Scenes from BJU's Dating Parlor: By Marco Nunez, Jr. So you want to find out what's really behind the walls of the Southeast's most famous, talked-about, revered and scorned religious institution? Before we get into all that, let's make something abundantly clear: people choose to attend Bob Jones University. I should know. I made the choice myself. The school doesn't hide its political outlook or its social policies from incoming students, and BJU, like any other private institution in the country, has every right to ask whatever it pleases of students who have every right not to go there if they don't want to. With that conscience-ridden disclaimer out of the way, let's get down to business.
You may have seen her in chapel, she may sit near you in English class or you may have the same lunch shift. None of that matters. What does matter is the fact that she's got your head spinning in seven different directions. So now what do you do? Well, you've got a couple of options. If you've got enough guts, there's always the up-front approach: "Hi, my name is Marco. Will you go 'out' with me?" At BJU, this method may be viewed as slightly psychotic and end not only in lost opportunity but also a damaged ego...not the mention the fact that the phrase "go out" should, in most cases at BoJos, be replaced with the phrase "stay in." I'll explain later. The other option kindly offers a safe enough distance to keep your pride in tact while at the same time adding an odd twist of romantic mystery. It's known simply as the "mail system".
Now, this mail system is not federally operated, you don't need a key, and its couriers change on a weekly basis, but it gets the job done. Sort of. It is in essence nothing more than a brown wooden box no larger than 1.5'x3', with wooden dividers segmenting it into labeled slots: one for each of the dorms of the opposite sex. For that to truly make sense I must explain that girls' dorms are on one side of the campus, guys' dorms inhabit the other, and coed interaction is highly discouraged after dinner (except within one designated area to be discussed later).
Every night around 10:30 p.m. (15 minutes before prayer group, 30 minutes before lights out), the "mailboxes" are retrieved, the mail is sorted, and then it's delivered to each dorm, floor and room. For years now this archaic system has been the catalyst for many a romance.
So you send the letter, and now you have an excuse to call her and find out if she'll stay in with you, providing it's not after 10:15 p.m. and the phone lines haven't been shut down (smart bet says they have). Moving on, let's assume she says "yes", because if we were to do this in real time and basing it solely on my dating history, we'd be here a while.
Your next big decision is where to take her. The obvious choices for most people would include a nice dinner or maybe a good movie. Well, the movie will get you expelled and the dinner is far more hassle than it's worth, unless she's really all that, which she almost never is. Please understand I'm not being overly harsh on the women of BJU, but the fact of the matter is that it's easier to get a permit for a third child in China than it is to get the correct permission for an off campus date. Here's the process: I think it will explain why you rarely ever see two Bob Jones dormitory students on a date and, if you do, why there's always a third person.
First, you must clear your schedule for the night. Time is a commodity you really don't have when you must be in bed at 11:00 p.m. Next you must secure a chaperone or "shap" as they're affectionately called on campus. If it is just you and your date, the chaperone must be a woman. If it is a larger group, a male chaperone is acceptable, but if the group exceeds ten members an additional shap is required. You want to make sure you get a cool shap, preferably one you know and one that you know will let a little hand-holding slide here and there. The best shap's are the ones that accidentally get lost, or let you come over to their apartment and then take a real long time in the bathroom. Anyway, once you've found your shap and made sure that their schedule is clear, it's off to the Dean of Men and Dean of Women's office for permission.
Now, I realize that many of you are, at this moment racking your brains to remember if you even had a Dean of Men or Women. I assure you, you did. They're the ones who kicked your friend out for smoking pot in the dorm room. While you may never have come in contact with your Deans, at BJU they are an integral part of your quest for some form of freedom. You always want to keep them on your good side: their alliance can make getting permission a breeze but their opposition can mean another night of vending machine food and lonely solitude.
Once you made the pilgrimage for freedom (no cars at BJU, and it's a big campus), you wait in the crowded, amoebic line that forms, or rather evolves in and around, the Dean of Men and Women's office for your turn to get permission. Finally your turn comes, the dorm counselor or supervisor looks over your permission request form (complete with a top and bottom copy), and invariably makes some cheeseball joke about your tentative plans. You force a compensatory laugh while nervously eyeing the pen of liberation that hovers over your slip. After a miniature stand-up routine of dry jokes, he or she signs your slip (we're taking the best-case scenario here), and you are off like a suit jacket on a South Carolina summer Sunday.
Now do you understand why you rarely ever see pairs of coed BJU'ers frolicking around Greenville? Its not a lack of opportunity, it's a lack of time and energy. This brings us to our simpler, less time consuming choices: the Dining Common, the snack shop, or the Dating Parlor.
Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let's take the Dining Common for example. This is home to a wide spectrum of relationships. Either end accommodates the serious couples who by their own unfortunate blindness have chosen to sever their ties with old friends, having found their all-in-all in each other. This is also where you would hide your dates that have, shall we say, an extra dose of personality to make up for their apparent lack of visual elegance. The middle is where the "cool" kids hang out (if there truly is such thing in an environment where humming an old Beach Boys tune loud enough to be heard constitutes a Kevin Bacon-styled rebellion). This is where you take the trophy dates. You may try to fool yourself into thinking that you really just want to talk and not merely be seen with her but if you're sitting in the middle of the Dining Common with all of your friends throwing you thumbs ups behind her back, you realize that the attention is flattering. The problems that accompany this particular setting are the lack of intimacy (not quite in the form you're probably thinking: that's always lacking at BJU) and the fact that at precisely 6:30 p.m. an attendant will come along and inform you that it's time to go. If you've found that your date's head contains more than a pretty face you may want to take her to the snack shop or the Dating Parlor, which is precisely where we'll go now.
The snack shop is most commonly used as a sort of dessert and coffee shop after the date. Serious couples will take each other there for special events like birthdays and anniversaries, and occasionally, if the girl is special enough, or that night's dining common menu is bad enough, it will house a first date or two. The advantages here are that the atmosphere is not as big and informal. The disadvantages that the snack shop presents are mostly due to crowding. The shop is one of three places on campus where a fully-knobbed television is actually available (to have a TV set in your room for video game usage, the knobs must be removed). Now, granted the news is, shall we say, shortened, but hey, sports highlights are sports highlights. Anyway, if the snack shop isn't your destination of choice, there's nowhere left to go but the Dating Parlor, or "DP" as it is affectionately called.
The DP is not exactly Inspiration Point: rather, it's a curious cross between Heilig-Meyers on crack and Coffee Underground on steroids. However you describe it, it's unlike anything you've ever come across. The fact that it is the only place left in America that correctly uses the term "parlor" without prefacing it with "ice cream" proves this quite sufficiently. This is where the lost-in-love can be found. Remember the back half of the Dining Common? This is where they all end up after 6:30 p.m.
As you enter the building that houses the DP, you are immediately struck by the beauty that surrounds you. From the spiral staircases that take you to the DP to the perfectly restored chandelier that hangs in between them, the décor is nothing short of Gone With the Wind spectacular. Reaching the top of the stairs, the scene changes dramatically. Your senses are immediately bombarded with couch heaven: this is where all the good couches go when they rupture a spring or die. The couches are, for the most part, arranged in groups of four. Some of these groups have phones, so both you and your beloved can beg the family for money while you woo.
The back wall is an enormous window overlooking the front of the campus. It is along this back window that the ping pong tables have been placed, I assume to show the passersby on the street below that there really are things to do at BJU. Around the corner to the right there is small grouping of five or six tables. This is where the board games are played and, if you're lucky enough and this particular side is empty, you can also engage in a fairly mean game of footsy, or possibly even steal a kiss or two (Now before you free, liberated, unshackled people roll your eyes too many times I want you to think about something: when was the last time a date truly excited you? For all of the freedom that autonomous anarchy supposedly gives, you must admit it does steal that spark of naïve excitement that existed before you summoned it. Remember goodnight kisses and stolen glances?).
As you curve around to the DP's left side, you find that the decibel level increases significantly. There is a similar grouping of tables there, as well as the room that houses both the board games and the ego-boosting joust of Foosball. This explains the boost in noise. Couples not quite comfortable enough with each other to be alone often group here for support under the guise of a rousing game of Outburst. What better way to find out if she's brain dead or not than a game that hinges on quick wit? Two warnings here: First, Candyland will not sufficiently test that quick wit. Second, be careful to first test the mental stability of anyone you take to play these games. I once made the mistake of allowing myself and my date to join some friends in a game of Taboo. As the game progressed I began to vocalize my partners obvious lack of skill for that particular contest. Apparently I went too far. In one violent motion she picked up the buzzer and launched it at my head. By my own fortune I dodged the oncoming object, only to hear a slight yelp as it attacked the table behind me. As I smiled and apologized in horrified embarrassment, I realized that BJU may not be the best environment for a game called Taboo.
As you walk through the galaxy of couches it is easy to be stunned by the flurry of activity going on around you. A few couples are reading their Bibles together, a few more are studying together, and the really serious ones are deeply engaged in "optical intercourse": they sit with their faces as close together as possible without inviting chastisement from the faculty member who must patrol the DP. While their eyes glaze over with a lobotomy-like joy, their smirks indicate that if they were to say or act out what they are thinking they would no longer be able to attend the University.
For the couple that enjoys serious mental engagement, several dozen board games are available, and those interested in viewing a historical cornucopia of BJU attendees can take turns thumbing through past yearbooks. These portfolios of alumni past also serve as a mild moral booster, pointing to the many changes that have occurred in the rulebook over the decades. Unfortunately, the yearbooks that supposedly contain Alice Cooper, Mona from "Who's the Boss," and Cybill Shepherd have been removed and along with them any chance of proving or disproving the rumors that each of them were actually BJU students at one time.
The room containing the foosball tables drips with the sweat of post-pubescent males who honestly believe King of Foosball is a title that will win the hearts of every girl on campus. Foosball is to the teenage male what loud, red sports cars are to middle age male. Part of the entertainment of the DP is watching the foosball gladiators intentionally ignore their dates under the guise that it's all in the name of intense sportsmanship, as if this determination will make up for lack of finesse in the more (admittedly, at BJU, stilted) romantic realms. As for supervision, the females on faculty take turns "hostessing," which is a polite term meaning "watcher of the hands and lips" (I believe its Greek). Once again, the more understanding of this elite group patrol more on "friendship rounds," talking to everyone as they go around rather than eyeing them. The more antagonistic watchdogs walk their beat with aggressive suspicion.
The fun ends promptly at 10:10 p.m., when the supervisor informs you and your date to head back to your dorm rooms, while making sure you know that you are to separate once outside. The serious, "I have no life apart from you" couples have already left, so as to make sure that they can call each other before the phone lines shut down. The "normal" couples part slowly in true Shakespearean fashion.
A fun evening? A memorable date? I dunno. I've had better, but I've also had worse. And I've actually noticed something missing from my dating life since I left Bob Jones. We're all quick to spurn BJUers' limitation of choices, claiming they're trapped by parameters they allowed to be set for them. But we're all just as trapped by fears of disease, sexual harassment lawsuits and half-year marriages: those parameters are just as real, and just as self-imposed. That's not a defense of BJU, but it's not a condemnation, either.
Several years removed from it, I think of the Dating Parlor in much the same way a lot of people think of their high school girlfriend's front porch. The DP was a place of heightened anxiety, quick-time victories, rookie mistakes (ah, Taboo) and a sort of clumsy innocence I'm unlikely to recover (I'm especially unlikely to recover it because I haven't been allowed on campus since growing facial hair and piercing an ear). It was a time when a television with a knob was the very symbol of freedom, when footsy was a forbidden pleasure. Would I want to go back? Not really, except maybe for interior decorating purposes. Any number of those DP couches would look great in my living room with a minimal amount of upholstery work.