My last two years in New Orleans I spent living at the Phi Chi house. An old gray stone mansion on St. Charles Street in the Garden District, the medical fraternity was home to a dozen Tulane upperclassmen. I had my own small room, and we shared bathrooms as well as the common areas. Thelma, our cook, made breakfast and dinner each day. The cost of living there was less for me than any of my alternative options. We all got along well, and respected each other’s space.
Having grown up as an only child, living with a group of other young men was a new experience for me, and one I enjoyed. I became friends with one of my classmates from Arkansas. Despite our very different backgrounds, he was a lot kinder to me than some of my other classmates. He would routinely destroy me on the ping pong table, even after spotting me 18 points in a 21 point match. Others were not unkind; they just had different interests and experiences from mine, and formed their social groups largely by the parts of the country in which they grew up.
I had never belonged to a fraternity, and in truth, we didn’t operate in the manner of college frat houses. There wasn’t any rush period to navigate, nor any initiation hazing to endure. We had no secret handshake, and wore no pins to indicate our affiliation. We were more a group of guys going through the same academic experience, and sharing the same living quarters. We would sometime study together, but most of us were on different clinical rotations, so there was little overlap of our current academics.
Three or four times a year we would have a big party, complete with the obligatory keg of beer, decorations, music and dancing, and the usual hijinks of at least one person having too much to drink. These parties were popular with girls from the undergraduate sororities, as dating (or marrying) a med student was something they deemed desirable. Several of us did find mates at these parties, but I was not one of them. Looking back on that time, I was definitely socially immature, as well as still struggling with my role of being a stranger in a strange land. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the parties, and always managed to have a great time.
The house had a tradition of a big Christmas party prior to most of us going back home for the holidays. The house was a three story affair with a giant staircase circling up from the main room, big enough to be considered a ballroom. During my first year living at the Phi Chi house, one of the members decided that we should get the biggest tree possible for the celebration. His father had a construction company, and he arranged to get one of their flatbed trucks, along with a chainsaw, persuading three of us to go with him outside of the city, and procure a tree from the wild. We drove out to the swamps one evening, and proceeded to cut down a big water cypress, which we then were attempting to drag back to the main road. We already had a couple of beers, and were struggling to load the monstrosity onto the flatbed, when a State Trooper drove up with his Christmas lights on, shining his spotlight on us. A big, paunchy cop got out, walked up to us, and asked, “What the hell do you boys think you’re doing?” Our ring leader gave him his best smile and said, “Why officer, we found this here giant tree leaping out of the forest, and causing a menace to good folk driving by. We figured we’d better haul it out of here before it causes any problems for a passer-by.” Looking at us appraisingly, the cop asked, “Where y’all boys from?” “Sir, we are Tulane medical students, and this here is my daddy’s truck.” The cop shook his head and said, “Don’t you boys know you can’t haul this big tree on the road without lights and an escort? Where are you headed?” We gave him our address, and he escorted us, with his lights on, all the way back to the house. In Louisiana, it paid to be on the right side of the law.
Once home, we had to figure out how to get the huge tree into the house. Fortunately, the house had huge French doors that folded back, allowing us to get the tree inside after trimming a couple of the bigger branches. In the stairway, there was a pulley in the ceiling someone earlier had set up in order to bring a heavy piece of furniture up to the top floor. Using ropes and the pulley, we somehow managed to get the tree upright, then braced.
The next day, when it came to decorating, we found that a ladder was fine for putting ornaments on the lower branches, but the upper branches were too far in to reach. We finally persuaded the smallest person we knew, one of my housemate’s girlfriends, to allow us to hoist her up with ropes using the pulley, like Peter Pan, and have her decorate the top branches. We all agreed – it was the best Christmas tree outside of maybe Rockefeller Center! The ensuing party, fueled by green punch and the usual beer, was a huge success. I have some photos from the party, but they are not for public distribution in order to protect the guilty.
The following spring, we held our South Sea Island party, complete with tiki torches and a waterfall (created by draping a plastic sheet from one of the balconies into a rubber pool below, with water from a hose cascading down, and lit with colored flood lights.) Drinks were served from hollowed out coconut shells, and in addition to the usual music and dancing, one of the sorority girls who also happened to be a cheerleader and champion baton twirler, provided additional entertainment by twirling a fiery baton on the front lawn. This caused the predictable traffic jam on St. Charles Street, and the performance had to be cut short with the arrival of New Orleans finest. They were fairly tolerant of our parties, especially as they were always invited to partake of our refreshments, as long as we kept the neighborhood disruption to a minimum.
The strangest event occurring while I lived there happened one morning as we were having breakfast, when someone came running in to tell one of the guys that an elephant had just walked up and sat on the hood of his car, denting it. We thought he was kidding, but when we went outside, sure enough, there was a baby elephant sitting on the hood of his car. We called the police, who also accused us of pulling a prank. As we insisted we were not kidding, and it was too early in the morning for alcohol related hallucinations, they sent out a police cruiser. Animal control eventually showed up with a truck, and herded the baby elephant aboard. Turned out he had escaped from a nearby traveling circus.
After years of management neglect and abuse by students, I heard the house was eventually sold, then rehabilitated. I have fond memories of the place.