The Student Ghetto
Life-altering events tend to happen
in a bottleneck of time. For Reid everything started that freshman year of
university, during those days of indulgence and undiminished possibilities.
Everything was different back then, more relaxed, which might have had
something to do with what happened to him. It started the first week of
university. Frosh Week was a baptism
of fire. He had heard that students purpled their faces with purple dye with
enthusiastic encouragement of their group leaders called Gaels. Having been founded by the
Scots in 1844, the tradition had something to do with Scots painting their
faces before battle. But traditions ran deep at Queen's University. The big
things were drinking and rugby and engineering - in that order. To some that's
all that school was, engineering and some drunken rugby games. If you were an
electrical engineer, played varsity rugby and liked to drink, then you were
first day for Reid was a blur. The first sign of impending mayhem first
surfaced on the way to university with a read a large canvas sheet hanging over a road sign along the highway.
SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR
Beware of the
Gaels of ‘86
"We're getting close," said Reid,
trying to subdue his nervous anxiety.
"The cops must expect this vandalism
every Labour Day weekend," said Drake.
A corpulent woman in a passing car
gawked at their over-packed horse trailer they pulled behind them. The horse
trailer was Drake's; he had already brought up his horse to a farm north of the
university the previous weekend so they used the trailer to transport their
stuff to their house at school. The last items to be packed were two mountain
bikes strapped to the roof.
"I guess we're travelling at maximum density," Drake said as
he tried unsuccessfully to stretch out his long legs.
Reid looked at the layers of ancient limestone at the sides of the
highway sneaking out from vast patches of flaxen grass rumbling slowly in slow
waves. Fallow fields of deathly yellow he thought to himself. Past miles of
rolling fields lined by broken-down wooden fences through a mixture of maples,
oaks and birch spreading east to lake Ontario, his uneasiness grew in the
ruckus of invading gusts from through his open window. His neatly combed hair now a dishevelled nest.
Both of them
knew the way to the campus from a visit last winter on an organized tour. Their guide had continually referred to
Harvard as "the Queen's of the south," as if he had to define a
Canadian university by American standards. It was just past an old defunct drive-in theatre where weeds had
overrun the parking spots that they turned off the highway, reaching the main
road in minutes. The electricity in the air was contagious driving through the
epicentre of the action, music blaring into their station wagon. Decrepit lawn
chairs were scattered on soiled front lawns of old Victorian homes with banners
bearing allegiance to a brewery or brand of beer hanging from balconies where
students relaxed drinking and yelling at people on the street. Some stood
shirtless around barbeques under the mature maple trees that lined the street.
Despite the heat many students were roaming around in their university leather
jackets. The student ghetto during
Frosh Week was all a big party he had been told, but he hadn't imagined
anything like this. A
stray football hit the station wagon when they turned onto their street past a
big house with a turret on the corner.
Most freshmen spent their first
year of school in residence but both Reid and Drake hadn't been accepted. It
was based on a lottery because there weren't enough spaces in the dorms. So
during the summer they had gone to find a house in the ghetto. Most of the
places smelled of stale beer and had holes in walls, with hardwood floors
scraped and worn but that was part of the student ghetto culture. Future
business and political leaders living in squalor.
Two people stood on the lawn of their house
when they pulled up in their over-packed station wagon.
you must be either Drake or Reid Mc-something," said the student wearing a
"I'm Reid," he said, nervous.
"How are ya? I'm
Taylor, your new housemate." A smile dominated his face under his cap
covering a crop of short black hair.
"Hi Reid. I'm
Michelle," she said, shine shining in the sun.
I'm not in your house. I'm over there." Michelle pointed down the street packed
with people throwing footballs and Frisbees, laughing and drinking beer. A
colony of unsupervised youth in a concert of celebration of newfound freedom.
Concerned-looking parents glanced around apprehensively.
don't I help you guys unpack? But before I do that why don't we all have a
beer?" Taylor's easy-going disposition accompanied with a grin of
no thanks guys" she said. "I should be getting back to my place. My
housemates are probably wondering where I am." Michelle placed her
finished beer on the front porch.
c'mon." She looked from Taylor to Reid with a small tilt of her head, her pale
eyes sparkling metallic green under a mane of golden-brown hair. When she
smiled he noticed the delicate creases around the edges of her mouth.
forget to come over to our barbecue tonight. See ya later."
nonchalant, Taylor turned to them. "Yeah, barbeque ce soir. Good way to dive into the
year, non?" He
went in to get the beers while he and Drake sat on the front porch surveying
the ambience under the umbrella of blue and leafy green.
"What's with the Mohawks?" Some had shaved
their head on the sides like a Mohawk Indian.
"I don't know," said Drake. "But I can deduce
the purpler the jacket, the redder the eyes." Taylor arrived with the beer.
"Shall we have toast gentlemen?"
Taylor raised his dangly arm for the toast.
a toast Taylor. What shall it be?"
toast to the burning bush of our prime." The three of them clinked their bottles and
drank their first beer of university. Slowly they dismantled the trailer of
things while drinking more beer. The amber liquid began to cool his turbulence
and anxiety until he felt a new culture beckoning.
On their way to Michelle's barbecue they came
across a group of students sticking their faces into a big barrel full of dark
purple liquid. They were gulping it down.
"Look at this stuff! It's in a garbage
pale!" Reid looked at the student bent over it.
"What's with this purple drink?"
Drake looked at Reid but Taylor answered.
called Purple Jesus. Grain alcohol and Kool Aid I
"Why?" Drake didn't like the
looks of it.
story goes that the Gaelic tribes of Scotland used to cover their faces with a
purple dye, and drink this aqua vitae before they went into battle."
heard of Purple Jesus but what the hell is aqua vitae?" Flushed, Reid looked with interest.
I think it means `water of life' or so my brother told me. It's Latin or
something." They watched students drink like horses. "Here-" Taylor went
to the barrel of rich purple liquid on the lawn, put his head down and drank.
It's a Queen's tradition man!" His teeth were stained purple when he smiled.
what's it like?" Reid curious.
"Wicked! Tastes just like grape juice." Taylor smiled at the girl
beside the barrel.
guys want some?" She offered them cups and they all scooped a cupful.
our prime!" said Reid, raising his cup.
our bush!" said Taylor.
Jesus!" said Drake.
took a sip of his purple drink, watching waves of students walk down University
Avenue with drinks in their hands.
"This is good," said Reid, smiling.
can't taste the alcohol," Drake perplexed.
"It tastes just like grape
Kool-aid." He was thirsty from the heat so he couldn't help drinking it
down fast. Cold and sweet. He and Taylor took a second hit before they left for
Michelle's barbeque. Crossing the main street they were accosted by drunken
students with the sides of their heads freshly shorn so they stuck together in
the storm of verbal abuse by Gaels. Reid quickly surmised that the Gaels with
Mohawks were the most abusive to freshmen. As he walked he was having a glimpse
at the dawning of a new freedom. No more curfews, no more rules, and finally no
more strict parents.
arrived at the barbecue with the cups of Purple Jesus in their hands. A live band began to play in
a house across the street inside, attracting people from the roving mobs.
That's when Taylor disappeared into the house. Reid saw Michelle with a friend
and walked over to them.
"Can you believe this?" Stumbling students
who had finally broken free from their ball-and-chain lives of high school
surrounded Reid. A stereo set up in Michelle's living room window competed with
the sounds coming from the band. The scene was becoming surreal under the warm
western glow of the setting sun in an atmosphere pungent with the smell of
what's your major?" Michelle's eyes still sparkled in the light.
Something in Reid's gut dropped, a heaviness that drew him downwards as if a
chunk of lead had materialized. He looked in her eyes and saw an inviting depth
which both attracted and somehow threatened him.
Then Taylor reappeared.
Dionysus with a Mohawk!" Reid laughed at the contrast of his strip of
jet-black hair against the freshly exposed white scalp around the sides of
happened to your hair?" Michelle with her hand over her mouth.
some of it is lying on the dining room floor."
asked Daphne, her teeth glowing against her tan.
in the name of tradition! I only have one Frosh Week to live, n'est-ce
pas?" From the half-bald figure in front of him all Reid could see was
the pink glaze in his eyes.
Dionysus?" Daphne trying her best to understand.
was the Greek god of wine and truth!"
Dionysus have a Mohawk?" The question caused Michelle and Reid to laugh
don't know, but I suspect not. I think Mohawks are a North American
crazy," said Michelle. Taylor's teeth were stained purple when he smiled.
go across the street to where the band's playing," Taylor said, like a
magnet to action. Under the rusty light of the setting sun, the five of them
walked across the street where they were immediately swallowed up in the stream
of people. Taylor, with his freshly shaved Mohawk, emerged as a target for
abuse by upper-year students. The Mohawk showed he was willing to play the game
and be initiated fully into university life. Two purpled Gaels wearing their
leather jackets and sporting Mohawks grabbed Taylor by the shirt.
they yelled. "We command you to drink this beer." They took out a fresh
beer and a funnel from their bag.
Through the funnel?"
know the drill Frosh." One of them lifted the funnel above Taylor's head
and began pouring the beer into it. Taylor, with an eagerness that seemed to
backfire on the two Gaels, put the end of the tube in his mouth and gulped down
the beer. But just before he was done, one of the Gaels poured the beer he was
drinking into the funnel without his knowledge, but he drank it all. When he
finished, he belched and said:
you gentlemen." This earned some laughter from bystanders watching. Then
it happened. A stray football hit him in the arm. Seizing the football, he
underhanded it to Reid and said: "Going for the long bomb." He took off down
there was no way he would catch it with so many obstacles in his way, he threw
it sky high over the trees way down the street. Taylor saw the launch of the
ball and quickly weaved through people trying to keep his eye on the ball. They
could hear him yelling, not words, but slowly raising his voice the closer the
ball came. Reid darted to the nearby porch where he could watch. There in the
distance, he saw the baby-white skin of a shaved scalp with hands outstretched
knock over a lawn chair, the final leap propelled him forward to catch the ball
and tumble onto a driveway, bloodying his elbow. Because he was so loud, there
were a dozen students who witnessed an impossible catch. Fearless, the guy was
a real-life madman, some his parents would call a bad influence. But his
parents weren't in Kingston so he tried to enjoy his baptism into his new
Reid attributed that catch to what happened the following day.