Freshman bizarre

You are in some exotic covered market, a chaotic trading post, an ancient port city. You are deep in the fluorescently-lit belly of Payne Whitney. It is a carnival of booths, a political rally without balloons, a gypsy-caravan powwow. You struggle for spectacles that compare.

Strangers are talking to you — at you — pleading with you, accosting you. There are vendors, vagrants and performers on stilts. Foreigners are speaking in tongues, in other languages. They hand you slips of colored paper with exclamation marks, dates and times. Your presence is a commodity, your value immeasurable to the elders. Clowns and fools, singers, screamers stalk the aisles. You are here because you want to be “involved.” You had no idea what that would entail. At least, to quote Dink Stover, fictional paragon of Yale manliness at Yale, “every one is out working for something,” or so it seems.

In rows of wooden tables — this skeletal and hidden layout the only hint of order or underlying structure — hawkers pitch their cults, promote their clubs, advertise and bellow. The scent of magic marker, heavy in the air, intoxicates you. Posters blare. Incongruities and paradoxes abound. Girls beneath a sign for a center for women implore strapping male athletes to join their cause. A rabbi passes with an iPad in hand. A series of boys in identical T-shirts hum harmonies at impressive and inhuman pitches. A troupe spontaneously tells jokes. They invite you to performances for which they insist they do no preparation, memorize no lines.

Your signature is requested, required, demanded – on documents and contracts with which you give over your time, small portions of your soul, your body for athletic events. “@yale.edu” is the code to your future well-being. You feel this on some deep, cosmic, virtual level. It doesn’t seem necessary to write the phrase over and over again, but you have stopped questioning the customs and practices here. Slogans echo. There is a kind of uniformity to the bazaar after all — a shared, implicit dogma that you do not yet fully understand, but do not question. The rules were never spoken aloud. You write neatly and within the columns. You are a recent migrant to this place, a refugee, desirous of assimilation and acceptance. Your name begins to look like a shape or symbol — the way a word said over and over aloud loses its sense, its worth.

With little ceremony, you are recruited, enlisted, conscripted, engaged. There is no courtship. It is a rough and rowdy exchange of goods, services, promises. You assume the love will come later: At meetings and gatherings, future celebrations with libations and hedonistic acts of joy. You have visions of concert halls, performances and people-filled courtyards. These events seem distant and uncertain. You have become a joiner-inner. You have never so much wanted to be a part of something larger than yourself, an organization “where the group means more than the individual,” as former University President Kingman Brewster ’41 who was also chairman of the News said in his 1976 address to the Freshman class. The fear surfaces between handshakes and presentations, but confident upperclassmen ply you with cookies, nutella, small monetary gifts. You accept candy from strangers, because they smile and reassure you in an authoritative way. They ask you about yourself. They seem to care.

The questions blur together, until you are uncertain about your true inclinations, your inner nature. Are you interested in student journalism? Was there a time when you considered the sailing team, or Frisbee? Do you like dancing? Theater? Music and the arts? You’re no longer sure. Are you interested in ending poverty? Genocide? Hunger? AIDS? Diseases you’ve never heard of you are now invited to study, to fight, to discuss in a group with similarly afflicted souls. Religious groups proffer pamphlets, banners with embroidered doves fluttering behind them. Icons invite your attention — photographs and sculptures, framed coats of arms. Philosophical arguments provoke and inspire you. Everywhere, papers are branded with official emblems and logos. Certain men wear suits and ties, with white-powdered wigs. Others wear all black, sunglasses indoors.

Affinity groups assure you that your own ethnicity is not crucial to your involvement or addition to their company. You don’t have to be European, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander. You are welcome to learn about the traditions, adopt the cultures, assume the rites. Belly dancers, African dancers, swing dancers sway in the background. The black and white patterns of chess boards and crossword puzzles soothe you in one corner, as you pass a cluster of academic-seeming characters.

Some of the questions take on a near-accusatory air. Are you interested in saving the environment? Are you interested in clean air? Do you care about the children? Do you care about the animals? Save the whales, save the wildlife, save the cities. Pancakes for poverty. Challah for hunger. Do you want peace in the Middle East? Are you interested in change? They are diagnosing you. Do you play well with others? Do you enjoy spending time with other humans? Do you breathe and respond to stimuli? Do you have a pulse?

You are hearing other questions now, ironic chants. Don’t join this club. We don’t want any more members. Stay away. We eat freshmen. You see people forging signatures, faking identities. The pitch is higher — more desperate. The market is closing. The fair will end soon. You are jostled. This club will get you girls, you’re told. Or boys. This club will make you friends. This club will make you rich, famous, successful. This club will make you happy.

The Slavic women’s chorus, a sequined bunch of sirens with bells on their skirts are lulling you with song. In the distance you hear a violin, a banjo, a strangled scream. The tables are folded, detritus swept up. You pass out of the gym, into the daylight. Initiated.

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