Talk Of the Townie

“Give the facts, but share your personal experience,” says Joe Admissions, making friendly eye contact with the table of new recruits. When I applied to be a summer tour guide, I thought the job would be particularly easy for me, considering I grew up in New Haven and fancy myself as having some insider knowledge. Then, I read the “Yale Tour Facts” sheet and realized I didn’t know any of the bullet points. Some were interesting. A couple were wrong. Most were myths about statues. It was unclear how exactly I would give the facts and share my personal experience when some of the facts directly contradicted the history I’d amassed over my time on campus. In some ways my insider’s knowledge made me an outsider to the Yale presented in the Yale tour.

When I arrived for my first day, thinking my shift would consist of working the desk, I was informed that I had misread the spreadsheet. It turned out I had been scheduled for my first tour instead.

“Great!” I shrieked to the student who was actually assigned to work the desk. I hadn’t looked at the fact sheet since the trial tour a few months back, during which I may or may not have forgotten Nathan Hale’s dying words until my interviewers pointed out they were engraved in rather large print around the base of his statue. I walked to the front of the visitor’s room and turned off the television playing “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” the zealous, undergraduate-produced admissions video released in 2010 to Internet celebrity.

“Welcome to Yale!” I said, clasping my hands professionally. “Will this half of the room come with me?”


Before we get started on Yale, let’s bust a few myths about New Haven. First, even though John Davenport founded the New Haven colony in 1638, the first people to inhabit this land were of the Quinnipiac tribe. Davenport purchased the land from the Quinnipiac, who then helped the New Haven settlers survive their first winters. If the Quinnipiac hadn’t already been living here for centuries, it’s unlikely that the European colony would have pulled through.

Perhaps in part because of that, the white guilt in this town is pretty staggering, so if you attend a New Haven Public School you’ll likely spend your first eight years learning about Native Americans. A Caucasian visiting poet named Dan might regularly come to your fourth grade classroom and ask you to write poems from the perspective of Native Americans whose land has been invaded by Columbus. Some representatives of unknown heritage from Mohegan Sun will come tell you old Quinnipiac stories. This will be confusing, since you’d always thought Mohegan Sun was a casino where people went to see Kelly Clarkson and drink fine liquors. You will learn about twenty different kinds of sixteenth-century Native American dwellings. Yet somehow your teachers will fail to mention the fact that Native people are still alive. Thanks, Dan.

New Haven is also famous for food and firsts. We’re home to the first hamburger, the first Frisbee, the first factory to use interchangeable parts, and the first recorded use of the term “SWUG.” We’ve got a big Italian population, so our city is littered with amazing pizza and heated divisions among restaurant patrons, with the most famous being the Pepe’s/Sally’s divide. I’m a Pepe’s girl myself, though rumor has it Pope Benedict used to order Sally’s when he came to the Northeast, even if he was just crashing in New York for the night. What a diva.


Welcome to the Silliman Courtyard. Maybe you recognize it from the news. Isn’t it horrifying how it looks like this tree has an eye?

Great, let’s move on.


Ahh, Woolsey Hall, the alternate rain location of every high school graduation in New Haven. This is where the famous people come to speak—unless they’re really famous, in which case they speak at some undisclosed location and you find out a month later that they ever came (I’m looking at you, Meryl). Once I saw Morgan Freeman speak about the unique benefits of reading on a child’s developing mind. So there you have it: even Morgan Freeman thinks the kids are watching too much TV these days.

Woolsey Hall is also home to the biggest nighttime racket in all of Yale: the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Show, for which Yalies “supposedly” play a live score over an “original” film they have “supposedly” “made.” If anyone ever scores tickets, please let me know so that I can verify the aforementioned rumors.

On the other side of Woolsey Hall you’ll see Commons—sorry, I mean the Schwartzman Center, donated graciously by the honorable Mr. Schwarzman Center. Currently students and faculty are brainstorming Ydeas for the Center’s future, such as my Ydea, which is to make the doors lighter.


Here we are at Cross Campus, which is apparently called Cross Campus because it’s shaped like a cross. Who knew? Underneath us is the behemoth known as Bass Library, where many a Yalie goes to be seen studying and, on occasion, running naked through the stacks.

All of the old-looking buildings around you were built by this architect named James who had a major hard-on for Oxford and Cambridge. I didn’t realize this until I visited Oxford a few years ago and experienced a tsunami of déjà vu. Yale’s campus is essentially a theme park version of Oxford—the buildings look authentic until you look down at your feet and see the gummed-over sidewalks and some kid’s vomit.

Also underground is a series of tunnels that connects parts of campus. You can climb into them through some key sewer grates on College and Wall streets—though these are heavily trafficked by cars, so it’s best to choose a friend you don’t like that much to sit in the middle of the street while you unscrew the grate. Decades of townies have traversed these tunnels, spray paint in hand, marking them with some of New Haven’s most infamous tags (such as the elusive “Milf Shake”). There’s even a room down there with a couch and a light with “BUCK FUSH” marked angrily on the wall. I mean, not that I would know from personal experience because going into the tunnels is illegal and I am a law-abiding citizen. Quick: I see a cop. Let’s move.


Welcome to Phelps Gate. I found out during our training that Phelps Gate is the official entrance to Yale College. This is misleading, because Yale is everywhere.

Except for right behind you. This is the New Haven Green. The Green was the center square of the original nine-square plan. That’s right, New Haven was the first planned city in America. This is ironic, because if New Haven was so great at planning, then how is it possible I grew up on a street that was one-way in both directions? Riddle me that, tourists!

A couple fun facts about the Green: first, it was originally a cemetery, since John Davenport built the Green around Center Church, and the Puritans believed that burying their dead around a church would help God find their souls. There are actually thousands of bodies buried under the Green. The city preserved some of the more prominent families’ gravestones in a crypt beneath Center Church. The rest of the stones were stolen or relocated to the Grove Street Cemetery. When a bolt of lightning felled an oak tree on the Green during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a human skeleton was found tangled in the roots, its mouth open.

Second, the Green is not actually owned by the City of New Haven. It’s owned by the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven, a private group with an unwieldy name, composed of the descendants of the New Haven colony’s original seven landholders. This wasn’t much of an issue until 2011, when New Haven’s branch of Occupy Wall Street set up shop on the Green. When the New Haven Police tried to remove the occupation, protestors took the City to court, arguing the City didn’t have the right to remove them from the Committee’s land. While Occupy ultimately lost the case and had to relocate camp, this little loophole helped Occupy New Haven become the longest lasting occupation in the Northeast. With our perfect storm of college students, free-spirited liberals, and a booming homeless population, Occupy New Haven was the spot to be for a solid eight months. Plus protesting the 1 percent was always more fun than attending high school. Again, not that I would know from firsthand experience because I cherish rules.


This real-life brochure in front of you is called Old Campus. Those two sturdy boys playing catch over there are not, in fact, being paid to do so by Yale Admissions. Apparently some people just like to play catch for fun! You really do meet all kinds of people in college.

That statue over there is Nathan Hale, who is famous for being a crap spy. The man volunteered to collect intelligence on the Brits by posing as a Dutch schoolteacher during the Revolutionary War, and was caught after only a few weeks. He was hanged with a Bible and a Yale diploma in hand, prompting his famous last words: “Cs get degrees, but degrees don’t get you much when you’re getting hanged for treason.”

Also this isn’t really a statue of Nathan Hale, since no one could find a picture of him when Yale decided to make the honorary statue in 1914. Instead, the Administration lined up the Yale Class of 1914 and chose the most patriotic-looking man for the mold.

The bigger statue by that tree is Theodore Dwight Woolsey, the only president of a northern university to not send southern students home during the Civil War. There’s a story about how his toe is lucky, so people rub it for good luck, but don’t be fooled—that toe is more golden with student urine than with luck. This isn’t just a Yale tradition. Harvard similarly has a big statue of John Harvard with a toe that tourists rub for luck and students relieve themselves on for laughs. Oh, the Ivy League!

Of course, that one’s not really a statue of John Harvard either, and John Harvard didn’t even found Harvard. That’s sort of how this whole thing works, if you haven’t figured it out already. Someone builds something on somebody else’s land, and later it gets named after a benefactor with nebulous ties to the building. And that’s how tradition is made, folks.


And now our tour must come to an end, conveniently located by a store where you can buy all sorts of Y-emblazoned stuff for three times what it’s worth. Or you can find a nice book, read it in the store, and then put it back on the shelf with a few friendly dog-ears for the next time you want to visit. If anybody wants lunch, you can buy a fourteen-dollar salad at Claire’s Corner Copia, or you can steal an iced tea from Gourmet Heaven, climb a fire escape, and see how many phalluses you can find in the Gothic architecture. First one to thirty wins!

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