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April 25, 2014

Throwing punches at Frankie Cosmos

This piece, by UChicago alumna Sasha Geffen (A.B. ’11), was originally published in Consequence of Sound

There’s this guy who keeps stealing the mic between sets at the Frankie Cosmos show. He did it after the first opener, a band of theatrically-minded locals called Richard Album and the Singles, and he’s doing it again now after the Lemons. He’s a white guy, shaggy black curls under a backwards snapback, drunk glaze on his eyes.

“Who’s a Bulls fan, bitch?” he asks over and over and over. Greta Kline and her band set up their gear on the makeshift stage behind him. He stares blankly out at the crowd of people who are talking, laughing, drinking. A few pay attention to him. The air is clogged with smoke.

“Who’s a Bulls fan, bitch?”

Someone approaches to ask him to cut it out. He doesn’t move, slurs something about how the guy’s a “pussy.” He keeps on gibbering. A different dude, short and bearded and built, asks a little more forcefully. He pushes the guy away from the mic. He pushes him into a corner. They tussle and fall over, breaking up Aaron Maine’s half-assembled kit. The guy with the snapback glowers against the wall for a minute. Then he lurches forward, and you see it coming in slow motion: He sidles over to the bearded dude and slowly, without emotion, punches him right in the face.

Beardy snaps. I mean, he snaps. He reaches out, grabs Snapback, pulls him into the throng, hits him, hits him, throws him nose-first into the floor. Blood splashes out of him. He lies still. A gasp rustles through everyone who’s seen it. One of his friends and a different brother rush over to drag him up—he’s awake, but not with it—and pull him toward the back of the frat. He drips blood all the way.

Frankie Cosmos get their drums back together, finish setting up, and begin to play. A group of young men behind me, who know every word to “Birthday Song” and “Buses Splash with Rain,” bounce along ecstatically. What else can you do?

Alpha Delta, like the other frats, is responsible for hosting nightlife for undergraduates too young to drink off campus, and is most known for its “Bar Night,” a weekly event that simulates a real bar, only the drinks aren’t great and you can smoke inside. It’s here that one of my housemates was raped during her first year as an undergraduate.

She had friends at Alpha Delt, and one of them sold her a beer spiked with a date rape drug. He led her upstairs to a bedroom with a few of his buddies once she started getting groggy and pliant. They stopped assaulting her when she started having seizures.

The official story from the brothers was that she drank too much and blacked out. The police believed the official story from the brothers. She was told that pressing charges would be futile. For a while, she couldn’t bear to walk around campus by herself.

My housemate is doing okay now. I mean, she stuck with school, and she had a group of good friends who believed her and supported her in the aftermath of the assault. She graduated. She was 19 when it happened, the same age that Greta Kline is now.

The mythology of being young in the United States includes passage through spaces where the rules of “real” life don’t apply. College works as one of the most common and reliable of these. It’s the place you’re expected to go as soon as you become an adult, a place where sex and drugs are suddenly accessible.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about how space informs behavior. Saturday’s concert was a DIY show and a frat party in one, and the behaviors of both rituals bled into each other. The guy who ended his night with his face smashed against the floor was a friend of the second band, the Lemons. Is that what gave him the okay to show off his racism and sexism onstage? Or was it just the setting, a space where white men generally get to say and do whatever they want? If you’re a band and you only play spaces that are owned by white men, booked by white men, controlled by white men, are you lending to the problem that white men get the most voice even in niche cultures like DIY pop music?

The layout of UChicago makes its fraternities highly visible. A few of them line University Avenue, a street that runs up the east side of the quad, and when the weather gets nice, the bros come out on their stoops, drinking beer and grilling meat and shouting at passersby. It’s impossible to attend classes there and not be aware of the frats, even if you never party. Most alumni I know can still rattle off a list of the most notorious houses. Three years after graduating, I can’t recall the names of any sororities.

Since its foundation, UChicago has been coeducational, but it readily breeds the culture of an institution designed by and for white men—the sort of institution that aims to lend prestige and power to those who make their way through it. Its private police force, supposedly the largest in the world after the pope’s, prowl campus for “intruders” from the neighboring black communities; a black student was arrested in the main library while I was an undergraduate. Only one woman has ever served as president in the school’s 123-year history, and every president has been white.

That’s not to say that house shows as they currently operate represent any sort of ideal either. The focus on drugs aside, DIY venues tend to feel isolating to those who aren’t friendly with the hosts and their social circle. I’ve never been to a house show where anyone has actively tried to greet outsiders or welcome them into their space. Even the most progressive punk houses I’ve been to in Chicago, which were alcohol-free and hosted bands who sang directly about how to fix rape culture, generally fostered insular socialization. Even they were owned and operated by young, white men.

What would happen if the country’s most infamous universities—the ones that variously inform America’s popular culture—encouraged a dominant culture based on something other than drinking a lot and having questionably consensual sex? What would happen if, instead of frats, queer meeting spaces and progressive community groups thrived along University Avenue or Harvard Yard? What would happen if we symbolized higher education with something other than a house where people punch each other in the face?

Someone said, “The show must go on,” after Snapback was thrown down and dragged away, because of course someone did. People who hadn’t seen the altercation gawked at the blood puddle; one guy dipped his finger in it just to make sure it wasn’t some bright red spilled drink. And then Frankie Cosmos played.

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