In the Saybrook Library, in one of the study rooms off to the left, there is a drawer full of left-behind things. There is a gum wrapper, a green pencil, a tube of ChapStick, a dining hall spoon. There are also scattered sheets of paper, different sizes, different colors: notes. Some of the messages are long, elegantly penned soliloquies, carefully printed in velvet-blue ink. Others are just scraps of sentences, scribbled on the back of receipts with cheap ballpoint pen. People stumble upon the trove accidentally, add to it on the sly.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m sitting at this desk, with all of these letters in front of me. I’m supposed to write something meaningful about this, afterward.
“It is 1:31 a.m. on a Woadsday and my homework has just begun.”
I like to imagine that C.E. is restless. First, “Woadsday”: What does it mean to the writer? A weekly tradition, unknown land? And that slight undercurrent of bitterness, masked under the jocular tone. C.E. is in the Saybrook Library at 1:31 a.m. on a Woadsday because he has a problem set due tomorrow. Due tomorrow, he writes down, at the cost of his “precious sleep.”
Here’s a nice image: C.E. taps his pencil against his desk — he is alone, and the space echoes. It smells like must and old books, and while this could be romantic at another hour, he can hear the hollering outside, the whooping and the living it up.
His handwriting is round, compact — it doesn’t take much space to get across what he wants, what he needs.
“Enjoy the shortest, gladdest years of life,” he says.
“Best,” he ends.
I wonder if the authors of these notes ever thought about who would read what they wrote. If, when they began, they paused, self-conscious.
Did they imagine some Yalie, running on the last dregs of coffee, desperate for any distraction from the inevitable task at hand? Did they imagine some Yalie just bored out of her mind on a Sunday, rain beating against the windows, nothing to do, nothing to see? Or is this whole drawer, this not-so-secret compartment, some great conspiracy, common knowledge in Saybrook canon?
“I just got chocolate brioche from the French bakery-cafe, and boy, is it good!”
Brioche is a type of pastry, similar to bread. There’s a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin from the 1700s, succinctly titled “The Brioche.” It shows the dessert displayed on a silver plate, a cut of fresh flowers artfully arranged on its surface.
Of course, W. probably wasn’t thinking about this; when he bought chocolate brioche and ate it in the Saybrook Library sometime during finals week of 2014. Still, why did he mention it? Why did he, among all the talk about his exams, his inevitable procrastination and his firm assertion of his manhood (“You might think this is a girl’s handwriting, but I assure you it’s not!”), decide to put this brioche down for posterity? What is the significant of the brioche? Does it even have significance?
Alternatively: the taste of sweet on the tongue during a hard time, small joy, jotted down.
“Cheers and peace to all y’all,” he says. “God Bless.”
I take a picture of each note, as reference for later. It’s awkward, this whole business. I feel like I’m intruding on a compact of trust. There’s this question of whether letters like these were meant to be preserved forever, to be easily accessed again, reviewed over and over.
If I didn’t have these photographs on my phone, I wouldn’t remember all of the details. Some lines would stand out, there would be this general sense — stress, cheekiness, humor mixed with fatalism — but it’d mostly be a blur, not exact, not precise.
Yet, maybe these notes, hidden by happenstance in this drawer, were meant to be transitory. Their value is not quite in their impermanence — it’s more, the memory, the stumbling-upon, the accident.
“I made the great mistake of not coming to Yale … my crimson blood feels a bit blue.”
— the Bostonian
Summer, date unknown. The Bostonian is here as a camp counselor; that’s as much as the letter says. Otherwise: a ripped piece of notebook paper, a Greek vocabulary list: “to disgrace,” “an oracle.” The note is in green pen, big, obvious letters.
The Bostonian is not a Yalie. The Bostonian, in fact, is from Harvard — but there’s not much of that famed rivalry here. Instead, an honest confession, creased and tucked inside a drawer. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances in which the Bostonian wrote this note: melancholy, poetry, early morning before the first rise of the sun, midday, perhaps. There’s a kind of respect, deep-rooted, not to be mistaken for envy.
“Continue doing your Yalie thing,” he says.
“I appreciate it,” he says.
“Good luck in football.”
A laugh, sealed in paper.
There are many more notes, of course. And, while they all deserve to be read, I don’t think that’s the point — to go at them with the deliberateness of reading. Tucked inside some forgotten drawer, these are not exactly treasures, these are not exactly secrets. I suppose the best way to describe it is that they are waiting to be discovered, but not desperate to be found and it’s important to remember that even though they are being written about, here and now, that has never really been the point.
Some of them try to offer comfort. Others are just fragmented thoughts, inside jokes, a recording of gossip, day-to-day life. One is even unfinished, ending two words into a sentence: “there is.”
It’s funny to think of the authors of these things, these things that could bring insight and joy and sadness and a deep contemplation of all things in the present: We might never meet them. They might, in fact, have already left.