The train from Grand Central to Union Station in New Haven is one I know well. Since freshman year, I have taken it over a dozen times. While the main purpose of these trips is to visit my best friend from high school (now a junior at Yale), I think that another, secondary purpose is to escape; to escape New York, NYU, Carlyle etc.; just for a day or two, to get a look at some of the grass on the other side.
It is fitting then (or perhaps ironic) that my most recent visit (this past Monday) should have coincided with Yale’s Spring Fling—an event that is, in many ways, a chance for Yale students to escape Yale. Falling just before reading week (their study period right before finals) the Fling is a kind of hedonistic eye in the middle of the academic storm. It is an all day festival, with free food and (new this year) free beer during the day, and a huge concert in the evening. Drinking traditionally begins early and goes on for much of the day (though due to a shortened reading week this year, many students were forced to do at least some work during the day and push their intoxication back to three, even four o’clock.)
But it is not the booze itself that creates an aura of escapism. I have been to many Yale parties, with at least as much drinking, which were the furthest thing from escapist—as much an extension of and in tune with the school’s ethos as Gothic Architecture, Cole Porter and Boola Boola (look it up). No, what I believe makes Yale’s Spring Fling an escape is not that it is a giant party, but rather the kind of giant party it is.
Consider the venue. It takes place on Old Campus—a complex of old academic and residential buildings surrounding a large, grassy quad—with a massive concert stage and jumbotron on one end of the lawn, and a kind of food court on the other. In between is a scene more reminiscent of a music festival than the campus of an Ivy League University. People where crappy plastic sunglasses, neon spandex, and revealing, sleeveless t-shirts. For those who have not been drunk for hours (and are over 21) there is a beer garden set up outside Farnam Hall. The atmosphere is light, almost jubilant; the finals looming just days away, safely out of mind.
Then, consider the music. At least for me (and it might here be worth recalling that mine is an outside perspective) there is something a bit un-Yale about going to the performance of any group unaffiliated with the university. Often when I visit, I will be taken to a show, though it is almost always that of a Yale improve troupe or a cappella group. Once, I even saw my friend act in a Pokémon musical that his friends wrote and directed. This kind of insular, student-based artistic community is one of the things that differentiate Yale from NYU (where, when people visit, they are far more likely to be brought to a Broadway Show than NYU student play.) So, I suppose it’s possible that any professional band would strike me as a bit of an escape. Still though, this year’s line up—Best Coast, Group Love, and Macklemore—seemed particularly un-Yale. Actually, there are many ways in which that is not true. Their styles of music (lo-fi alt-rock, and indie-hip hop) and styles in general (angry, fun, and ironic hipster) are not too far from those of the Yale students I know. And, from what I’ve been told, Thrift Shop has been playing in iPod headphones and out of laptop speakers as much as anything by the Whiffenpoofs. Though even these seem like surface similarities, since all three are quintessentially west coast bands (Best Coast and Group Love hail from Los Angeles and Macklemore from Seattle) and Yale is so decidedly an east coast place. I welcome dissent on this point, but for my money, Yale is about as far, literally and spiritually, from the west coast (and particularly Los Angeles) as you can get in America. Among the many salient differences are their attitudes towards history. Yale celebrates it; the west refutes it. Yale is a celebration of the past; of tradition; of permanence. The west is a celebration of the future; of youth; of transience.
And so too is Spring Fling—thousands of inebriated young people, dancing around tents and other temporary structures, rejoicing their escape from the great forces of history, which so color life at Yale. But, as the imposing stone buildings surrounding the bacchanal suggest, it is only a momentary escape.