State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

It's Not Just Noise and Nuisances

by on April 30, 2010 7:00 AM

Imagine this little scenario: It's after 2 a.m. You're in dreamland. And then you're wide awake and hyperventilating because a hammer has crashed through your bedroom window.

This happened to my neighbors last week. Yes, we're back on that topic.

Some of you are probably tired of hearing about Happy Valley's little drinking problem. It's been the dominant local news story for this entire academic year, or ever since Penn State freshman Joseph Dado died in a fall down a stairwell back in September.

College kids drink, you say. Always have and probably always will. A few will pay dearly for their excesses, but most will suffer nothing worse than a few colossal hangovers and the rude awakening to the post-college reality that they can't carouse all night and be productive workers in the morning.

And we neighbors who don't like the noise or the way our yards smell after the Woo people have peed on our perennials? Move!

In other words, there's nothing new or terribly worrisome happening here and we should all just chill.

Tell that to the people who got the special delivery hardware in their second-story bedroom. I saw where the hammer landed. The window has been replaced but there's still a little rip in the blinds. What if their bed had been under that window instead of against the opposite wall?

Isolated incident, you say? Last spring a cinder block came through the family room window of the same house. All told, four flying objects have crashed through their windows in 20 years. The victims, who preferred not to be named for the time being, don't think that's too bad. They're more forbearing than I.

I say the hammer incident is symptomatic. We are seeing too much violence, too many hospitalizations, too many disturbances, too much money being spent on property damage and police services to shrug off the binge drinking in our town as just kids being kids.

For the final story in my feature writing class this semester, I asked my students to explore the Penn-State-as-party-school theme from whatever angle they wished. One story opens with a girl whose head is in the toilet. When she's finished puking, cheers erupt. She resumes drinking.

Another story is about a girl who breaks her two front teeth in a fall. The morning after, she wakes up next to her "best guy friend" -- sans her underwear. She doesn't think anything happened. "I can always tell if I had sex the night before," she says.

Her main concern about her fall: Paying the dental bill is going to deprive her of drinking money.

A third story is about a girl who has been cited five times for underage drinking. "My parents both went here, so I guess they kind of get it," she says. "They know kids drink, they come up for all the football tailgates."

This student greets the new day by asking herself where she is and if she is fully clothed. On this occasion she's relieved to see that she's in her own bed. "Still wearing the dress she wore to the bar the night before (thank God), she steps out of bed and straight onto the unfamiliar face of a guy sleeping on her bedroom floor."

Last week two of my students reported being hit in the head with beer cans. Unopened ones. One girl had a shiner. The other got it in the back of the head.

Also last week, a drunken student got run over by a police car on Beaver Avenue.

Does all this sound like youthful high jinks to you? I think it's deeper and darker than that. These kids seem to be trying to achieve a kind of anti-Zen state where they're willing to do anything and they don't care what happens to them. Has growing up in a post-9/11 world and coming of age during the Great Recession spawned a generation of nihilists? Who knows?

What's clear is that they're hurting themselves, they're hurting each other and they're hurting this community.

And we're not doing enough to stop them.

I'm not expert enough to know what should be done on the law enforcement side or the university policy side. But as a neighbor I think we should at least do this: Meet with the fraternities at the beginning of every academic year, if not every semester, and instruct them in the gentle art of neighborliness. Which is to say that we a) make them aware that they have neighbors and b) make them aware of the obligation to be considerate of one's neighbors.

And if these meet-and-greet sessions have no impact, I think it would be amusing to picket their parties bearing signs that say "We Are Your Neighbors" and "Be Neighborly."

I suggest we wear helmets.

Drinking story excerpts are from Megan McGuirk, Hollie Besch and Heather Kopanski.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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