A Day At Harvard-Yale And Its Tragic Tailgate

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—I could tell you about dropping by the Yale crew alumni tailgate on Saturday, and taking a shot of Jim Beam with a slice of prosciutto, but that's not the reason the Game's 2011 tailgate will forever be the Tailgate. We'll now call it the Tailgate because three women there got run over by a U-Haul, and one died.

I went to a dinner about a year ago with the kid who was driving the U-Haul on Saturday. He's a good friend's good friend. He was quite friendly, not the fratty type you might imagine. You probably won't believe me when I write this, because people always say this after something bad happens, but, really, one would never have expected this kid to be involved in this thing. What exactly happened we still don't know—I heard whispers of a brake malfunction, and the driver's lawyer hinted similarly on Sunday. I wasn't there to see the accident happen, although cop cars and motorcycles sped past me on Chapel Street while I walked to the game.

Usually, when something tragic happens in a space full of drunk people, the crowd immediately disperses, wary of an oncoming moral reckoning. The party ends. You wallow. But the party had just begun at 10 a.m. on Saturday, when the U-Haul did its thing. We couldn't go home, we couldn't slow down. We had come so far.

My party had started much earlier, at 6:50 that morning, when I, wearing three layers and armed with a flask of cheap bourbon, hopped in a cab to 125th Street Station in Manhattan. Crimson-clad young adults filled the dim station, with a handful of Yale folks thrown in for good measure. Metro-North rarely sees such bone structure. Our car was standing-room only, with mostly Harvard kids filling the train's aisles and vestibules, hugging old friends and passing around bottles of red wine. One young couple next to me was trying to plan brunch at Yale's Elizabethan Club—per Wikipedia, "The club is dedicated to conversation, tea, the art of the book, and literature, focused on—but not exclusively of—the Elizabethan era." (I heard later in the day that the Lizzie had nice breakfast sandwiches but no champagne.) Another 20s couple bemoaned that they had spent all night at a producers' party for the Godspell revival. They got barely any sleep.

Everyone on the train was abuzz about the kids they hadn't seen and the tailgates they planned to hit. They worried a little, as did I, about how they might find their way to the Yale Bowl, which sits over a mile from Yale's campus, has next to no parking, and is accessible by few roads. Word soon spread that there would be shuttles. And the train party ebbed a bit when ten Long Island bros rolled in from a forward car. They had three or four 30-packs of Bud Light between them, and only one Yale sweatshirt (purchased earlier that week), equaling their group's number of Hofstra sweatshirts. (I knew they were ringers from the moment they cogently discussed what had happened in the Iowa State-Oklahoma State game on Friday night.) They soon took a couple of Asian girls in Harvard gear under their oil-slicked wings. I saw them later at the tailgate, a few hundred yards removed from the student section, with some new girls and more beer.

A Day At Harvard-Yale And Its Tragic Tailgate

The Game is, after all, an inclusive affair. For all the hemming and hawing about some Harvard types' dumb "We are the six percent" mesh pinnies, I got into the student tailgate. (Not so long ago, I was rejected from both Yale and Harvard.) The rent-a-cops weren't asking for school IDs at the student tailgate checkpoint. They only wanted state IDs to see if you were of age, at which point you'd get a lime-colored wristband for drinks. Anyone could come, despite the fences surrounding the student area. That's why there's nothing too surprising about the news that the woman who died in the student tailgate was a 30-year-old costume designer from Salem, Mass., with no connection to either school. The Game sucks people in like that.

It had all the trappings of a bad high school reunion. There wouldn't be enough booze. And, right, I'd be surrounded by former high school classmates who got into Yale and Harvard. But it turned out that all my former high school classmates wanted to talk about was the accident. Several chipper versions of "Oh my god, you heard about what happened, right?" You can only be so reverent, though, while drinking and dancing 100 feet from the scene of a fatal wreck.

No one really wanted reverence, though. It certainly wasn't reverence, but rather the usual tailgate fare, when one young alum started poking around one U-Haul's empty PBR cartons and enraged some fellow in that U-Haul. Before too long, he had a full beer dumped on his head and got punched in the jaw.

The students wanted to go on with their party, and the non-Yale Astonished Adults wanted outrage. Seemingly every story about the accident mentions that kegs filled the U-Haul's trailer, almost as if to suggest that a truck freighted with textbooks would have bounced off otherwise helpless tailgate attendees. Those persistent voices fretting about binge drinking get antsier when they talk about Harvard and Yale—Harvard banned kegs, liquor, and U-Hauls last year, and the New York Times has already deputized two former Yale Daily News staffers to fret about the future of Yale tailgates in print. There's now a cottage industry devoted to wondering how much our best and brightest drink.

They announced the news to the Yale Bowl crowd at halftime. The student tailgate had shut down just before the half, at which point I (and most of the Yale students) had made our way to the Game. The students who hadn't heard about the wreck at the party now knew. Yale was down 24-7. Most of the students left by the end of the third quarter, even though the score hadn't changed. The kids don't really care about football. They're too smart for that.

A Day At Harvard-Yale And Its Tragic Tailgate

There was a crush to get out of the stadium once the game ended, and I stood in a shuttle bus line for nearly an hour, as the booze wore off and the surrounding crowd once again became heavily Cantab. My suppressed Harvard loathing ratcheted back up. OK, you assholes, you all have a bus back to Cambridge that leaves from the stadium. You wait. I have to get the hell out of here. I'm about to start snarling. But my inner monologue didn't move the line. It seemed to become more glacial. The cold was setting in. So I called my mother and asked her to pick me up. By the early evening, I had been whisked away to the comforts of suburban New Haven, away from all those crazy people in crimson sweaters. Or so I thought.

My parents badgered me to attend a cocktail party at the neighbors' house, which on the invitation said its guests would "Bask in the Afterglow" of Harvard-Yale. What afterglow? Harvard had won 45-7, giving it 10 wins over Yale in the last 11 games. Patrick Witt had no Rhodes scholarship, but he did have three picks. (We found out on Sunday that Harvard would have four Rhodes Scholars to Yale's one. Ronan Farrow doesn't count.) It was an odd party in that it required a jacket and a collared shirt to celebrate a terrible football game. What must parties after blowout Alabama losses require—top hats and tails?

The party was the only place where I heard anyone talking about football. They were upset with Witt. They were upset with Tom Williams, Yale's fibbing coach. The only non-football thing I heard was that Yale had a hot blonde athletic trainer whom Deadspin's readers would enjoy. A Harvard man told me this.

Frustrated, I went back to New Haven that night. The campus had cleared out for Thanksgiving break. Things got worse. I met up with a friend from high school, and I saw his booze get confiscated by a zealous dean and her tiny Pekinese.

Can I see your ID? I've had a really long day.

So have I, I left New York at 6:30—

No, I don't care how long your day was, mine was longer.

The student driving the U-Haul was a charge of hers, and the dean seemed hell-bent on taking out her anxiety on my buddy. He skulked back to his room shortly thereafter. So I met another friend. We sat on a bench on Old Campus and fretted about lots of things. The people-watching wasn't any good, although one girl passed by and, without a hint of irony, yelled into her phone, "I'm going to Theta and then Zeta." And then several days of compressed malaise caught up on my friend and me. "I'm not going to have this conversation now," he said. "I've had a bad day and it's not going to get any worse."

I called for a cab from New Haven's Metro Taxi because I remembered their phone number from growing up—777-7777. Even though I aimed to summon a cab merely to downtown, they said it would be a half-hour wait. So we went for a drink around 11 at the Anchor, a dive bar a block away from where my cab was heading. The driver would call when he arrived. In the bar, everything was faux wood and vinyl, with spinning plastic ceiling fans and orange lights overhead. As groups would leave, a man in a too-large suit and bowtie would spritz the tables with Pine-Sol and wipe them down. We grabbed new drinks and tried to turn the night around. Stanford-Cal was on TV, with periodic interruptions from USC-Oregon, informing us that important things had happened in college football that day. 50 minutes later, my cab still hadn't arrived. I dialed those sevens again. Yeah, we tried calling you. You didn't pick up. We'll have to go through the process again. No, you didn't, and ugh, really? There were new drinks and new Elis that popped up in our booth, talking about secret society selection and such. I watched Andrew Luck survive Jeff Tedford et al. over some shoulders. I called the cab company again. They told me it would be another half-hour. More drinks, more yammering. At 12:53 a.m. on Sunday, I got the call. The taxi was outside. It would whisk me back to my childhood bed of last resort, where my day would end.

On the train up to New Haven, I heard some girls talking about an episode, "Splat!," from the sixth season of Sex and the City, where Kristen Johnson's character bemoans how boring New York's parties have become before she falls out of a window and dies. The accident hadn't happened yet, so they were probably just discussing Sex and the City for fun. I remembered, too, Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," the essay which closes with a toddler chewing on an electrical cord, neglected by his stoned parents. The freak accident in the hazy atmosphere is always the story's kicker. But no one told that to the Yale student tailgate. That lady died at 9:49 a.m. on Saturday, and the party went on anyway.