NEW HAVEN, CONN. -- I was here," the book seems to say to me. The book is clothbound, with blank, unlined pages. On the cover has been pasted a label, "Saybrook Guest Book," and the first entry is from April 1983: "How fortunate I feel to have spent an evening in these rooms with all these memories." The guest, like all the others, is polite. He does not mention that there is no shower.
"These rooms" are a guest suite at Saybrook, one of the colleges at Yale. I am here to make a speech, and I have spotted the guest book on the top of the desk in my room. The suite consists of two rooms and a bath. The living room has the desk, several chairs and a bookcase that's stocked appropriately for Yale -- Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, Samuel Butler. The bedroom has two single beds, and the bathroom, as I mentioned, has no shower.
I pick up the guest book and start to read. Some people have written poems. Some have written in French. Some give their titles -- "visiting professor," for example -- or the reason for their visit. A transplanted southerner exults in the snow that has fallen: "Snow gently falling onto ivy-covered walls; quiet courtyards made even quieter by a snowstorm . . . An ambiance that allows one to feel refreshed." A "transplanted Yankee" signs his name and his university: Clemson.
Why do these people write in the guest book? Why do they identify themselves? Why do they say who has accompanied them and, often, the reason they have come to Yale? A woman I happen to know, a Washingtonian, writes in the book that she heard "the sound of a perfectly played Mozart sonata pouring out an open window. How fortunate I feel!" Yes. But who is she writing for?
For me, of course. Me and anyone else who happens to read the book -- anyone, that is, who happens to stay in the guest suite at Yale, which remains a very special place. Like a name carved into a tree, the guest book is a way to leave a mark, an urge all of us, from maybe the cavemen on, seem to have.
But this book has a special quality to it. Most guest books in inns or family-run guest houses are really notes left to the host, a pretense that one is really a guest and not a paying customer. Wonderful room. Breakfast was terrific. That sort of thing. This guest book has that flavor, but something else as well. It says not only that the person was here, but that he or she earned an invitation by accomplishment. Like admission to Yale itself, it's a statement of status. That's why there are so many paeans to Yale in the book, to its consummate ivyness, to the snow, to the precise nature of the music (Mozart) -- and not a mention of the missing shower, the leaking toilet or the alarm clock that does not work.
Years ago, when the graffiti rage hit New York, some well-known people -- Norman Mailer, for one -- praised what was essentially the mutilation of subway trains as primitive art of the highest order. Indeed, some of the graffiti were wonderful -- colorful, bold and evocative. But what was most bold about them was their very existence. Someone had gotten to a subway train, climbed a fence in the yard at night and left his mark. It was a statement of courage, of bravery -- also of arrogance and contempt. Rules, even laws, had been broken. And not always anonymously. Every time that train rolled through a station, the artist's existence was proclaimed. He was here and he mattered. Viva Juan of 116th Street!
Of course, to most others the graffiti were just intimidating and ugly. They signified that the subways were not safe. If someone could deface a train and get away with it, then that same someone could enter the train and rob the people on it. The graffiti meant that New York City could no longer guarantee the safety of the people who rode the trains. The person who left a mark on a train could leave a mark on a passenger, too.
The Yale guest book serves a similar purpose. The entries are intended not so much for the host -- something called the Yale Corporation -- but for others who would peruse the book for recognizable names or for credentials that would put us in good, even elite, company. "A very great privilege and pleasure to be accommodated here, and for the second time -- Northumberland, England," reads one entry. Privilege and pleasure, the latter dependent on the former. Few things please as much as privilege.
"Just what I imagined Yale would be like!" exclaims one writer in the guest book. Others simultaneously praise and certify themselves: "The sight of the Yale and Harvard seals resting tranquilly alongside one another over the archway to Hadley entry was an epiphany. There is hope for Peace on Earth!" I doubt if such words would be found in guest books at the University of Maryland or Kansas State -- maybe something about football or old times but not, I think, words that smack of such evident self- satisfaction or the comforting inside joke that the Harvard-Yale rivalry is the equal of those that can cause war.
But I am not immune to the lure of the guest book. I read it to see the company I keep, and I have to admit I'm pleased to see that this company includes visiting professors, distinguished lecturers from Britain, scholars from Africa. I take out my pen to make my own announcement, maybe to say something about my speech or the festive air on campus right before the annual Harvard-Yale game. But then the attitude that kept me out of Yale in the first place asserts itself. "Are there showers at Harvard?" I ask.
I suppose I make a lousy guest. ::