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Taking the party line on women's colleges

By George K. Sweetnam

The sign on the Union's notice board attracted his eye. It had all the key words: "party," "free beer," "firecracker punch," and "Pine Manor." Walter made a note of the day and time. He had heard of Pine Manor, and he had heard it called Pine Mattress. The name aroused his baser instincts.

Walter was a frustrated freshman. He was lonely and he wanted female companionship, but he did not know how to get it. He was awkward with women--most of the time he did not know what to say. But whenever he decided it was time to speak and make himself noticed, he always blurted out some inane remark that set women on edge. His high-strung nature made him good at whipping through economics problem sets, but his inability to have a simple good time with people did not endear him to many. His laughter was forced and his jumpiness scared people off. He was especially self-concious around women, so he was even more jumpy around them, and they gave him an extra wide berth.

It was a dilemma that had been with him since puberty, except that during high school conditions had been kinder to him. A number of women had been involved in student political organizations he worked in, and he had spent enough time with a few of the women to forget his awkwardness. But each time his hopes ended in misunderstanding. He or the woman would express feelings that the other was not ready for, and things would fall apart. When Walter left high school he was cocky in his academic prowess, but his dealings with women were stymied by his nervousness.

Walter had hoped that his coming to Harvard would solve that problem. He thought the label "Harvard man" would be an open sesame to friendship. Most of all he hoped it would mean women would be instantly attracted to him without his having to get to know them. The name did arouse the interests of some women at home in Vermont. When he was home for vacations he would hang out at one of the few nightclubs in town and try to casually work into conversations the name of the school he attended. A few were impressed and talked to him more, but always when he got them alone they would discover he could not relax and talk to them on the level they wanted. If they had wanted to discuss issues in economics or government Walter would have been on safe ground, but they never did.

And Walter was uncomfortable talking about emotions or philosophies on life. So he got to know one night's worth of a lot of women. When he suggested they get together again he found that they were invariably busy for the next month, or that they had planned to wash their hair on whatever evening he proposed they go to a movie.

At Harvard the situation was worse. He found very few women who were impressed by the school he attended. The women in his dorm did not get excited when they saw his Harvard rugby shirt. He didn't even get one night stands. He got a lot of conversations that fell flat.

But Pine Manor--a women's school tucked away in surburban Brookline next to a country club--that held promise. Rumor had it that Harvard men were special there. The alleged magic of the school name might work. As Walter put it to himself in more rational terms, the probable benefits in companionship, when weighed against the necessary exertion to try for them, seemed to make the trip worth the gamble. He planned to make an expedition.

On the night of the party he had trouble convincing anyone to go. Everyone in his dorm had too much work, and the subway ride to Brookline seemed like a long trip. When he could get no one else he accosted Tom, who lived down the hall. Tom was interested because he was curious. He wanted to see what the people at the party would be like.

Tom was a very bright math student, but he was not well-versed in the ways of the world. Before he came to Harvard, he had rarely gotten to know people on his own. His parents were the only people he ever talked with at length until he was a junior in high school. Even then, his friendships were made on the basis of common knowledge--math. Tom had read many books and proved many theorems, but he had not known many people. He knew that he had not, and he wanted to know more. Walter's trip sounded like a way to learn how a new set of people thought.

The trolley left them at a deserted stop in the middle of suburbia, and it took them some wandering through the broad residential streets to find Pine Manor. After following a few dead ends, and raising a few homeowners' wrath by cutting through their yards, they arrived at a seven-foot high chain link fence surrounding what appeared to be college dorms nestled in the rolling, wooded campus. The terrain was carefully landscaped and the neat asphalt walkways beyond the fence were well-lit, although no one seemed to be using them.

Tom and Walter heard from over a green hill the high-pitched sound of women's laughter and the insistent beat of an old Rolling Stones record. It spurred them on; they were in the right place. Walter started to climb the fence. When he reached the top one pant leg caught on a sharp point of metal. Just then a car drove by on the adjacent road. Its headlights caught poor Walter on the top of the fence struggling to get free. The light scared him. He jumped down inside the fence, ripping a large hole in his trouser cuff. Tom laughed uneasily and climbed over after the car had passed.

Once inside they started to search for the party. They followed the sounds of laughter and music, and after a few false tries at the wrong buildings, they tracked down the affair that had been advertised in the Union. The cars parked outside told them there were not many inside who had come by the MBTA. Walter checked his hair and made sure his Harvard shirt was straight under his Harvard jacket. Then the two stepped into the party.

Inside, the gathering was a typical college party only more so. Everyone had Levis on, and the style in footwear dictated topsiders or Adidas. Almost everyone circulated with a beer in one hand. Hair was neatly styled. Shirts were happily-colored, although in a conservative way. The men kept on their nylon jackets, as though they had just arrived and might leave any minute. The jackets told people at a glance what college they attended.

There were some Harvard students, mostly curious freshmen, but Walter noticed that most of the men were from other schools. He wore his crimson jacket as though it were a badge of rank. He took his place against a wall, put one foot in front of the other to hide the hole in his pants, and waited for magic. He had all the right clothes on.

Tom had all the wrong clothes on. His pants were too short--they showed his argyle socks. His flannel shirt was too big, and he wore it untucked. Most people paid no attention to him, but he was interested in them. He wanted to find out what they were thinking. He had never been to a party like this before.

Some of the women wore their key chains tucked into their back pockets so that the keys dangled outside, and jingled when they walked. Tom did not understand why they wore their keys that way. It seemed like an easy way to lose them. Few people there danced, and those who did dance did not move much. Tom noticed that if they danced too hard their clothes became disheveled. Shirts became untucked and no longer looked so form-fitting. Most of the people continually circulated, a beer in one hand always giving them a reason to be wherever they were. Drinking was always a legitimate activity. Other people stood in one place, their shirts pulled down in clean lines, and let their eyes roam for them. They were drinking too, and it gave them a reason for standing in one place.

As the party progressed people finally became drunk, and their clothes began to look rumpled. People laughed easier and danced more. Men and women began having long conversations, unlike the brief exchanges that had characterized the beginning of the party. The alcohol broke down some of the tension of the party's start, some of the pressure to know many people and talk to many people. Circulation slowed.

Tom walked up to a few women and asked about their school, where they were from, why they were there. He was genuinely curious, and he seemed so confused that most women talked to him freely. He was hardly a threat. Walter, standing against the wall, did not understand why Tom was doing so well. But Tom had no ulterior motives. As soon as he had found out all he wanted from one woman he moved on and talked to another. A few trusted him quite far, because he seemed so harmless. They told him they did not like getting to know men at parties like the one they were at. The situation was too artificial. People were not honest with each other. Tom gradually realized that the other men there had not come out of curiosity.

Tom met a friend who had been disgruntled with the party from the start. Mike confirmed Tom's suspicion that most of the conversations going around them were contrived. Tom became self-conscious about his appearance. He realized there was a game going on at the party and he had not known the rules. He had not known how he was expected to behave.

Mike told him most college parties involved role-playing, but this was worse than most. Tom nodded in understanding as though he were being apprenticed. Mike proposed they make a joke of it, and he outlined a plan to Tom. Tom agreed to it.

The two of them walked up behind a group of three women. Tom and Mike spoke in unison. "Hi! How's the party?" they asked, in a preposterously enthusiastic voice. The women ignored them. Tom and Mike laughed.

They again addressed the women in unison, "Hi! Don't I know you?" The women still made no response.

Third time paid all. Mike and Tom once more spoke together: "Hi! I go to Harvard." Probably more out of annoyance than anything else, the women turned around to look at Tom and Mike. But the two Harvard men decided it was not annoyance but the college that had worked for them. They decided they had found what the women were really interested in--the magic name.

Walter still stood silently against the wall. There were evidently limits to the name's magic. Tom and Mike got him on their way out.

Walter heard their story as the three rode the trolley home. Tom and Mike said it proved a sad stereotype. Going home alone, they were quite willing to believe that. Walter thought to himself that the story proved the Harvard magic name could work. In any case, the word would be passed about Pine Manor women.

Epilogue

The experience left its mark on Walter. If the name could have worked for Tom and Mike, why couldn't it work for him? He resolved that he would make it work.

Before his all-male dorm threw a party one weekend, he made 50 notices saying in big letters, "HARVARD PARTY," with the time and place underneath. He posted them at three different colleges for women. With the bait cast he eagerly anticipated the big night. The night of the party he put on his best Harvard rugby shirt and stood against a wall by the party's entrance. He stood there for a long time after the party had started. Tom came by after a while and Walter asked jokingly, but really wanting to know, "Seen any cows yet?" Tom laughed. He thought it was funny to call women from women's colleges "cows."

That night only two "cows" came, and they barely showed their faces. They walked up, saw Walter waiting anxiously by the door, and turned around without stopping. They laughed on the way out. Walter was deflated.

If Tom was naive about college parties when he came to Harvard he at least learned about them his first year. Early in his junior year he was still naive about people's feelings. One day at breakfast he was getting to know a woman in the House whom he had not met before. He found out she was from Wellesley, and was at Harvard for one semester to take some special couses.

"Oh," he said, "you're a cow." She got angry and asked why he said that.

He said, "You got to Wellesley, right? So you're a cow."

She told him to get lost. He did not understand.Tim Carlson, Mark Lennihan and P. Wayne Moore

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