Bonds and Toilet Seats

January 17th, 2020

Toilet Seat

(published in The Daily Memphian)

Fraternities get a lot of grief these days and deservedly so. Not just because of the headline-grabbing, racist and criminal behavior of the worst examples both past and present, but because of the nasty rebirth of exclusion that their very nature seems to support. And there’s this: fraternities are comprised of young men and young men do stupid things. They come up with them. They do them. And they pull out their phones and record them. 


The difference between now and my days roaming the fetid halls of a fraternity house in the dim reaches of time is simply the phone. Stupid was alive and well. But something else came from those days, more than simply shared experience and space, certainly more than initiation rites and secret handshakes and Greek letters. Those aren’t the bonds that last. You came of age together. You learned together. And some of you, not all but some of you, thrown together by circumstance will remain friends long past stupid into choice, into the whole of your life, into people who are only one phone call, one reminder, one story away from just getting started.

That’s the stuff of bonds and toilet seats.

A University of Tennessee fraternity brother invited me to lunch the other day, he said, to share my experience writing a column with his son, just beginning a career in journalism. Or not. Instead, he turned to me and opened with, “Tell him the toilet seat story.”

So I did.

Calvin and I were duty pledges. It was our turn to spend the night at the frat house doing grunt duty – answering the phone (there was only one), going on mountain runs (getting chili cheese dogs from the Smoky Mountain Market), answering vital questions (such as the hometown and major of every brother) – and so on.

Being a weeknight and slow, everything was quiet by around two in the morning. Calvin and I had to remain awake and we spent the time discussing various pranks we might play on these guys while they slept, you know, just theoretical ideas.

So we stole the toilet seats.

The ten or so from the group heads upstairs. The two from the women’s bathroom downstairs, and the one from the men’s. The one from the bathroom between the two snoring officers’ rooms downstairs. The one from the kitchen bathroom. And, God forgive me, the housemother’s bathroom.

Every. Single. One.

Somewhere around 20 in all, draped over his arms and mine like a foul wreath selection, around our necks like nasty horse collars, spirited out the door across the adjoining athletic field all the way to Calvin’s dorm room. We actually passed a couple of people who nodded, seeing nothing unusual in this passing potty parade.

We took the back off behind the sink in his room and stored them all in the pipe space between his room and the room next door.

I hid the next day, a Friday, and over the weekend in the obscurity of a 26,000-student campus avoiding the frat house. Calvin blew town and came home to Memphis for the weekend. The fraternity acted like, well, a place with 40-plus people living in it with no toilet seats. They endured a weekend, and a party, without toilet seats. The housemother went to her sister’s and the brothers put out the word, either the toilet seats or Calvin’s and my pledge pins by Sunday at 6.

Calvin came back Sunday and while we were trying to figure out how to gracefully return 20 or so toilet seats and not get flushed (okay, that was bad), one of our pledge brothers showed up to give us some news. The entire pledge class had placed their pledge pins in a bowl in the frat foyer.

Faced with no toilet seats and no pledges, a reprieve was issued. The toilet seats were returned … and reinstalled, I might add, with apologies … and order was restored.

I’m a Memphian, and it’s funny what really shapes your life.

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