The year is 1993. Bill Clinton is in his first year in office. The Cowboys are the number one team in football. And Jurassic Park is the biggest thing in theaters.
Rob Shuck, a lanky teenager with a full head of hair, is a freshman at Cornell, excited about joining a fraternity and hoping he won’t spend the next 40 years crunching numbers for an engineering firm. Little does he know that he’s about to embark on a career as a frat boy.
“You don’t sit down and decide, oh, you’re going to stay in college for 13 years. It’s a process that happens over time, where you just become comfortable, and you find things you think are useful, and you stay,” Shuck said.
Flash forward. Shuck, hairline slightly receding, is now 32, still taking classes at Cornell and living in the basement of Chi Phi Fraternity. He’s the closest thing Cornell has to a celebrity, having been the subject of a GQ article and a guest on The View. Most recently, he was the subject of a day-in-the-life short documentary, 32 Yr. Old Frat Boy, made for Current TV.
The piece follows Shuck around Homecoming 2006. It begins at Chi Phi, a Tudor-style mansion decorated with wood carvings and old books that somehow managed to survive years of open parties.
From a leather sofa, Shuck talks about a portrait on the wall, looking as if he should be smoking a pipe and stroking a Pekingese. Later, he looks on as frat boys play beer pong on long wooden tables and wrestle under chandeliers, like monkeys who just took over Xanadu. Surrounded by such luxury, you begin to understand how Shuck never managed to graduate.
On a tour of the house, Shuck recounts his 30th birthday — he ordered a truckload of packing peanuts and filled the fraternity’s living room five feet high to mark the occasion.
Why packing peanuts? So that he and his fellow frat boys could do back flips off a second-story balcony without serious injury. Still leading the tour, he comes across a bag of garbage in the middle of the hallway.
“I’ll tell you exactly what happened here,” said Shuck, toeing the bag. “They needed trash cans to put beer in downstairs. And the fact they left a bag full of crap on floor didn’t cross their minds —did not cross their minds.”
Much of the rest of the film shows Shuck schmoozing at Homecoming, and you start to get a sense of the celebrity status he is beginning to acquire, especially within the Greek community.
At one point, a group of sorority girls watch him from across the room, whispering amongst themselves. Another girl does a double take when she recognizes his face.
“Hey, there are cute college girls, no question about it,” Shuck admitted; however, he insists that for him most of these girls are off-limits. “It takes a while for women at Cornell to realize that I’m just trying to be friends. I’m really not trying to hook up with them,” he said with a sincerity that’s so emphatic you suspect that he might just have a few secrets to confess.
The piece, which may soon be available online, was produced by Georgi Goldman ’00 and aired in January on Current TV, a cable channel that specializes in short-format programming for an 18 to 34-year-old audience.
Goldman, who shot the film in two days along with fellow alum Wayne Price ’98, makes the piece interesting with up-tempo music, jump cuts and long tracking shots that speed up unexpectedly, all in a style popularized by MTV. As for her portrayal of Shuck, she does a fine job of laying out his reasons for living the way he does.
“Everyone’s first reaction is usually, ‘Oh my god! How can he be living in his frat house at 32? That’s crazy!’ But if you sit down and watch the piece, Rob has logical explanations for his decisions and you see that it’s not an Animal House sort of lifestyle — it actually seems pretty laid back and academic,” Goldman said.
What is most notable about Rob Shuck is the seriousness with which he takes on the life of a slacker. His room his is littered with issues of the Economist and books on flying, an interest that motivated him to get a commercial pilot’s license.
Indeed, he seems genuinely interested in the world outside his fraternity, although he shows no intention of joining it.
Perhaps he is symptomatic of a time when young people just didn’t care about the future. But while his Generation X brethren gave up apathy for something that smells a little less like teen spirit, he stayed strong.