The Yale Club of New York, which literally overshadows Grand Central
Station with 18 floors of hotel rooms, restaurants and a spa, hosts a happy hour every
Thursday night of summer for current students and recent alumni. Half the women wear black for work and the other half for going
out after happy hour ends. They greet dimly remembered graduates and
former roommates, circle the room three times and never quite sit down.
They flush with exultation at the sense that the ruling class exists and they are it.
In three weeks, when my senior year at Yale begins, I will sit across from some of these women in the dining hall as we push fried scrod around our plates and wipe our fingers on our jeans, and nothing will ever be the same.
The Yale Club uses these nights as a come-on for prospective members, a meet-and-greet teach-in on looking comfortable in a suit and tie. The
happy hours are a good place to see a lot of people and a bad place to have a conversation with one. They frighten me: I see intimations everywhere of the divides that college so successfully hides and the real world so inexorably instills.
You can tell summer salaries by the relative levels of bravado in the clot by the entrance. The track star working in information technology for J.P.
Morgan pulls rank over the intern at Bloomberg News, while the silent girl
from my environmental studies section now pronounces the name of her law
firm with emphasis. You can watch who drinks water and fills up on the free chicken wings and who buys a round, who makes arrangements to meet for lunch in midtown and who sits in the corner with her friend from high school and leaves two hours before last call. You can watch money, power
and prestige begin to work their magic.
You can't see any of this at school, where distinguishing the executives' sons and university brats from the legal secretary's daughter is just as difficult as predicting which of the English majors will go on to a Ph.D. and which will end up with an M.B.A. With few exceptions, we wear the same clothes, go to the same parties, eat the same dining-hall food and live down the hall in the same dorms. Those who have money don't have a lot of
opportunity to spend it, and those who don't can hide their want. The members of Student
Coalition for Diversity are just as likely to be poor, middle-income or rich as those enrolled in the upper-level economics seminar.
The cloaking of class serves a purpose; though you won't find any
trust-fund babies among the student dish-washers, it's no accident that
Yale no longer charges different prices for different-sized rooms. For
four years, we're told, your parents' salary doesn't impress us and your
Internet start-up won't make you popular. Do the work, edit a newspaper,
spend 10 hours a week teaching math to third graders; just don't let
dollars intrude on the erudition. The self-congratulation is for plays,
papers, holding your own on a Saturday night and opening the library on
Sunday morning. You're at home here, and none of your roommates knows how
you pay the rent.
All that changed for me this summer. Suddenly I began thinking about my
fellow students and their money. The issue was no longer our parents'
salaries, but our own earning potential. The theater major working at
Performance Space 122 is a no-show at the Yale Club. One friend is
planning a museum exhibit, another raises money for a nonprofit housing
center. How would their occupations hold up in the
The divisions masked by dorms and dining halls come out in choice of
internships, in the restaurants we suggest and the names we drop, in our
work uniforms and our after-work entertainment. The language of job titles
and hierarchy, housing costs and corner offices -- the conversation that
supersedes major and sorority and extracurricular to demarcate adult
tribes -- now buzzes around every gathering. When I see my high school
classmates who didn't go to Yale, the variation in career goals, from
accounting to animal rights, is far more problematic than the various
college destinations were. Suddenly we have set out on paths away from
college and many of them lead to different worlds.
Somehow I never thought that some of my friends would buy in and others
would drop out, or if I did, it never hit me that I would have to choose
between them. I worked this summer for a union-oriented public policy
group, and I would go from writing screeds against the avarice of global
finance to having drinks with global financiers in training. One way or
another, I was faking it.
Yale was, too, in the implicit promise that old egalitarian school spirit
would keep its hold outside the gates. I don't want to know that, once we
graduate, half of my intramural football team won't be able to talk to the other half about
what they do all day. I don't want to hear self-definitions change from "a
cappella singer" to "corporate lawyer," to watch the boys who preferred
kegs to books become big shots through fraternity connections. I don't
want to divide my corporate from my non-corporate friends and only call
the ones who make the cut. But as we meet after work to compare days and
lifestyles and worldviews -- or to talk around the differences -- I can't
help noticing the gulf growing.
Back on campus, conversation will turn to classes and hook-ups, the
commonalities that hide the differences in where we come from. I fear
that they will no longer hide the differences in where we're going. Whose
dining hall food will turn into expense-account dinners, and who will
hot-plate rice and beans four nights a week? Who will own a closet full of
business suits, and who will still wear the same T-shirts two years from
now? The Yale Club costs thousands of dollars a year to join, and once we
leave the dining hall, the artists, activists, traders and lawyers won't
sit at the same table anymore.
I've stopped going to the Thursday night happy hours. A year from now,
I'll no longer go to college. And what I will miss most is the grand
illusion that we are all in this together.