The Class Life and the Sex Life of the Collegian

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The Class Life and the Sex Life of the Collegian

I’m Into Something Good, by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, sung by Herman’s Hermits (1964), encountered 1968

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I received a very early tutorial in social hierarchy and sexual privilege among college students in the late 1960s.  Philadelphia was (and is) very much the college town.  So, setting aside the under-aged high school girls who congregated along Locust Walk, Penn’s fraternity row, on weekend nights who were a special case, and the coeds at our own university who might be less impressed by us because they were our peers, there were lots of places where more chronologically appropriate and perhaps more impressionable young women were to be found.  My first or second Sunday at Penn, our dorm counselor[1] took us to visit a couple of such places.

Harcum from a Rambler

Including the counselor, there were nine of us in his little green 1957 Rambler station wagon.  After a brief tour of historic downtown Philly and breakfast, we went off to see Bryn Mawr College, but the place hadn’t opened yet, so we dropped in on its nearby neighbor, Harcum College, a two-year institution, then single-sex.  Its reputation[2] I described this way in a letter: “a veddy posh … college…. The atmosphere of the place is plush and palatial, but very, very protective.”

Something like this ...

Something like this …

I think it was move-in day there.  We rolled up next to an authority figure talking with some parents, and asked him, probably a shade too boisterously, if we knew the way to Penn Dorm.  (This dorm – no relative of the University of Pennsylvania — was supposedly where a friend of someone in the car was going to be living.)  The fellow didn’t like the look of us and warned us to stay away from the campus that day, or he’d have us arrested.  “We only want gentlemen visiting this campus.”

We drove away, laughing as soon as it was safe to (our dorm counselor included), and found Penn Dorm on our own.  Things didn’t immediately improve there.  We walked in the front door, all nine of us, probably coming on as a bunch of storm troopers.  I actually saw a parent’s jaw drop as we passed.  The young lady we were seeking turned out to be elsewhere, at a meeting with the dean, but her friends were very friendly, and very helpful.  But eventually we came up against a den mother, accompanied by a campus cop.  And the cop was not simpatico.

“Hey, are you guys the ones in the blue Studebaker?”

We weren’t about to get pedantic over nameplates, but we did intend to stand our ground if we could.  The one who knew the girl protested that we had an invitation.

“What did the man tell yah?” the cop interrupted.

“I was trying to say, sir,” began our friend again.

“What did the man tell yah?  He told yah to stay out, dint he?”  And he poked one of the guys with his stick to emphasize the point.

Clearly, it was no time to stand our ground after all.  We let him herd us in the direction of the door.  But as we neared the door, someone got through to him that we were Penn men.  The change in his demeanor was instantaneous; no more toughness.

And just in time, as we were met at the door by the first gent we’d been talking to.  “Gentlemen,” he said, “I’m the head of the Harcum physical plant, and I told you to stay out.  We could throw you guys in jail.”

The cop protested.  “Oh, they’re all right, Mr. Wilson.  They just didn’t know.”  Here he actually threw his arm around me.  “They’re just guys out to have a good time.”  He addressed me: “I know.  I was a boy, too, once.  I wasn’t born like this, you know.”  Referring to his girth.

Mr. Wilson wasn’t placated.  “Now I want you gentlemen to get out of here right now, and we won’t press charges.”

The cop intervened.  “But they’re just Penn boys.”

Wilson didn’t bat an eyelash, but he did change his tack.  “Well, you can come back tomorrow, but we don’t allow boys on the campus when the girls are moving in.  If you act like gentlemen, you’re welcome here.  If not, don’t bother coming back.”

Groupie Status

So we learned that being a Penn guy gave us preferential access to women.  In a town filled with colleges and universities, many of them dedicated to the education of women,[3] this was welcome information.  And later experience only confirmed it. In that town, apart from Princeton University, safely sequestered over an hour away, Penn, my school, had the most – the only word that comes to mind is what Frank Zappa called “groupie status.”  Not a perfect analogy, but it will do.[4]

During my freshman year, I took full advantage of this advantage.  In practice this meant that I went to mixer dances[5] at schools all over and met young women there, or they came to mixers at Penn.  And then I’d date them, but always briefly or superficially.  Lots of us were dating lots of people.  I had a couple of real heart-flutters, but they weren’t returned.[6]

In the midst of all this I met Cindy, a black-haired lass (or at least that was the color of what I discovered was her fall) at one of the dances.  I want to say it was at the Palestra, the great basketball floor at Penn, but I could be wrong about this.  This would have been around the end of the first semester, or the very beginning of the second.  Cindy went to Rosemont, a Catholic school, then single-sex, though since that time, like Harcum, it has gone co-ed.  Cindy glommed hard onto me after our first dance together.

Cashing In On Cachet

I wish I could remember her more clearly, but the fact that I can’t exactly underlines the problem.  The tone of what I do remember about her is all class markers, from her smoking to her accent.  Think of the bridge-and-tunnel strivers in Saturday Night Fever and I think you’ll have the picture of what I saw.  At that point though, I was mainly thinking about sex.

And I fear it was class that she saw as well.  Everywhere I’d ever been, everything I’d ever done, was equipping me for life in the professional classes.  It was who all my parents were, it was where I was going to school, it was in my aspirations and my accent.  I was, in sum, a Penn man.  And I don’t think for a minute she was blind to that.  If I’d looked exactly the same but gone to St. Joe’s, I doubt I would have held nearly the allure.  After all, women of my own social class found me perfectly resistible, in droves.

And now we get to the Theme Song piece.  We parted, I’m pretty sure somewhere in downtown Philadelphia, most likely the Suburban Station, and I know we had made a promise to get together at a date both certain and soon.  I believe it had been raining, and I had my umbrella (furled), as I was walking across a wet square.  That’s when I’m Into Something Good came unbidden to my mind.  And why not?  The lyrics fit my situation pretty closely.

She’s the kind of girl who’s not too shy : Check!

She danced close to me like I hoped she would: Check!

We only danced for a minute or two / But then she stuck close to me the whole night through: Check!

I walked her home and she held my hand / I knew it couldn’t be just a one-night stand / So I asked to see her next week and she told me I could: Also check!

There had been something about the way she kissed goodnight that had made it clear to me I could probably go anywhere on the proverbial basepath with her.  And then her tongue had been in my ear at some point as well.  I started singing the song to myself.  I went through it several times, clicking the point of the umbrella on the Philadelphia sidewalks as I made my way back.

Sounds as if I was all set to cash in on my cachet.

The prospect became more explicit on my next date with her.  Again, I wish my memories were clearer, but that exactly illustrates the problem.  Putting together little clues in my memory, I believe we started the evening at my dorm room, where there was some making out, then dinner and a movie downtown.  Only two things vividly stand out in my mind about that date.  One was that when I first caught sight of her, the long black hair was gone.  What I’d seen was a fall, not her real hair.  With it shorter, she wasn’t nearly as attractive; I was taken aback.  In retrospect, I believe she was posing me some kind of test: was I sufficiently attracted to her without the help from the fall that she could trust her body and her heart to me?  And beneath that test, a bigger one: was I okay with the class difference?

The other is a picture of the two of us, at the end of the date, making out hot and heavy in some underground corner of the catacombs under Center City, not far from the Suburban Station, before I took her to her train.  My hands were all over her, and she was moaning.  I seemed to be passing her test.  But I was failing the bigger test of my own character.  Droit de seigneur is as corrupting for the lord as it is degrading to the serf.

But in the end I passed that test.  After agonizing over it for a few days, I sent Cindy a letter telling as much of the truth as I could bear to tell.  Which was a lot.  We weren’t right for each other, I wrote.  And that much was true.  I didn’t spell out the reasons for the mismatch, and the hints I gave were deliberately wrong.  But the rest of what I wrote was also true.  I said it was obvious we were going to be having sex if we went on, and while I wasn’t sure where I stood on the official Catholic line on this, I knew sex was serious, and if it wasn’t kept for marriage, at least it should be kept for something committed.  Strange, now, to note that I was speaking my mind about sex, but not about class.  My Catholic upbringing had given me a vocabulary and a straightforwardness for one but not the other.

Cindy, bless her, wrote back, saying that it was a great compliment to her that I would look at the relationship so squarely.  She acknowledged that the impending sex would have put her in conflict.  (Catholic kids had that burden.)  And she ended by addressing, somewhat more squarely than I had dared to, the class issue.  She was sorry she had “disappointed” me in that regard, she said.

She could have spared herself that apology.  None of us has anything to apologize for about where one comes from, Cindy least of all.

Classist at Heart

In a strange way, then, I guess the promise of that song was fulfilled.  I was in for something good when I met Cindy.  It was brief, it was abortive, but it was good, especially in how it ended.  And it left me confronting, if not remotely solving, my own classism.  If one’s early affairs are about learning, this was a great success, something good.

[1] That’s right, the same gentleman I mentioned in my earlier Theater Days piece.

[2] I can’t speak to the reality.  To the best of my recollection this was the only time I was there.

[3] I used to call them girls’ schools, but my wife assures me there is no way to say this without sounding sexist.  We don’t say boys’ schools, and we never did.  So I guess that’s fair.

[4] My guess is that if you went back today, you might find Penn absolutely paramount in the “groupie status” contest.  But this was a slew of U.S. News & World Report rankings ago.  (In fact, those rankings didn’t even start until 12 years after I graduated.)

[5] Though it astonishes me, I see no trace of this former staple of campus social life when I visit academia today.  People just don’t go to dances, or they don’t do it much.  Of course men and women still find each other, but to all appearances they do it in other ways.

[6] There was Lucy, for instance, whose steadfast look and voice swept me off my feet, and who kissed me back, but who did not share my love of jazz and made me take her home early from the Quaker City Jazz Festival and wouldn’t go out with me again.  There was Ellie, who flirted hard, but wouldn’t go out with me because I was a gentile.  There was Cathy, who would go out with me but not very happily – because I was a gentile.  There was Laurie, a late-model beatnik, who had no problems with me being a gentile, but did have problems with my not being my friend Bill; she and Bill managed to make each other miserable for some time after I lost interest.

Source for Rambler image here

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for photographs

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