The Historical District of Tuscaloosa is apparently not unique in its having problems with inebriated students. Russell Frank in the New York Times reported on what he termed “Red Bull Zombies” in neighborhoods adjoining Penn State University. He wrote in his article “What to Do When an Inebriated Stranger Stumbles Into Your Home?”:
What would you do if you heard a noise in the night and discovered a stranger in the house? Offer him a midnight snack? A hoodie, if it’s chilly? A ride home? That’s how some residents react to a home invasion in the student-saturated neighborhoods surrounding Penn State University. True, some of them grab baseball bats and call the police, but once they realize the intruder is an inebriated undergraduate who has no idea where he is, the adrenaline rush ebbs and empathy kicks in.
“I was a college kid,” reasoned David McClelland, a homeowner who confronted an uninvited guest. “I remember doing some dumb stuff.”
“The mother in me came out,” is how Meredith Doran put it. A stranger came banging on her back door one frigid winter morning. Seeing his thin hoodie, she let him in, offered him crackers and water and then a ride home. “His vibe,” she explained, “was not a menacing one.”
The same cannot be said of Ms. Doran’s husband, Matt Jordan, who, a couple of years earlier, had grabbed a bat to confront a student in boxer shorts and knee-high black socks who sat on their sofa with his head in his hands.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Mr. Jordan, who is as physically imposing as an N.F.L. tight end.
“I’m J.T.,” his visitor announced, as if his identity should have been obvious.
“J.T.,” Mr. Jordan recounted, “if you don’t get out of the house now, I’m going to call the police. And he said, ‘Dude, really?’ And I said, ‘Yes, really.’”
The townies have a name for these intruders: Red Bull Zombies. Before hyper-caffeinated beverages like Red Bull, students could consume only so much alcohol before passing out. Now, they’re no less addled but the stimulants keep them ambulatory, and so they blunder into the wrong houses.
There are as many students as there are full-time residents in the State College area. Most locals tuck themselves away in quiet suburban enclaves. Those who dwell among the students so value their neighborhood’s historic houses, tree-lined streets and proximity to downtown and campus that they’re willing to put up with what they call the “dumb stuff.” And some positively enjoy the antic energy of their young neighbors.
“There’s a pulse to the neighborhood,” said Joel Weidner, who called the police when he heard someone “thudding around” in his basement a few years back. A drunken student had crashed through a basement window. “Suburbia would be boring.”
While these victims of home invasions see the humor in their experiences, they’re keenly aware that their community, like so many college towns, has a serious drinking problem. Just this year, after a night of alcohol-drenched hazing rituals, a fraternity pledge fell down a flight of stairs and later died. In response, the university has increased its oversight of the Greek system. Among new restrictions, it is reducing the number of fraternity parties with alcohol that it issues permits for, from 45 a semester to 10 (wine and beer only, and no kegs).
It’s hard to know how often the Red Bull Zombies strike, because many trespasses go unreported and the ones that are called in are variously classified as criminal mischief, public drunkenness, underage drinking or disorderly conduct. The State College police chief, John Gardner, guesses that 5 to 10 student invasions occur a year. There’s potential for harm, of course, for residents who let their guard down as well as for invaders. In 2014 in Sterling, Va., an inebriated teenager was shot and killed when he stumbled into a neighbor’s house.
Similar stories have been told by residents living in the Historical District of Tuscaloosa. One Tuscaloosa family found a University of Alabama student sleeping in their guest bedroom. Another one fell head first into a fish pond. On one evening in January a student was wrestled off a roof by three policemen after being pursued down the street after being in a fight at Innisfree Irish Pub. One co-ed beat on all the doors and windows of a house that was built in the Greek Revival style that many sororities on campus have. She demanded that she be let in until the police arrived.
Some residents who are living in the downtown Tuscaloosa area have expressed fears about a student potentially being shot by a homeowner who might mistake a student home intruder as a burglar.
The historical neighborhoods in State College have a problem because many students are living in them. The University of Alabama also has students who reside in its historical neighborhoods but the proximity of the bars in the downtown area creates a bigger problem.
Many bars in the downtown area, which remain open until the wee hours of the morning, knowingly or otherwise, serve under-aged drinkers. Combine that with binge drinking by students and there is a recipe for disaster. In addition to home invasions, there has been property damage, unsafe driving and public urination.
Until there is a crackdown on under-aged drinking, many residents of downtown Tuscaloosa will face situations that could well lead to the tragic shooting of a student.
The City of Tuscaloosa has codes that prohibit the consumption of alcohol by under-aged drinkers and the University of Alabama has a strict policy against it. It might be reasonably thought that something more could be done to discourage under-aged drinking. A tragedy might be prevented.