Yale, in Fall

I wrote this in a bit of a panic. Recently, I interviewed for a job. The prospect of employability looms large. It means that my time in New York might be coming to a close, that my days of self-expression could be long behind me, replaced by maturity and sound editorial judgment. In other words, these posts might be fewer and farther in-between. Dash might begin to gather dust in the backwoods of the internet. I knew this day would eventually come. 

It was under these circumstances that I felt obliged to check something off my New York bucket list. For whatever reason, the campus of Yale University beckoned. Probably because I’ve already seen Harvard. Yale also happens to be where Rory Gilmore attends college in Gilmore Girls. That should be reason enough.

I’ve heard people refer to Yale as “New Haven” to avoid seeming pretentious. As in, “Oh, I used to study up in New Haven.” But, of course, this use of language only adds to the level of snobbery. What could be more sanctimonious than changing the name of your school in casual conversation because its actual name conveys so much status?

Anyhow, I took a day-trip up to New Haven to see what all the fuss was about.

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After a first-class ride north on the Acela, I arrived.

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Upon exiting the station, I saw a sign for downtown. On a recent journey, I’d relied heavily on my Global Positioning System (which sounds terribly Orwellian when you extend it from an acronym). Not this time. Maybe if things got horribly desperate, if a wild gang of Yalies tried to induct me into one of their greek-lettered cults, or if an economics professor finally lost his marbles and decided to open fire on campus.

Downtown New Haven reminded me a bit of Rochester, New York. Lots of misfitted low-rise buildings, crumby storefronts, and boring boulevards. The infrastructure gave little indication that I was near one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

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At the edge of campus, I grabbed lunch at a restaurant called Claire’s Corner Copia. Then I walked up Chapel Street, which runs along the southern border of Yale. There, plenty of homeless people solicited for change on the sidewalk. I thought Yale would be insulated from the realities of the outside world, which it was, for the most part, but little reminders did their best to scratch out a living on the borders of the intellectual paradise.

Since arriving, I’d been itching for a cigarette, but despite popping into a few corner stores, there were no tobacco products to be found. For a minute, I wondered if they even sold ciggies on campus. Could it be that New Haven is such a haven that cigarette smoking is disallowed? The world would be a better place without tobacco products and all of their fatal side effects, obviously. Not sure anyone would miss them (other than the addicts and wannabees). Perhaps it was something about the train ride that triggered my cravings? There’s plenty of cigarette-huffing in the book I read on the ride up, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.

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I tooled around for a bit. As I walked down Elm Street, which cuts through the center of campus and happens to be the perfect name for a roadway, I caught myself humming songs by Dan Mangan, a singer-songwriter from British Columbia. Lately, I’ve been binging on some of his best-known tunes: Road Regrets, Robots, Cold in the Summer, and Basket. I’m happy that I’ll eventually be able to associate this trip with his music, much like how my time at NYU will evoke Pinegrove, and, before that, the University of Oslo was characterized by my introduction to Father John Misty.

It should be mentioned that the Yale campus is a locus of immense, near-indescribable beauty. It’s all shivering elm trees and tall church towers. The traffic is consistent but quiet. Busses huff around corners. At the intersection of Elm and Broadway, there’s a bunch of shops. The square is called, straightforwardly, “The Shops at Yale.” You get a sense of the area’s character by the brands that populate the storefronts: L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Gant, lululemon, and J. Crew, just to name a few.

Shopping at these places requires a certain fashion sense and budget. Imagine that you’re a “Yalie.” You head over to Patagonia with your finance buds to grab a couple vests before your big interview in Manhattan. Then it’s over to J. Crew for a pair of dressed-down slacks. All of this just a few blocks from your dorm. This sort of on-campus shopping experience differentiates Yale from colleges that merely offer an education.

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From there, I walked farther south on Elm, then dipped into the campus. Many students wore floral outfits, which evoked a hippie vibe. A class sat on a great green lawn and sketched the surrounding buildings. What sort of learning experience was this? There’s a fine line between indulgence and education, I suppose. If I had more mental energy, at present, then I would do my best to describe some of the on-campus architecture. Instead, I’ll just use a few photos.

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I thought going to Yale would help me ditch my Ivey envy. I suppose I’ve had a bit of complex since getting rejected from Columbia. The opposite was true. The energy on campus seemed to justify the inflated cost of attending the school. Now, I feel as if I’ve really been missing out over the last half-decade. Ivey League schools are Disneyland for young adults. The students can drink, fuck, smoke, and snort their way through the next four years, all with the promise of a tidy metropolitan life on the other side. The lessons they learn in these years will carry forth. Do what you want. Maintain the artifice of congeniality and respectability. Get paid. Find a partner that matches your specifications. Become a collage of other people’s expectations—your parents, cousins, friends, teachers.

These kids are charmed, at least for now. If they’re lucky, they’ll graduate from here to a different corporate infrastructure. Maybe Morgan or Deloitte? At least they’ll continue to be insulated from the ugliness that lurks on the borders of campus. An apt metaphor. Of course, they’ll offer commentary on similar public concerns from the comfort of their cosmopolitan apartments, sure to adopt a perspective that will help burnish their reputation as humanitarians, which is so grotesquely removed from their actual inner convictions as to be comical.

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I ended up on Prospect Street. It appeared to stretch up a hill, from which I thought I could get a decent vantage point of the campus. Maybe for a long-distance photo to provide context for my readership. I feared I was getting too far from campus, so I turned left down Munson Street, because, well, it made me think of The Munsters. The neighborhood got a bit seedier. Still, much beauty to be found.

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About a mile from campus, I found a grocery store that sold loosie cigarettes. So, I asked for two Marlboro 57s. Together they’d be a Marlboro 114. I also bought a sugar-free Red Bull, one of my preferred vices. And some Twizzlers, too. Six bucks for all that. What a steal.

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When I stepped outside, the shopkeeper asked why I kept taking photos. I told him that I was an undercover cop that intended to bust him for selling cigarettes illegally. Just kidding. I offered something much more embarrassing.

“It’s for my website,” I said. “I go places and write about it.”

He looked incredulous. Hopefully, he’s not somewhere anticipating a police raid in the coming days, all because he does customers the courtesy of selling individual tobacco sticks. Hell, he’s doing more than most people to help combat cigarette addiction. Because of him, I was able to snuff out that nicotine ember without dropping $15 on a pack.

Anyhow, as I made my way back toward campus, I immediately regretted introducing nicotine into my system. Not a new feeling. My body would soon demand another fix. Too bad.

A sign back at Yale explained everything. Tobacco is not allowed on campus. This really is a utopia. First the smokers, then the drinkers, then the sex freaks, then the heathens. Yale University will soon be—or probably already is—a hideaway for puritans.

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I went past the cemetery, half-praying that I could get in to take some pictures. Or at least smoke the last of my cigarettes in peace. Wouldn’t that be wild? The dead would be rolling in their graves, the administrators would be fainting behind their over-sized desks, and the gravedigger would probably be amused. Unfortunately, the grounds were locked at 4pm.

So, I kept moving toward the athletics complex. Entry required a key card, which I obviously lacked, so I just walked around the wings of the front entrance. I was able to use the bathroom and peer through at a volleyball practice. That was more than enough access. It was time to move on.

I walked back toward downtown. Out of respect for Yale University, its administrators, students, dropouts, alumni, and newly deceased, I waited until I was clear of the campus to light up my second cigarette. This felt like the right thing to do. The campus is so pristine that I would’ve felt too guilty lighting up on campus. Its beauty commanded my respect. What had this place done to me? To save my soul, I hopped on the train back to Manhattan.

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