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I Am Charlotte Simmons|
To My Two Collegians
You have been a joy, a surprise, a source of wonderment for me at every stage of your young lives. So I suppose I shouldn’t be astonished by what you have done for me and this book; but I am, and dedicating it to you is a mere whisper of my gratitude. I gave you the manuscript hoping you might vet it for undergraduate vocabulary. That you did. I learned that using the oath Jesus Christ establishes the speaker as, among other things, middle-aged or older. So does the word fabulous, as in “That’s fabulous!” Today the word is awesome. So does jerk, as in “Whatta jerk!” It has been totally replaced by a quaint anatomical metaphor. Students who load up conversations with likes and totally s, as in “like totally awesome,” are almost always females. The totallys now give off such whiffs of parody, they are fading away, even as I write. All that was quite in addition to the many times you rescued me when I got in over my head trying to use current slang. What I never imagined you could do—I couldn’t have done it at your age—was to step back in the most detached way and point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular. I say “esoteric,” because in many cases these were areas of life one would not ordinarily think of as social at all. Given your powers of abstraction, your father had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country. What I feel about you both I can say best with a long embrace.
Many generous people helped me gather information for this book: college students, athletes, coaches, faculty, alumni, outriders, and citizens of an Eden in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Alleghany County. If it were possible, I would thank each and every one personally in these lines. I must certainly acknowledge a few who went far out of their way on my behalf:
In Alleghany County: MACK and CATHY NICHOLS, whose understanding and eye for details were superb; LEWIS and PATSY GASKINS, who showed me the county’s extraordinary Christmas-tree farms, one of which was raising 500,000 trees; and the gracious staffs of ALLEGHANY HIGH SCHOOL and the ALLEGHANY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE.
At Stanford University: media studies chieftain TED GLASSER; JIM STEYER, author of The Other Parent; comparative literature savant GERALD GILLESPIE; Mallarmé scholar ROBERT COHN; young academic stars ARI SOLOMON and ROBERT ROYALTY and their student entourages.
At the University of Michigan: communication studies maestro MIKE TRAUGOTT; and PEACHES THOMAS, who enabled a fool to rush into undergraduate nightlife where wise men never went.
At Chapel Hill: CONNIE EBLE, lexicologist of college slang and author of Slang and Sociability; DOROTHY HOLLAND, whose Educated in Romance blazed a trail in the anthropology of American college students; JANE D. BROWN of Media, Sex and the Adolescent fame; and two especially insightful students, alumni FRANCES FENNEBRESQUE and DAVID FLEMING.
In Huntsville, Alabama: MARK NOBLE, the sports consultant famous for assessing, training, and healing Division I and professional athletes; GREG and JAY STOLT, and GREG JR., University of Florida basketball star now playing professionally in Japan; and Huntsville’s colorful counselor DOUG MARTINSON.
At Florida, in Gainesville: BILL MCKEEN, journalism chairman, author of Highway 61, and a man with entrée to hot spots of undergraduate life, including “the Swamp,” a football stadium with a city throbbing beneath the grandstands.
In New York: JANN WENNER, who once again walked me through the valley of the shadow of weary writing; and COUNSELOR EDDIE (“Get me Hayes!”) HAYES, who read much of the manuscript.
In domo: My dear SHEILA, “scribere iussit amor,” as Ovid put it. Scripsi.
Prologue: The Dupont Man
1. That Single Promise
2. The Whole Black Player Thing
3. The Mermaid Blushed
4. The Dummy
5. You the Man
6. The Most Ordinary Protocol
Lost Province Entr’acte
7. His Majesty the Baby
8. The View up Mount Parnassus
10. Hot Guys
11. Onstage, a Star
12. The H Word
13. The Walk of Shame
14. Millennial Mutants
15. The Tailgaters
16. The Sublime
17. The Conscious Little Rock
18. The Lifeguard
19. The Hand
21. Get What?
22. Shaking Hands with Fortune
23. Model on a Runway
25. You Okay?
26. How Was It?
27. In the Dead of the Night
28. The Exquisite Dilemma
29. Stand Up Straight for Gay Day
30. A Different Preposition
31. To Be a Man
32. The Hair from Lenin’s Goatee
33. The Soul Without Quotation Marks
34. The Ghost in the Machine
Victor Ransome Starling (U.S.), Laureate, Biological Sciences, 1997. A twenty-eight-year-old assistant professor of psychology at Dupont University, Starling conducted an experiment in 1983 in which he and an assistant surgically removed the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter deep within the brain that controls emotions in the higher mammals, from thirty cats. It was well known that the procedure caused animals to veer helplessly from one inappropriate affect to another, boredom where there should be fear, cringing where there should be preening, sexual arousal where there was nothing that would stimulate an intact animal. But Starling’s amygdalectomized cats had gone into a state of sexual arousal hypermanic in the extreme. Cats attempted copulation with such frenzy, a cat mounted on another cat would be in turn mounted by a third cat, and that one by yet another, and so on, creating tandems (colloq., “daisy chains”) as long as ten feet.
Starling called in a colleague to observe. The thirty amygdalectomized cats and thirty normal cats used as controls were housed in cages in the same room, one cat per cage. Starling set about opening cages so that the amygdalectomized cats might congregate on the floor. The first cat thus released sprang from its cage onto the visitor, embracing his ankle with its forelegs and convulsively thrusting its pelvis upon his shoe. Starling conjectured that the cat had smelled the leather of the shoe and in its excitement had mistaken it for a compatible animal. Whereupon his assistant said, “But Professor Starling, that’s one of the controls.”
In that moment originated a discovery that has since radically altered the understanding of animal and human behaviour: the existence—indeed, pervasiveness—of “cultural para-stimuli.” The control cats had been able to watch the amygdalectomized cats from their cages. Over a period of weeks they had become so thoroughly steeped in an environment of hypermanic sexual obsession that behaviour induced surgically in the amygdalectomized cats had been induced in the controls without any intervention whatsoever. Starling had discovered that a strong social or “cultural” atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals. Fourteen years later, Starling became the twentieth member of the Dupont faculty awarded the Nobel Prize.
—Simon McGough and Sebastian J. R.
Sloane, eds., The Dictionary of Nobel
Laureates, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 512.
Prologue: The Dupont Man
Every time the men’s-room door opened, the amped-up onslaught of Swarm, the band banging out the concert in the theater overhead, came crashing in, ricocheting off all the mirrors and ceramic surfaces until it seemed twice as loud. But then an air hinge would close the door, and Swarm would vanish, and you could once again hear students drunk on youth and beer being funny or at least loud as they stood before the urinals.
Two of them were finding it amusing to move their hands back and forth in front of the electric eyes to make the urinals keep flushing. One exclaimed to the other, “Whattaya mean, a slut? She told me she’s been re-virginated!” They both broke up over that.
“She actually said that? Re-virginated?”
“Yeah! Re-virginated or born-again virgin, something like that!”
“Maybe she thinks that’s what morning-after pills do!” They both broke up again. They had reached that stage in a college boy’s evening at which all comments seem more devastatingly funny if shouted.
Urinals kept flushing, boys kept disintegrating over one another’s wit, and somewhere in the long row of toilet cubicles somebody was vomiting. Then the door would open and Swarm would come crashing in again.
None of this distracted the only student who at this moment stood before the row of basins. His attention was riveted on what he saw in the mirror, which was his own fair white face. A gale was blowing in his head. He liked it. He bared his teeth. He had never seen them quite this way before. So even! So white! They vibrated from perfection. And his square jaw…that chin with the perfect cleft in it…his thick, thatchy light brown hair…those brilliant hazel eyes…his! Right there in the mirror—him! All at once he felt like he was a second person looking over his own shoulder. The first him was mesmerized by his own good looks. Seriously. But the second him studied the face in the mirror with detachment and objectivity before coming to the same conclusion, which was that he looked awesome. Then the two of him inspected his upper arms where they emerged from the sleeves of his polo shirt. He turned sideways and straightened one arm to make the triceps stand out. Jacked, both hims agreed. He had never felt happier in his life.
Not only that, he was on the verge of a profound discovery. It had to do with one person looking at the world through two pairs of eyes. If only he could freeze this moment in his mind and remember it tomorrow and write it down. Tonight he couldn’t, not with the ruckus that was going on inside his skull.
“Yo, Hoyt! ’Sup?”
He looked away from the mirror, and there was Vance with his head of blond hair tousled as usual. They were in the same fraternity; in fact, Vance was the president. Hoyt had an overwhelming desire to tell him what he had just discovered. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words, and nothing came out. So he turned his palms upward and smiled and shrugged.
“Lookin’ good, Hoyt!” said Vance as he approached the urinals. “Lookin’ good!”
Hoyt knew it really meant he looked very drunk. But in his current sublime state, what difference did it make?
“Hey, Hoyt,” said Vance, who now stood before a urinal, “I saw you upstairs there hittin’ on that little tigbiddy! Tell the truth! You really, honestly, think she’s hot?”
“Coo Uh gitta bigga boner?” said Hoyt, who was trying to say, “Could I get a bigger boner?” and vaguely realized how far off he was.
“Soundin’ good, too!” said Vance. He turned away in order to pay attention to the urinal, but then he looked at Hoyt once more and said with a serious tone in his voice, “You know what I think? I think you’re demolished, Hoyt. I think it’s time to head back while your lights are still on.”
Hoyt put up an incoherent argument, but not much of one, and pretty soon they left the building.
It was a mild May night, with a pleasant breeze and a full moon whose light created just enough of a gloaming to reveal the singular, wavelike roof of the theater, known officially here at the university as the Phipps Opera House, one of the architect Eero Saarinen’s famous 1950s modern creations. The theater’s entrance, ablaze with light, cast a path of fire across a plaza and out upon a row of sycamore trees at the threshold of another of the campus’s renowned ornaments, the Grove. From the moment he founded Dupont University 115 years ago, Charles Dupont, the artificial dye king and art collector, no kin to the du Ponts of Delaware, had envisioned an actual grove of academe through which scholars young and old might take contemplative strolls. He had commissioned the legendary landscape artist Charles Gillette. Swaths of Gillette’s genius abounded across the campus. There was the Great Yard at its heart, the quadrangles of the older residential colleges, a botanical garden, two floral lawns with gazebos, tree-studded parking lots, but, above all, this arboreal masterpiece, the Grove, so artfully contrived you would never know Dupont was practically surrounded by the black slums of a city as big as Chester, Pennsylvania. Gillette had had every tree, every ground cover, every bush and vine, every grassy clearing, every perennial planted just so, and they had been maintained just so for the better part of a century. He had sent sinuous paths winding through it for the contemplative strolls. But although the practice was discouraged, students often walked straight through this triumph of American landscape art, the way Hoyt and Vance walked now beneath the brightness of a big round moon.
The fresh air and the peace and quiet of the huge stands of trees began to clear Hoyt’s head, or somewhat. He felt as if he were back at that blissful intersection on the graph of drunkenness at which the high has gone as high as it can go without causing the powers of reasoning and coherence to sink off the chart and get trashed…the exquisite point of perfect toxic poise. He was convinced he could once again utter a coherent sentence and make himself understood, and the blissful gale inside his head blew on.
At first he didn’t say much, because he was trying to fix that moment before the mirror in his memory as he and Vance walked through the woods toward Ladding Walk and the heart of the campus. But that moment kept slipping away…slipping away…slipping away…and before he knew it, an entirely different notion had bubbled up into his brain. It was the Grove…the Grove…the famous Grove…which said Dupont…and made him feel Dupont in his bones, which in turn made his bones infinitely superior to the bones of everybody in America who had never gone to Dupont. I’m a Dupont man, he said to himself. Where was the writer who would immortalize that feeling—the exaltation that lit up his very central nervous system when he met someone and quickly worked into the conversation some seemingly offhand indication that he was in college, and the person would (inevitably) ask, “What college do you go to?” and he would say as evenly and tonelessly as possible, “Dupont,” and then observe the reaction. Some, especially women, would be openly impressed. They’d smile, their faces would brighten, they’d say, “Oh! Dupont!” while others, especially men, would tense up and fight to keep their faces from revealing how impressed they were, and they’d say “I see” or “uhmm” or nothing at all. He wasn’t sure which he enjoyed more. Everyone, male or female, who was right now, as he was, in the undergraduate division, Dupont College, or had ever graduated from Dupont College knew that feeling, treasured that feeling, sought one way or another to enjoy that feeling daily if at all possible, now and for the rest of his life—yet nobody had ever captured that feeling in words, and God knows no Dupont man, or Dupont woman, for that matter, had ever tried to describe it out loud to a living soul, not even to others within this charming aristocracy. They weren’t fools, after all.
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