woman from the gate-crashing couple, watching her focused very intently on what her boyfriend was doing, and I knew then that the party was over. Or soon would be. It’s one thing to imagine your man having sex with another, it’s another thing entirely to see it.
As I was making for the exit, she beat me to it, her gathered clothes clutched close to her chest as she ran out in tears through a group that had gathered in the lounge area outside. Followed by me. Which probably looked as bad as bad could be, but if history has taught me anything, it’s that innocence is always your best defense.
In the ensuing hubbub, I escaped notice. For the next few days I heard that others got called on the carpet and were summarily punished. (Interestingly enough, the guy who was our orgy host at last check was himself a university president somewhere).
My uneasy detente with Stanford stayed uneasy, with the school alternately embracing and then bracing me.
But that night, after all had died down, sitting on the bluish-green vinyl mattress ticking in my dorm room, reflecting on my passage from high school to college, from East Coast to West, and my immersion with the scions of the modern aristocracy, I thought about sexual license and the lack of wisdom in thinking that we’re more sophisticated animals than we are when it comes to jealousy.
But mostly, I thought of how hot-tubs still seemed uncivilized to me.
I mean, who DID this kind of thing?
Taking the boy out of New York? Probably advisable. Taking the New York out of the boy? Probably impossible.
My uneasy detente with Stanford stayed uneasy, with the school alternately embracing and then bracing me, and me steadfastly refusing its attentions in favor of poverty-related starvation, attendant weight loss, punk rock, shows with Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and the occasional riot, right up until I got my degree.
Why you should care
Because some of the best minds in America are probably up to no good when they’re 18.