Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Cole Porter to Coolio

July-August 2004

They're dancing on the Steinway piano. And on the parquet, the Persian rugs, and the oak tables. The room is reverberating to a song called "Tipsy" — raspy rap lyrics laid over a chopped-down, no-nonsense backbeat and laced with rhythmic sexual panting. The dance floor is a zoo of gators and ponies, Lacoste and Polo. On the walls are real animals: hunting trophies. Cigar smoke and spilled scotch and sweat. It's somewhere between Saturday night and Sunday morning and Harvard is "out."

A group of students stumbles from the door of one of the outwardly unassuming final clubs, onto Mount Auburn Street. From the street, you can see members playing pool through an upstairs window. One is wearing a red smoking jacket. The scene feels like something out of a dated novel: slightly over the top, slightly unreal. The sounds coming from the windows of the clubs — hip-hop from one, classical from another — blend into a din with the light growl of taxi traffic and the occasional shrieks of partygoers. The students angle up Bow Street toward Adams House.

They find their way to a room party in A-entry where many of the guests have wine bottles duct-taped to their hands. One can remove the tape, the host explains, when the wine is finished. His tape has been off for some time and he has moved on to other methods of alcohol consumption.

Architecturally, at least, the suite is classic Harvard. Adams A-entry was originally Westmorely Court, part of Cambridge's "Gold Coast" — luxurious apartments sought out by Harvard's most affluent undergraduates. Wood floors, intricate wall detailing, and a large fireplace adorn what was once a splendid private apartment. The decorations in the suite's common-room today seem schizophrenic, as if torn between instincts to acknowledge this history and to eschew it. The effect of an antique-looking globe and a mahogany humidor is undermined by a big-screen TV, a dangling disco ball, and pulsing European techno music.

Lines dividing past, present, and future blur at Harvard. Cole Porter coexists harmoniously with Coolio; backgammon with beer-pong; tailcoats with thongs. Pianos serve as makeshift hip-hop dance floors, then later the same day fill a room with Rachmaninoff or Liszt. Back at the final club, in a dark corner, sunk deep in armchairs and apparently oblivious to the blasting beats of the chorus — "E'erybody in the club gettin' tipsy" — two tweed-clad sophomores, having debated the finer points of Montesquieu, tire intellectually and decide to head downstairs to watch Futurama on TiVo.

 

The thought hit me in New Haven. I was at Yale for "The Game," pacing among the tailgates with my 18-year-old brother, William, then a prospective Harvard pre-frosh. It was his first Harvard-Yale game and he had driven up from D.C. for the occasion. I was introducing him to friends as we wove our way through the lineup of open-backed U-Haul vans with their smoking barbeque grills.

William and I settled on a couch in front of the crew tailgate, chatting with my freshman-year roommate, now a varsity rower. The heavyweights had raced that morning, had won, and were in high form. Several were wearing old-fashioned V-neck tennis sweaters with a large "H" emblazoned on the chest. Equally prevalent were plastic-mesh "trucker" caps crested with the same "H" — opposite fashion statements, same symbol.

The football started at 12:30. William asked why nobody was leaving the tailgates. "Oh, everybody goes in late," I said. "Most people don't come to watch the game, anyway." I had always just taken it for granted that The Game was as much a social tradition as an athletic competition. Why else would so many students — who would never think of going to a regular Saturday home game in Cambridge, who indeed do not know the first thing about football — make this biennial migration to New Haven?

We made it into the stadium for the halftime show. In a familiar spectacle, the bands battled. Harvard hauled an enormous bulldog effigy onto the field and, with terrific ado, beheaded it. The Crimson Crazies whooped with delight. A Yale announcer mocked Harvard over the loudspeaker. The Harvard cheering section broke into chants of "Safety school." A formalized performance, refined through years of repetition.

A group of alumni, huddled under a class flag, broke spontaneously into song, and soon much of the Harvard cheering section was belting "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard." One wizened alumnus, from the forthcoming reunion class of '39, joined hands with a group of undergraduates, chanting away, raspily, proudly.

I was charmed by the image of the old man singing, but gradually my focus shifted to the students around him. Traditions, after all, persist only so long as they are celebrated. The old man was just singing. It was the students — with their rapt attention — who made the scene such a poignant spectacle. Harvard tradition cannot be greater than ordinary Harvard students. Alumni celebrate tradition, even endow it. But it is students who engage tradition, and it is students who carry the all-important pruning shears. It is students who have the power to simply ignore what no longer seems relevant.

Harvard beat Yale that day. On our way out of the stadium, William and I bumped into another acquaintance of mine, an activist, handing out fliers promoting the increase of wages for workers on college campuses. I asked him about the group he was with and he launched into an impassioned tirade against administrative injustices. "But things will change," he said. "We will make them change. Just like 1969; just like 2001."

 

William gave me a ride back to Harvard and three of my friends, two seniors and a junior, piled into the back seat. We talked about Larry Summers's plans for curricular review, and then for a while about what we would do differently if we could start over again at Harvard. Certainly we gave William a lot to keep in mind — perhaps too much. His Harvard experience, after all, would be his for the making.

Nonetheless, he listened with the general attentiveness one might expect of a Harvard hopeful. As we drove around Harvard Square, he did his best to notice everything: the final clubs, the Lampoon castle, the Gold Coast housing; the Charles Hotel, the Coop, the Common. As we passed Johnston Gate I pointed out Massachusetts Hall, Harvard's oldest building. "And freshmen live there?" he asked. "That's pretty cool."

After dropping off my friends at their Houses, we headed up Garden Street toward the Quad. William would spend the night on my sofa and drive back to Washington in the morning. The traffic was backed up in front of the First Congregational Church. There was a rally in support of gay marriage and drivers were rubbernecking as everybody tried to catch a glimpse. I told William that this was one of the oldest congregations in Cambridge.

William edged around a car that was blocking the way. The traffic cleared ahead and he pressed the gas-pedal, accelerating toward his first night at Harvard. There was something very exciting about that feeling — our backs pressed against the seats, the wind in our hair, moving forward. All the same, I'm embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what lay ahead of us. My eyes were focused squarely on the rear view mirror.

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