NOT LONG AGO, at a party on the Lower East Side, a young man decided to play a trick on a girl he had only just met. A mutual friend had introduced them. He asked her where she had gone to school.
The answer was “Yale.”
“He was like, ‘Whoa, what was that like?’” the girl said recently, explaining that people always do this to her, and that she always tries to be matter-of-fact about it. “I was like, ‘Oh, you know, college! It was fun! Because what was I going to say?”
Just for fun, the man, who had also attended Yale, pretended he had gone to the university’s arch-rival, Harvard. “He asked me what house I was in,” said the girl, referring to Harvard’s residential living arrangements. “And I said, ‘Oh, actually, Yale has a college system …”
“Ah, interesting …” the young man said.
“Then, when he left,” the girl recalled, “his friend came and was like, ‘He was totally fucking with you! He was class of ’98.’”
Oh, Yalies: your sense of absurdity; your frank, open expression; your romantic innocence! As graduates of Ivy League colleges prepare en masse to descend on Manhattan for summer internships, it is worth noting the special quirks of the Yalie—the Yalien—a foreign creature characterized by a set of elusive, contradictory traits that separate him from everyone else clawing for power in this city.
It is hard to study him, however, because—unlike Harvardians—Yaliens do not gather in power hives like The New York Times or Saturday Night Live. Rather, they spread themselves across the city: galleries, law firms, and—hey, here’s one, Lorin Stein, new editor in chief of The Paris Review.
On the phone from his offices the other day, Mr. Stein (class of ’95) wistfully recalled his days running with the Yale off-campus crowd—by his description, a group of uncommonly intense and creatively inclined undergrads who ate meals and drank with grad students and professors, and who saw each other all the time and partied together.
“There was a sense that the institution made room for freaks,” Mr. Stein said. “It was a place where there were bars and cafes where you’d bump into people you really looked up to and wanted to learn from. There was a lot of self-directed reading going on. My friends were the kinds of people who often cut classes but took reading very seriously.” Then he came out with it: “New Haven was my idea of New York.”
‘SOMETHING A LITTLE OFF’
According to the last printed Yale Alumni Directory, there were more than 10,000 Yale graduates living in Manhattan in 2004, and just over 2,000 in Brooklyn. Of course, that includes graduates of the graduate and professional schools in addition to those of the college, but still: per Robert Weil, the editor from W.W. Norton who kindly provided these figures, the number of Yale affiliates in Manhattan and Brooklyn would be roughly equal to almost 10 full undergraduate classes.
There is a notion among Yaliens—the nonnative New Yorkers among them, at least—that the city is owned by them. They covet ownership of it when they arrive, eyeing with frustrated envy the graduates of Columbia and N.Y.U. in their midst who have already been here for four years.
“They’ll throw around names of places in a way Harvard kids don’t,” one Columbia student complained. “They’ll say, ‘I’m at Botanica,’ even if they don’t know if you, someone who goes to school here, know what Botanica is, whereas I think Harvard kids would say, ‘I’m at a bar in Soho. It’s called Botanica.’”
Even when they grow out of that awkward phase, Yaliens in New York continue to have a unique relationship to their city. Part of the problem is that some of them actually do see it as their city.
“New York is Yale’s backyard,” said Richard Bradley, the magazine journalist who graduated from Yale in 1986 and went on to write a book about Harvard. “It’s something you take for granted—you’re fish, so you swim in the ocean.”
Mr. Bradley’s classmate, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, was more specific but no less clear. “I mean, Williamsburg is sort of the Yale campus without the classes, right?” he said. “Brooklyn’s where Yale graduates belong; Washington is more where Harvard graduates belong.” Harvard, though it sends many graduates to New York—hello! this reporter among them—does not have the same relationship with New York as Yale—in part for the simple reason that it is much further away (four and a half hours by bus from Boston; one hour and 45 minutes by Metro-North from New Haven).
As Mr. Bradley put it: “The Harvard Club still feels to me like an outpost of another city—like it’s a subsidiary of a company that’s based somewhere else. The Yale Club feels more … I don’t know, Yale and New York always go together. Of course they do.”
Yaliens in New York feel intense loyalty toward one another. Most of them love hanging out together, and prefer it to hanging out with anyone else.
On Saturday, April 10, a group of recent college graduates gathered in a sparsely furnished apartment in downtown Brooklyn for a party. TigerBeat posters of Justin Bieber hung ironically on the walls; on the refrigerator, there was a note from the downstairs neighbors complaining about the beer cans in the hallway. People climbed in and out the window to smoke on the fire escape while a couple of friends who came late stood around in the kitchen drinking from a bottle of whiskey they’d bought at the liquor store down the street.
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.
“The school breeds a deep Calvinistic respect for hard work and intellectual tradition, but there’s also a deep streak of rebelliousness, which has been part of Yale since the early 18th century,” said Mr. Weil, the Norton editor. “You always find this balance of rebellion and tradition. Somehow the vapors of the school seem to be perpetuated over a long time.”
In those vapors one can see the outline of the Yale Man as he has been since the beginning of the last century: a fellow of great ambition who makes his own rules, gets all his work done without breaking a sweat and does so in time to catch the Animal Collective show at Bar Pizza.
Adriane Quinlan, who graduated in 2007 and has since spent time in China and worked various writing gigs in New York, said she always valued and looked up to more than anyone else her “super-quirky and crazy” classmates who “dressed bizarre, had eclectic tastes and [were] only friends with one other really weird person.” Ms. Quinlan said she and her classmates were taught that intelligence was what happened when you spent time with those people hanging out, not something you could get by going to class.
“We were basically taught—and I think this is true and a helpful lesson—that being scholarly and knowledgeable has nothing to do with intelligence,” Ms. Quinlan said. “However hard you tried, it was more useful to be in the cafeteria having conversations with interesting people. We don’t see careers as institutions and building blocks—we just think if we are smart enough, we’ll eventually be found.”
Most Yale grads Ms. Quinlan knows who entered the job market during the recession have put off starting a career, she said. “They have the attitude that this will provide them with material, or life experience. Every job they have out of the recession is a future story to tell someone else.” In Ms. Quinlan’s view, the “destabilization of every major company and the collapse of the economy hurt Yalies less perhaps because we were taught not to trust or care about those things.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Yaliens is that they really love Yale. They loved being there and although they don’t brag about having gone there the way Brown grads do, they are not sheepish about it the way Harvard grads always are. Despite being self-consciously idiosyncratic, Yaliens feel a loyalty toward their school more sincere than anyone else in the Ivy League, and identify with one another deeply even as they seek to project an aura of independence.
“They’re very solid citizens,” said radio host and Spy co-founder Kurt Andersen, a ’76 Harvard graduate and a friend to about a dozen Yaliens. “It seems like the extravagant fits of adolescent alienation that has various flavors and that can come out in college kids didn’t come out with them as undergraduates and hasn’t come out as adults.”
“It’s my sense that at other schools—like Harvard, N.Y.U., Stanford, M.I.T.—you’re very much focused on how you’re gonna use it to get to the next place,” said Nathaniel Rich, an outgoing Paris Review editor who graduated from Yale in 2002. “I love New Haven, but…it forces people’s energies inside instead of outside.”
“There’s something very parochial about [Yale people’s] interest in Yale and Yale institutions, which you find everywhere, I guess,” said Christopher Glazek, a 25-year-old New Yorker fact checker who graduated from Yale in 2007, “but at Harvard, it seems outwardly directed. The Lampoon is a big deal because it has a stranglehold on a really existing professional world. You couldn’t say that about any Yale institution.”
That doesn’t stop Yaliens from imbuing those institutions with a lot of import. Certain off-campus houses that get passed down from one group of kids to another are all known only by their street numbers. As one current student said, “67 Edgewood can’t just be a house where people live: It has to be ‘67,’ this magical concept.” (The other big ones at the moment are 115, 113, 37-39 and 28.)
“Yale people in New York often have no concept that there are any other standards by which one could be judged than the ones they developed as undergraduates,” said Mr. Glazek. “They don’t embarrass easily. They don’t seek external validation as energetically.”
At the root of this, he went on, is the peculiar way in which Yaliens who have graduated and taken up in New York relate to the world they live in. “It’s like the world is a figment of your imagination,” he said. “Like the world happens to you, rather than you are something in the world. It’s like Berkeleyan idealism.”
Naturally, this tendency to look inward manifests itself in different ways in the eyes of outsiders.
“They’re all exceptionally nice—Harvard people are not usually that nice,” said Ira Stoll, the Harvard ’94 grad who hired many Yale students as interns when he was editor of The New York Sun. “I have one Yale friend who’s always bringing homemade cookies here to my house. Another one went out of his way to buy a lot of copies of my Samuel Adams book. If a Harvard person did that, you’d think it was because they wanted something from you. But, the Yale people—it’s like, they’re a little earnest.”
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