Damien* is a frat bro, infamous on the Princeton campus for his trust fund and sexual aggression, and he has something to say.
“Write this down,” he says to me. “Damien does not like women.”
I ask why not.
“Because they’re not cool.”
“Because I can’t relate to them.”
I point out that this is more about him than it is about women.
“Yeah, it’s about me. I am the most interesting man in the world.”
Damien’s shirt is unbuttoned, showcasing a hairy triangle of chest. His biceps bulge, he shouts, cuffs his friend Joe on the shoulder, bangs the table. It’s like watching a parody of what a frat boy should be, but somehow, I feel empathy with him: it is hard to talk to the opposite sex. He’s well-dressed and well-connected, but I can tell he’s uncomfortable around girls and, though he’s wrapped himself in a layer of fratty bravado, it’s not hard to see the awkwardness underneath.
This is not the only time tonight I’ll find myself feeling an unexpected connection with someone I barely know. I’m in the Frist food gallery on a Thursday night fast becoming a Friday morning, and I’m surprised by how easily people confess to me their insecurities, failures, and shortcomings. Frist is noisy and bright; it smells like oil, grease, and salt; and to me, sober and stressed with work, it looks like a lot of fun.
Apparently, it doesn’t feel like it.
My friend Shane, sitting with Damien, describes himself as an extrovert. He says he goes out all the time because that’s how he gets his energy, that if he stays alone in his room he becomes depressed. Watching him lay his head on the table, I am suspicious about how accurate this self-analysis is: Shane doesn’t look that happy to me. I ask him if his eating is more than a physical urge, if there’s another emptiness he wants filled.
“No. I’m eating because I’m hammered. I’m not a girl.” He lifts his head from the table to look at me. “But tonight sucked.”
I ask why.
“Because I didn’t pull.”
This is frat-speak for not only getting with girls, but attracting them. Shane, apparently, lacks the ability to do both. I ask him why again.
“Because I suck.”
I say the requisite friend things—he doesn’t suck, he could get any girl he wanted to—but he is barely listening, distracted by Damien, who apparently has forgotten the word for broccoli. They burst out into the uproarious, testosterone-fueled laughter of two boys who would like other people to know something funny has occurred.
All laughter here is self-conscious, all attracting attention to its source. “Frist is the place to see and be seen,” Peggy, a sophomore with a perfect complexion and a lilting accent explains. It’s true: everyone wants to know who’s
having fun and everyone wants everyone
to know they’re having fun, even though most of the people I speak to tell stories that end in frustration and loneliness.
At 2:00 am, my friend Ned, wearing glasses and cuffed jeans, arrives. He is accompanied by Stuart, a junior, and a stream of other people who’ve been kicked out of the now-closed eating clubs. Ned holds a piece of oily pizza, cheese sliding off like snow from a sun-warmed roof. Stuart is in Damien and Shane’s frat, a boy recently admitted to Ned’s eating club. It’s an odd pairing, because Stuart’s friends are boys like Damien and Shane, loud and performative in their masculinity, and Ned is one of the most preeminent of all Princetonian hipsters: ironic, sarcastic, and scornful of things like frats and the people in them. Their social circles have crossed only because each, in its own way, is elite.
Ned, socially high-strung, realizes this. “Let the record show there are mad people I find insufferable here”—he gestures at the table, which includes Shane, Damien, Stuart, and two sorority girls who have appeared on either side of Damien—“but my hunger overcomes that subjective shit.”
It’s more than just hunger.
“Frist is where everyone judges everyone on the spoils of the night,” Ned says. “If you bring someone here, it’s just to show them off. Princeton students believe in efficiency, right? In terms of hooking up with someone, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from getting fatty pizza and two glasses of water before going home with them. It’s a waste.”
At another table, I ask Rupert, a tall, blonde sophomore for his thoughts. “Frist is the last hope of the night,” he agrees. “If couples are being real they won’t come here. If you like someone you wouldn’t come here with them. It’s pre-we’re not gonna fuck.”
“It’s like, oh I’m so glad we’re eating and not hooking up right now,” his friend Lynn says. “Frist is a collection of people going home alone who don’t care about getting fat.”
Lynn is strikingly pretty, even in a sweatshirt, hair pulled back into a ponytail. She’s the kind of girl who could be described as “a guys’ girl” without that actually meaning “slut.” Perhaps because of her hesitance to bat her eyelashes and flip her hair, her evening was a disappointment. She spent a pregame flirting with someone from her hometown who she describes as a “legend,” but, once they left, he pursued another girl. That’s why she’s at Frist.
“I didn’t hook up with anyone?” she says. “Oh, it’s fine. I have chicken tenders.”
“It’s like, nobody’s going to see me naked anyway,” Rupert says.
Alfred, sitting with them, is not so defeated. A sophomore, he is rushing a frat this year, and the older brothers hazed him into a bleary drunkenness. Lowering his head to the level of a honey-mustard-covered French fry so that it travels the least amount of distance between his plate and his mouth, he explains that his appetite surpasses the physical. “I see girls here with broken dreams and it just feeds my hunger,” he says. “Being drunk makes me gravitate here. Frist is the center of campus: emotional, hungrarial”—the table laughs at his drunken linguistic innovation—“and social.”
Maybe that explains why people come here, unable to stand strong against the storm wind of hunger that enters deep into the drunk being, when the body and what it wants makes all the decisions for you.
My friend Penelope has succumbed to both carnal and gastronomic desires. I watch her descend the stairs, staggering a little, almost lost in the sweater cold weather has forced on her shoulders. She is with a boy we both find very cute and they’re clearly going home together. I shoot her a look that says I’m surprised at her scandalous behavior (I’m not) and she pretends to be ashamed and embarrassed (she’s not).
She disappears into the Gallery, and I don’t see her again that night. She texts me later to say she brought the boy back to her room, “hooked up” for a while—I don’t press for specifics—and fell into a deep and unshakeable sleep when he left to use the restroom.
This seems to be the night most of those present wish they were having.
Not all are bummed, though. “You can come to Frist for hook-ups,” Randall, a boy with a painfully wide smile suggests, though this is shouted down by his friends.
“You’re a disgrace,” Lewis, a boy sitting with Randall, chimes in, adding, “that pizza’s bigger than your face.”
“I wouldn’t serve my worst enemy this pizza,” Lewis says. I ask what brings him here, if not the pizza. “I’m drunk, I wanted to be with my friends,” he explains. “I wouldn’t come here if I weren’t drunk. You’d be out of place.”
But Horace, a sophomore, is sober, and says he loves Frist on weekend nights. He doesn’t drink at all, preferring to spend his nights dancing. He is also one of the most cheerful people I talk to. Hat perched jauntily on his bed of black curls, he holds a plate of chicken fingers and fries between us, offers some to me. “I’m a big fan of the honey mustard,” he says. “Last year it was watery, the viscosity of perfume. This year it’s different.”
My friend April walks up, very drunk, helps herself to some of Horace’s food. She doesn’t know Horace, so I introduce them. We realize we all live on the same hall. We lament that we don’t hang out more, complain about how busy we are, how we never spend any time in our rooms. Horace suggests a pregame. Horace and I realize we’re only friends because of a Frist run-in about two weeks ago, when we promised each other we’d say hi when we saw each other on campus from now on—a promise we’ve actually kept.
This isn’t a moment fueled by the power of alcohol: after all, two out of the three of us are sober. It’s more about how, if not for Frist, Horace, April, and I would never have more than awkward hallway interactions. Horace is in a dance group and spends his free time rehearsing, April is an equestrian and stressed about her classes this year, and I don’t like to hang around my hall, preferring to study where the coffee is. We literally live next door to each other, but Frist is the only place we’d ever see each other.
“Frist is its own eating club,” Ned asserts. If that’s true, it’s an eating club that does exactly the opposite of what the other clubs do. Each eating club serves a different group on campus, whether united by a shared academic interest, extracurricular activity, or social standing. Frist, on the other hand, just serves food, and everyone has to eat.
Ned is in his fourth year here. He is seasoned in late nights: whether it’s writing papers, hanging with friends, or drunkenly shoving five fries in his mouth at a time. He has successfully bickered an eating club, gotten a prestigious summer internship, written his JPs. He’s doing Princeton the way you’re supposed to. He keeps going out, getting too drunk, and coming to Frist, even though he can’t stand some of the people, even though he doesn’t finish his pizza, even though he recognizes it’s a waste of time. But on this campus, it’s hard to find time to waste, and maybe this perma-sheen of drunken bitterness I keep encountering is an illusion, and people aren’t here to eat their feelings, but just to relax for a while with friends.
I wonder if Ned realizes this. I tell him what my friend Penelope said as she disappeared with her night’s conquest, that food at Frist is emotional balm for her wounded soul, and ask if he agrees.
“That’s some sophomore girl shit,” he says. “Did a sophomore girl say that?”
Yes, I tell him. He laughs.
“It’s fucked up I knew that,” he says. “She’s wrong, though. Frist pizza is the wound.”