The host, an olive-skinned 23-year-old from the Yale class of 2009 who moved to New York just under a year ago, stood near the makeshift bar in his living room and cycled cheerfully through songs on the house iPod before settling on “Always Be My Baby,” the Mariah Carey hit from 1996. He said he has been working an office job for a nonprofit—nothing serious—and was mostly loving New York his first year out of New Haven, except for one thing. “There aren’t as many people here who are smart and interesting,” he said. “There are a ton who look like they would be, but they’re not.” A classmate standing nearby agreed. “You see people hanging out in places that make you think they’re going to be,” she said, “but then you meet them and they’re lame.”
And so Yaliens keep to themselves when possible. The girl who met the Yalien pretending to be from Harvard lives in Brooklyn and works in media. She is 27 and thinks she has at least heard of pretty much every Yale alum living in New York who graduated after 2001 and before 2006, and almost every single one of her closest friends—it’s a posse that generally rolls about a dozen deep, she said—met during their freshman year. They lived together at school, and during their first year here they lived in two apartments across the street from each other.
Even Yale grads who claim that Yale does not play a big part in their adult lives seem to always find themselves coming into contact with old classmates and fellow alums. Gabriel Snyder, until recently the editor of Gawker, said that while he doesn’t “identify as a Yalie,” he has noticed that his wife is “constantly rolling her eyes because [he keeps on] bumping into people from Yale.” One time Mr. Snyder and some buddies walked into a screening of the 2000 movie The Skulls—about the secret Yale society Skull & Bones—and in the course of finding their seats saw a lot of familiar faces. “The entire theater was full of people we knew.”
The question is, what did all those people have in common? Why are they so drawn to one another? To know that would be to understand the Yalien, and most of us don’t have much to go on. We know about the School of Drama and the School of Art, and we know it’s the “Gay Ivy.” But ask someone who didn’t go there what Yale’s all about, and they best they’ll be able to do is make a joke about American Psycho or, worse, Gilmore Girls. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you to find Ron Rosenbaum’s Esquire piece on Skull & Bones; most will just recommend The Great Gatsby.
Examining a lineup of famous Yalies doesn’t much clear things up, either. Anderson Cooper? Michiko Kakutani? David Longstreth, from the popular indie band the Dirty Projectors? What about George Pataki, Jodie Foster, the guy who played Paul on The Wonder Years? What of future Yalien James Franco?
Most Yaliens don’t dispute that they’re not like everyone else—in fact, it’s a point of pride.
“There’s just something a little off about us all, in a good way!” said the 27-year-old Brooklynite. “Even the people who don’t seem that off at Yale I think are, for the most part, if you dig a little bit. People that dress normally, walk and talk normally—if you dig a little, they’re all a little weird.”
Harvard people, she added, are just a little cleaner-looking. “Their hair is just a little more combed.”
‘WE’LL BE FOUND’
Yaliens would like to think that Harvard represents everything they are not: careerist, square, preoccupied with frivolous matters and spurred on by dull, bourgeois ambitions. There is a sense among Yaliens that it is crass to go to Harvard, and that the people most at home there are sheltered and uninspired.
“Yalies compete with each other by trying to do more interesting and creative and unusual things, whereas Harvard people try to compete with each other in a more conventional way, by getting farther, faster in their careers,” said Mr. Weisberg. “Harvard people try to be more, and Yale people try to be different. The way to impress your Yale coterie is not to make partner at an early age or to run something at an early age—it’s sort of to invent a job or just do something really cool and hopefully socially conscious.”
At Harvard, Mr. Bradley added, “you’re basically going to school at a mall—a place that doesn’t want to admit it’s a mall.”
When probed further about Yale’s relationship to New Haven, Mr. Stein of The Paris Review told this reporter two stories. One was about the time he was at the Anchor bar and reading by the neon light—“I’d sit in the banquette with my back to the storefront”—and the old man who owned the place, just a guy from town, told him Thornton Wilder used to do exactly the same thing.
The other story was about the time he found himself without a place to live because his roommate had flunked out of school. The way he solved that problem, he said, was something that could only really happen at Yale: He mentioned his predicament at his weekly after-hours poker game at a dive called Rudy’s and through one of the other players got hooked up with a room for $100 a week at this old hotel two doors down from the Art and Architecture building.
“We would sit in that back room—it was the manager of the bar, this union carpenter who was semi-retired, and a guy named Boston Bob who made his living selling stuff at state fairs,” Mr. Stein said. “Boston Bob and the carpenter had an in with the manager of the hotel. I’m not sure anything like that would be possible in Cambridge.”
That view of Harvard—that it is a dull, artificial world without any character—goes a long way toward explaining how Yaliens view themselves. Namely, they consider themselves to be intellectually original, sincerely rebellious and more capable of succeeding on their own terms than most people.
Why are they like this? According to Yaliens, it’s just how they’ve always been trained to think.