1988 – I had trepidations about this party from the beginning. It was a Pledge Active: planned, executed and paid for by the pledges – no longer civilians, not yet full fraternity brothers.
Like military recruits, the pledges were (and are) regarded as brain-damaged vermin. Through some strange process of absorption, many otherwise intelligent individuals become blithering idiots under the barrage of abuse that is pledging.
The pledges – as a result of insults, fatigue and fear – become mistrustful. The rationale for the abuse is to break down the individuals into a cohesive unit, and a multiheaded beast is to emerge from this chrysalis of adversity. This same attitudenal alchemy creates mistrust toward outsiders: “How could anyone on the outside understand what we are going through, let alone what it all means?”
If pledging succeeds at nothing else, it succeeds in creating an “us” vs. “them” attitude in the pledges – “them” being everyone else.
I had worked regularly with many fraternities at all the big SoCal campuses and so was regarded as something of an insider by many of the regular members. Therefore, the pledge’s business attitude toward me, the DJ, careened between obsequious bootlicking (because I was an insider) and paranoid hucksterphobia (because I wasn’t a pledge). To further complicate matters, there wasn’t one pledge in charge, which inevitably led to too many chiefs and much spoiled broth.
The pledges wanted a Disco Party (how novel), and they needed a room to have it in in addition to the DJ service – we did that too for some extra cash. Party rooms were running at a premium at that time because my buddies, the frat clowns, kept getting kicked out of places as soon as we could find them.
L.A. is a big town, but the number of available party spaces was finite, especially when the word “fraternity” was involved. The owners of these “spaces” wanted firstborn child-type deposits, and cleaning fees and insurance indemnity and super-double-blood-brother secret promises of good behavior under penalty of early withdrawl, in addition to exorbitant, not to say unconscionable, room rental rates.
I was pondering this and the fact that the pledge class had the ubiquitous “limited budget” when the phone rang. It was Tonto, famous party room scout, with a report from behind the lines.
“Looks like we’re going to have to go with the Bitch.”
“Yeah, this artist chick person has a party space behind her converted storefront studio in borderline South Central, but it’s cool. Throbbing Milkwort, the industrial club, was held there a few times.”
“That’s great Tonto, how much is it?”
“I’m working on that. By the way, you have to be out by midnight because she got busted one time at 12:15.”
I shuddered – “out by midnight” was certain disaster – but what choice did I have?
The day of the party came. The phone rang at 8:30 a.m. I, who worked at, um, night, was awakened.
“Dude, you’ve gotta get over here. This place is in a shitty neighborhood and the Bitch won’t let us in.”
“Oh, it’s you, the pledges. A) of course it’s a shitty neighborhood. Did you expect Bel Air on your “limited budget”? B) Why are you there at 8:30 am? I wouldn’t let you in either.”
“Dude”…. (“Wait give me the phone) Dude, this is Arty, the Assistant Pledge Social Chairman. We have a crisis here. We have to decorate for our party and the bitch won’t let us in. [How did they know her name was the Bitch?] Should we break down the door? A few of us could probably subdue her while the rest of us decorate.”
“No, let’s hold off on the forcible entry, assault and battery, and false imprisonment – at least before breakfast.”
Pledges are nothing if not eager.
I persuaded the shock troops to go to McDonalds. I called Tonto. Tonto had neglected to turn the deposit/rent money over to the artist woman. This is why she had barred entrance to the panzer pledges. This and the fact that they were there twelve hours early.
Later in the day the money was delivered, the pledges returned and decorated to their disco heart’s content. This included a lot of metallic balloons and streamers and whatnot.
Early that evening I wound my way through a back alley clogged with Latino children and their paraphernalia, until I arrived at the blocked back entrance to the party palace. I had to get five pledges to move their vehicles in order to drive into the courtyard next to the party room, a back annex to the storefront that served as the artist woman’s living quarters and studio.
The party room was not terribly large: with lubricants and blunt instruments, maybe 50 people could be rammed into it.
Just then, a pledge in a toga/disco hybrid outfit came sprinting out of the hallway leading from the living quarters into the party room. He was closely trailed by a small, lithe woman with very fine features and an extremely intent look upon her face.
She was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a lumberjack shirt. She was wielding a garden hoe above her head with malicious intent.
“Stay the fuck out of here or I’ll cut your dick off. I AM THE BITCH,” shouted the Bitch in an incongruous squeaky voice. Poor guy – menaced by Minnie Mouse.
The pledge attempted to cut right, out the side door and out of harm’s way, but the floor was freshly washed, and as his feet cut to the right and out the side door, the rest of him continued moving forward at a brisk pace so that he came to rest in a contorted disco pile at my feet at the other end of the room.
“Pledges,” I muttered.
“And that goes for the rest of you, too! No messing up my floor, no noise outside, and no peeing in the bushes! Got it?”
She slammed the hoe onto the glistening floor to emphasize the seriousness of her intent, shooting off a few sparks. The pledge at my feet moaned and stirred slightly.
I hastily retreated out the back door, loaded in my equipment and set it up. The woman periodically emerged from her lair to note fresh indiscretions on her party room floor and to eradicate them with her mop. The party room rental biz is perhaps not the ideal revenue enhancement tool for fastidious types.
Eventually the preponderance of the party arrived. Actives always project a Missourian “show me” attitude toward the accomplishments of the pledges: they looked down their noses and across their curled lips at the metallic balloons festooned throughout the outdoor courtyard and inside the party room.
“Looks like a bunch of aluminum rubbers. Keep that magnet away from me, aah!”
“Nice neighborhood, where’s the pinata?”
“Nice room, why didn’t we have the party in a porta potty and save you guys some money?”
“Yeah, nice closet.”
There was much muttering and head shaking. The metallic balloons swayed in the breeze.
The party began. The polyester clad throng ebbed and flowed out of the room which heated up to spontaneous-combustion temperatures because the Bitch insisted on keeping the doors shut to keep the noise in. She also demanded that the backdoor be locked, leaving the right middle door as the only throughway.
The woman stood guard over the door and lined up the petitioners who wished to enter the party room, and with a steely gaze commanded each one to wipe his/her feet upon the “The Best Man for the Job is a Woman” doormat, while she whisked the top of their feet with a broom.
Nerves frayed. The pledges insisted upon an exclusively disco format to accompany their theme, while the actives began shouting for deviations from the musical leit motif. The pledges, out of purity of purpose or dogmatic intransigence, stuck with their theme.
Every 15 minutes our hostess took the broom inside and swept debris from the floor, sweeping over, around and through dancing revelers. Some of the disco dilettantes made gestures of objection, which were quelled instantly by the steely gaze of the tidy, tiny terror.
The actives became more inebriated and demanded a respite from the disco onslaught. Finally, I relented. The pledges streamed to the DJ stand as one, petulantly decrying my betrayal of their sacred theme.
I stepped outside during a long song to inhale some non-molten air. I breeched the forbidden back door much to the Bitch’s chagrin – she was, frankly, getting on my fucking nerves.
Outside, I inhaled life-giving night air. My eyes followed the nearby streetlight post vertically into the night and admired the metallic balloons evenly spaced throughout its length. I chuckled lightly as one of the lower balloons disengaged itself from the pole and lazily drifted upward, zigging and zagging on the warmish breeze.
The silver orb dipped forward as if to salute me just as it connected with the fat, main electrical wire. The balloon explodes with nuclear force in a hail of virulent sparks as the night grew dark and still.
Muffled cries of “Hey!” “Who turned out the lights?” “What’s going on?” were drowned by a much more fervent cry of “Fire!”
I ran in, thinking of my equipment. My beloved, trusty Carvin amplifier was on fire, generating a small but colorful and pungent effulgence. The Bitch beat me to the amplifier and threw a pitcher of beer on the irradiance, creating a curious aroma of burnt beer, fried insulation and molten metal.
The room filled with an acrid volcanic haze.
The smoke drove the remaining bodies out the doors; even the hostess violated her own back door rule. The stunned party in the courtyard coughed and mumbled. I related the story of the wandering balloon to anyone who would listen, confirmed with nodding heads by those who also witnessed the detonation. There was darkness as far as the eye could see.
The hostess appeared in a surgical mask with a flashlight and her broom, entered the fume-infested “party room” and resumed her sweeping duties. Five minutes later the street light flickered to life along with its brothers up and down the block, to the accompanying cries of joy from the disco-deprived throng. The revelers tentatively peered into the room to find it once again spotless and glistening from a fresh mopping. Fans blew the rank air out the middle door. The rear door was once again closed and locked.
I surveyed the damage to my equipment. Everything was ok but the amp, and remarkably, the damage to it seems to be confined to the fuse area. When the fuse blew, it went with such authority that it started the fire. The beer was a worse problem, but I directed one of the industrial strength floor fans into the amp while I searched for a replacement fuse.
I couldn’t find one. I felt sick. I asked the hostess for aluminum foil. She spit near my left foot, said “you’re out of here at 12:00,” and disappeared. It was 11:15.
She returned with the foil. I created a bullet-shaped foil sculpture and jammed it into the blackened fuse holder. I said a small silent prayer, plugged the extension chord into the blackened wall socket and pushed the power button on the amp.
It sparked, fluttered, died, then purred confidently and reassuringly. I muttered a prayer of thanks, then threw on another tune.
The listless crowd reanimated, the gala resumed with a fervor that chose to ignore the previous 15 minutes of party-purgatory.
The party finally got some momentum going, the pledges allowed some non-disco, the actives were mollified. Everyone was happily drunk. In my relief, I had a few beers as well. I still couldn’t get the poison smoke taste out of his mouth, but the beers helped on many levels.
The Bitch stood in the corner, taking a break from her broomsmanship, and downed an entire pitcher of beer in one breathless series of swallows.
She wiped her delicate mouth with her lumberjack sleeve, spit on the floor, ground the spittle into the floor with the heel of her right boot, and strode forth into the crowd.
The room was packed. Everyone was dancing, jumping, yelling, singing, spilling their drinks on each other, hopping, bopping and sopping. The party was FINALLY in full swiing. It was 11:59.
Right in the middle of “Le Freak” with everyone shouting “Aaaah, Freak Out!” and throwing their arms in the air, the woman materialized by my side. She pulled the extension cord out of the wall and flicked on the overhead lights with a gesture of finality.
The crowd stood blinking, arms outstretched mid-“Freak,” frozen for several seconds. The Bitch hit the nearest disco-statue on the kneecap with her broom, a good firm whack.
“Wake up, get the fuck out of here. It’s midnight. All of you clear out.”
The whackee flipped. He dove at the broom-wielding, diminutive party-buster, sending them both crashing to the ground. He was a pledge. He had been dealing with this woman since the early morning. Before either could inflict much damage, the pledge’s cohorts restrained him and I pulled the Bitch up off of the ground and held her frail arms back behind her.
She snarled, spit on the pledge, raised her right knee to nearly shoulder level and, summoning all of her adrenalin-crazed power, rammed her boot heel with piston-like precision down upon my right big toe.
I shreiked with the intensity of childbirth and hurled the willowy offender into the amassed jumble of bodies. She pinwheeled end-over-end and out of sight as I hopped up and down, holding my right foot and grimacing like Oliver Hardy.
The pain shot through my body in lightning strikes of blinding, blazing agony.
I put my right foot down, then collapsed upon it in a writhing heap. Every time I took my hand off my toe, the pain erupted anew. I sweat like a racehorse, and very dark thoughts mingled with incapacitating spasms of pain.
A dozen of the disco-dolly dates corralled the shaken but still thrashing woman. The dates rather roughly escorted her to the door of her living quarters, cast her in, and shut the door. She tried to reenter the fray a few times, but each attempt was met with an escalating show of force from the posse of sorority girls.
I eventually determined that the toe was not broken but that the toenail was history. The pledges offered to load up my equipment, flush from their perceived victory over the hideous hostess. They might have cheerfully stomped her to death had not the dates sequestered the squirming she-devil.
After loading the grateful DJ’s equipment, feeling frisky, the pledges poured the remaining beer onto the party room floor, urinated upon it en masse to mark the territory as their own, broke one window and were about to make a quantum leap of destruction when the rented buses arrived breaking the spell.
Ah well, time to go.
In a final gesture of contempt, the pledges released the remaining metallic balloons directly below the electrial wire. Three or four connected simultaneously in an even more spectacular display than the earlier extravaganza, and darkness once again swallowed up the neighborhood.
The woman discovered she was no longer held prisoner, came shrieking out of her domain – hair disheveled and clothes torn – heaving eggs ineffectually at the fast-departing buses and my DJ truck.
Children of privilege – the future leaders of America, and a 30-year-old college-educated father of two, screamed the vilest of insults, made grandiose obscene gestures and laughed hysterically as they drove off into the night in opposite directions.
I laughed very little the next day, or for several weeks thereafter as the toe swelled to the size of a small pear and turned pitch black before the nail finally fell off and the pressure slowly subsided. It was a full year before the toe and nail were completely healed.
Civilization rests like straw over the quicksand-pit of human bestiality. He who mistakes the straw for solid ground does so at his own peril.