Thursday, March 26, 2009

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The Beat

Betsy Woodruff

Issue date: 3/26/09 Section: Arts

One chilly night in 2006, a few guys who had had too much to drink ran across campus and stood defiantly on the steps of Central Hall in an act of protest against Hillsdale College's conservative policies.

They were naked.

They lived at The Beat, 187 N. West St., which, for more than a decade, won a reputation from student residents often described as non-traditional. The residents had their fair share of claims to fame: their affinity for postmodern philosophy, a mission to crash all unacceptably lame parties, and Beat poetry nights helped them gain status -- and a legacy -- as one of Hillsdale's most influential off-campus houses.

Dave Frank '06 gave a simple explanation of life at The Beat: "People walked around with their pants off a lot. It was a very open, non-judgmental place for spontaneous conversations about philosophy. A very cool group of snarky nerds living there."

Alexis Boylan '06, who dated Jon Gibbons, one of the residents, gave a slightly different description of the house:

"When I was a junior and my parents dropped me off - I lived a couple houses down - the first thing we saw was a pirate flag. And all my friends were sitting on the porch drinking 40s, completely wasted, with a cat that had one eye sitting on their lap and they were blaring the Old Crow Medicine Show. Some of them were wearing pants, some of them were not. That right there sums it up. First thing I saw when I rode into town."

Though it was never at a loss for factors to distinguish it from the rest of campus, the group's affinity for postmodern philosophy and literature helped set it apart. Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and Derrida all inspired the thinking of the students who lived there.

"Hillsdale's all about, 'Truth is truth and God is God and right is right and wrong is wrong,'" Frank said. "We were much more relativistic, like, things are much more situational and complicated. We sneered at this concept of eternal principals and stuff like that."

"I think that's what made us sort of odd at Hillsdale," said Jon Gibbons '06, who currently teaches English in Argentina. "We were very, very relaxed and open, we hung out with whoever."

"My senior year, I was trying to convince everyone of my philosophy based on the concept of the abyss, that man is continually separated from meaning by a gigantic abyss," Frank said. "I always talked about the abyss. Jon [Gibbons] was convinced that life was absurd, a giant joke."

The Beat's residents certainly embraced absurd behavior.

They found a large, wheeled laundry receptacle, like the kind hotels use for dirty linens.

Originally, it held kegs, but one night they decided to draw obscenities on the side of it and dub it the Danger Cart.

"We went around to various parties, we dressed in the same outfits, we had matching jackets and caps, and we would go around and take the Danger Cart with us and just jump out and yell 'Danger Crew!' and start yelling at people and drinking," Frank said.

Boylan rode in the cart quite a bit that night.

"We were not with it. We were not of the right mind," she said. "We would just jump in it, roll it up the stairs to the party, run around, jump back in it and roll out."

This behavior puzzled onlookers.

Boylan remembers hearing questions like, "Why are you out, 22-years-old, rolling around in a cart? What's the matter with you? Are you really drunk at 3 p.m. on a Thursday?"

The Danger Crew was satisfied with the results of their exploits.

"It worked very well, every time," Boylan said. "They were a creative bunch. They were


Gibbons agreed.

"We decided that we had this gift, even if people didn't recognize it -- like Dada art is art even if people don't recognize it as art -- for taking the party to the next level," he said. "We would descend on a party. If it was well below our party standards, the people had difficulty getting acclimated to the new party atmosphere we would create."

One of the most infamous legends about The Beat involves a few students sitting in a canoe parked on the roof of the house and drinking beer.

"The landlord would always remind us about it every time we came around to sign the lease, that that was not allowed," said Ryan Leng '08, who lived there from 2005 to 2007.

They also enjoyed throwing No-Pants parties. When the small turnout of one of these parties disappointed them, they decided to spread the word about it.

"There was also a Mu Alpha party that night, so we went there without our pants on to let people know what was going on, a public service announcement if you will," Gibbons said.

"When you see one of The Beat men without their pants on, most people are taken aback. Especially Dave [Frank]. Dave has this comfort with his own body that is enviable," Gibbons continued. "But we were just here there to steal food and be nice. I think we were extra gentlemanly without our pants."

But not everyone agreed, he added.

"The Beat guys weren't really all that popular on campus," Gibbons said. "No one would be like, 'Oh it was such a great party because this Beat guy was there.' They'd be like, 'It was a great party and this Beat guy stole a lot of alcohol.'"

The Beat guys also tended to dislike the residents of The Bench, an off-campus house that was usually their destination in the Danger Cart.

"Generally, we hated The Bench," Frank said. "Even though we were huge nerds, we saw them as wannabes, and were very disgusted with their attempts to do what we thought would be cool. We were very rude to them, generally speaking. They thought they were cool because they were drinking, and we were like, 'Smoke some weed, guys.' Everything they did was slightly childish and not as cosmopolitan as we were."

Gibbons noticed a bit of a rivalry between the two houses.

"We felt a little peeved about the name -- monosyllabic names for off-campus housing, that's our territory, especially if they start with the letter 'b,'" he said. "And we felt a lot of times that there was an unspoken 'We're going to outdo you.'"

Boylan noticed the conflict as well, saying, "They were two houses that were competing for parties and therefore had this weird conflict. And The Bench was a little more conservative, a little more religious -- religious period, whereas The Beat was not."

They had a few conflicts with the administration.

"I think the most trouble we ever got in was when I was confronted by the dean," Frank said. "He thought I was the leader of the houses and said the house was becoming a drug haven and so we had to cut it out."

"Any time that you were chastised by the institution, it makes you more desirable," Gibbons said. "And so a lot of times I got the idea that the dean didn't know what we were doing, like, 'Well, I hear you guys have a 19th-century-style opium den going on in there.' Not exactly, no."

On the night of one of their Beat poetry reads, according to Frank, they decided to run around naked. Because one of the original inhabitants of the Beat was there and more girls were attending than usual, they were particularly eager for adventure.

They ran naked through the house a few times to warm up, and then decided to tour the campus.

First stop: the Sigma Chi house. Unfortunately, the house mom answered the door. Surprised and disappointed, they moved on to their next destination: Central Hall.

"We went to Central Hall to make a statement, overly embittered by that time about the Hillsdale administration and message. I think we were just trying to prove a point. No one was around, but we were definitely naked on the steps of Central Hall, just showing that we could."

They despised Mu Alpha.

"They sucked. I'm sure they still suck," Frank said. "They were really lame and extremely conservative. They were the kind of people who would be in Latin class and recite Latin with a British accent. They liked to take their shoes off. Just lame, offensively lame. I'm sure they still are."

"We stole their door once," he continued. "We buried it in the woods somewhere."

According to Boylan, several Mu Alphas watched as The Beat guys unscrewed the door from the house and carried it away. Apparently, they didn't seem mad.

"They were more in shock that somebody had the guts to walk in, unscrew the door and walk out," she said. "I don't think they ever got their door back."

She doesn't remember the perpetrators facing any punishment from the administration.

Despite the party crashing, The Beat's inhabitants threw plenty of their own parties. They all agreed the Crunk Party was the best.

"We thought that it was a real shame that Hillsdale was not embracing hip-hop and rap, and so we decided to have a party fix that," Gibbons said.

They got a DJ and a garish wall mural for the party.

"If Salvador Dali had a conversation with Russell Simmons, this is the mural that would have come from that conversation," Gibbons said.

"We made jungle juice and had kegs and some of us got really dressed up for the occasion, meaning, I got really dressed up for the occasion," Boylan said. "Dave and Jon got naked. Everybody got extremely drunk."

Over 300 students attended over the course of the night.

"If we had anything that makes us legacy-worthy, this party is it," Gibbons said.

They had plenty of smaller events, including Beat poetry readings featuring the works of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac every spring and toga parties. They also had a strong appreciation for any social event that did not require pants.

"We started buying a gallon of ice cream and eating it on our front porch in our underwear," Gibbons said. "People would come over, and since we didn't want them to feel left out we would ask them to remove their pants. You don't need pants to be a human being. We were reminding people of their humanity."

The house also had a reputation for messiness.

"The dishes were always very dirty and piled up because our dishwasher never worked. We were lazy and had the convenience of a dishwasher that didn't work," Gibbons said. "We could say, 'If only our dishwasher worked!' It was a lie. At some point, we would throw the dishes away, or we would break them and throw them away."

"There were people who preferred going to the Salvation Army to buy clothes to actually washing the clothes they already had," Gibbons continued.

The mess scared some girls away.

"There was trash everywhere, it was very gross. Girls are generally a little more clean, so they didn't like it," Frank said.

The mess didn't bother the stray cats that the guys befriended. One, named Nell, showed up in the house one day. Gibbons described her as "very polite." She liked to sit on the guys' laps while they did homework.

Another, named Mr. Fluffington, was not allowed in the house because he had mange and a bum eye. Despite his infirmities, he won their affection.

"Everyone was impressed because he wasn't neutered," Frank said. "He was very loved."

The house's camaraderie affected each of its members. About six of them got tattoos of the phrase "So it goes" from Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" in memory of their time living together.

"It's important that there's an off-campus place for people a little bit on the outside -- not really sure they made the right decision going to Hillsdale -- that can give them a place to celebrate," Frank said.


JHitts said...

Dave, apparently you were the leader of a "cult." acording to some guy named "Don."

"Dave Frank is an intelligent, good man (don't let him tell you otherwise), and I suppose it's no surprise that nearly three years after he left Hillsdale some once-Freshmen who are now Seniors (and those later kids who have heard of his exploits-- and, sadly, too many kids who read this article) idolize him. I'm glad Dave has fans, but Nathan makes a valid point, and Dave did a fair amount of work to reinforce the cult. I don't claim to know where counter-culture ends and where ego begins, but as someone who attended Hillsdale alongside Dave I can confidently say the legend doesn't live up to the hype.

Fortunately, aside from its reverence the article makes a rather obvious point: did the real Dr. Gonzo do interviews with his college newspaper? Apparently not, but I'm glad Dave has the chance to take a time-out from the Revolution. Or from the working world we've all had to join. Bummer, man."

dave said...

That's really weird.

Who in the fuck is Don?

Dave said...

Chase should check out the IP address.

I wanted to also say that there was some encouraging comments from people without their own fists up their asses.
Warms the heart.

JHitts said...

Does anyone actually know anyone named Don?