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Slippery Slope

Ithaca, New York — Snowflakes had been falling two weeks ago, but Wednesday brought blue skies and temperatures in the 80s to Upstate New York. Classes had just ended at Cornell University, and after two years of pandemic restrictions and angst the undergrads were ready for their long-deferred spring bacchanal of booze and music: Slope Day.

Cornell spreads across a plateau “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters,” as the school’s famous alma mater puts it. The campus claims magnificent views of the lake so hymned. Among the best vistas are those enjoyed from the broad meadow that descends from the arts quad presided over at its western edge by the clock tower of the university’s first library. The grassy hillside below is therefore known as Libe Slope. In advance of the last day of classes, a bandstand is erected at the base of the Slope. Big-time artists are summoned to perform there—The Ramones came in 1984; Kanye West in 2004; Snoop Dogg the following year; Lamar Kendrick in 2013—and the students gather in droves to celebrate the senses by pounding them into submission with high decibels and even higher blood-alcohol levels.

Institutional memory is by definition short-to-non-existent among twenty-year-olds, many of whom might well assume that the rituals of Slope Day, minus the massive banks of speakers, are inscribed in the university’s charter of 1865.

In fact, the Slope Day tradition extends back only into the moralistic mists of the 1980s, though long defunct celebrations such as the Navy Ball of the late nineteenth century have been claimed by Cornellians as antecedents for the vernal revels in their current form.

Ronald Reagan forced states, among them New York, to raise the drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one. This idiotic scheme did nothing to curb drunkenness on college campuses, instead sending the illicit consumption of alcohol deeper into the beer-soaked dungeons of fraternities and other dens of debauchery. A lot of that drinking was done Slope Day.

When I arrived in Ithaca in the mid-90s Slope Day was largely unregulated.

Cornell sports team do business under the banner of The Big Red. Ithaca High School down near the south shore of Cayuga Lake is called the Little Red. A quarter century ago the Little Red tide coursed uphill come Slope Day. Indeed, the underage streamed onto the place from miles around. At the close of the afternoon’s music many revelers staggered and wove every which way. Many fell down and stayed down for a long time.

Those freedoms fell victim to the Age of Homeland Security.

Some years ago—I forget how many; working in a place where the overwhelming majority of humans stay the same age while you get older can be temporally disorienting—the influx of outsiders was stemmed.

Nowadays chain-link fences go up before Slope Day. Wristbands, to be obtained only with a valid Cornell I.D., are required for entry through the checkpoints. Bags are searched for bottles. The police and medical presence is, as they say, robust.

The morning of Slope Day 2022 I was awakened by the song of the the Littlest Red—the cardinal. Soon after that, music began to throb from the fraternities uphill from our house which is a short distance below campus. Whatever direction the winds of temperance or indulgence may blow across the years, the main points of the Slope Agenda remain unchanged: start drinking early and keep doing it so that you’ve enough joy juice in you to get you through the afternoon’s musical extravaganza.

Just before 9a.m. I started walking up the hill because I wanted to practice the organ at one of the university’s chapels. My route took me past two half-timbered fraternity houses, the sources of some of the pre-Slope musical pulsations I had already been hearing. SUVs with Connecticut and New Jersey plates were parked along the curb. Brothers were leaving the house heading towards other action.

Two young men of college age, but clearly not in college, were patrolling the fraternity’s perimeter with liquid chemical packs on their backs. They were spraying weeds—here a dandelion that poked up through the mulch, there a maple sapling. The tank-topped bros of Chi Phi moved past their weedkiller contemporaries without exchanging word or glance.

There is a big difference between underclassman and underclass. Soundtracked by the urgent beat, the scene took on allegorical significance, or maybe just surreal possibility. With the Ivory Tower distracted by Slope Day, now was the perfect opportunity for storming the educational citadels of privilege and power, not with Kalashnikov rifles but hand-pumped wands spraying Roundup.

Across the street at Delta Upsilon house—Kurt Vonnegut’s fraternity when he was at Cornell before he was placed on academic probation, dropped out and then shipped off to war in Europe—a spirited game of beer pong was under way to the same rhythm, though a different song.

Through this festive atmosphere I continued my climb to campus. Inside the chapel I ran into the custodian and asked if she was going to Slope Day. She laughed and told me that she used to go when she was in high school thirty years ago. Those were great times, different than now, she said, referring to the fences and other security measures. She had another couple of hours on her shift which had started at five in the morning. She’d be outside the Ithaca city limits heading home by the time the Slope got cranking.

I practiced the organ for a couple of hours, Bach mingling in the empty chapel with the boom of the party gathering outside.

I had made an appointment for a Covid test since I was travelling the next day out to the West Coast to see my mother. The testing site was in the Student Union inside the fenced and policed perimeter. With my faculty I.D. I got a wristband at a tent, but the line to get into the enclosure was several hundred feet. The students were packed together, all unmasked, as they pushed and shuffled through the gates.

At a staff entrance removed from the throng I talked my way through.

In front of the Student Union on the upper flank of the Slope a young woman was dancing in the blazing sun, her face red not from a sunburn. That would likely come later. She had wriggled mostly out of her Daisy Dukes, her friends laughing at her as she gyrated and sang.

Inside the building I found that the testing station was closed. That made sense, even though I’d been able to make an on-line appointment for that day. How could the place function in the midst of the mayhem?

Continuing down the hallway past the empty testing room visible through the mullioned windows, I went into the old Music Room at the corner of the building. On the wall hangs a large color of print of the Spring-Day of March 1901, one of those supposed predecessors of Slope Day. That event was a midday parade to campus of carriages with students decked out in their Edwardian finery and mingled with odd attractions. The Cornell student paper, the Daily Sun, reported that among the sights were scores of monkeys, a zebra, and the smallest and largest horses of Ithaca. Spectators were warned “not to annoy the animals.” The paper described these goings-on as a publicity stunt for a musical soirée with “Three Great Bands” that took place that same evening at the Lyceum theatre in Ithaca in the valley below the university.

The Music Room was bare but for a table and a few chairs. The piano was long gone. Not much music, if any, is made in the Music Room anymore.

The music was coming from outside. A door led from the Music Room out onto a broad terrace with a commanding view out over the Slope.

Alone on the stone deck, I watched the spectacle, mesmerized by the sheer volume, vibrancy, and density of humanity.

On Slope Day 2022 the number of Covid dead in America reached one million.

Somewhere back in Covid Time there had been lethal biker conclave in South Dakota. But this was a university, a beacon of science and reason.

Beyond the Slope Cayuga’s waters shimmered, mirage-like. Was the optical effect the result of great waves of hormones lofted on updrafts of a sound that to the mass below was much more than music, regeneration taking sonic shape in the spring that was literally in the air?

A cheer went up as if from a single heaving organism.

Super-Spreader Slope Day had begun.

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