It was around midnight when we came upon the large street vent. The vent smelled of sunburnt cement and wet pages from an old book. One vent panel folded upwards, revealing a ladder descending infinitely into the dark. We sat down by the edge, feet dangling, as if to test the nonexistent water. We exchanged nervous looks. We circled the vent in clumsy reluctance. We speed-walked to our suite, chugged a bottle of wine and came back, two granola bars in hand. We bathed longingly in the self-induced drama of our secrecy. I sneezed. We stole one last, longing glance at the sky, took a breath to feel our lungs and slowly climbed down.
“Part real and part rumor, underground Yale is Edgar Allan Poe territory,” concluded the Yale Alumni Magazine. “All the ways Yale is just like Hogwarts,” announced the Yale Daily News. We were alone in the tunnels, but not in our fantasy. Campus publications also fill the steam tunnels with airs of mystery and suspense. The forbidden tunnels. The secret tunnels. The not-everyone-knows-where-they-are tunnels.
But as we tightened our grip on the rusty ladder, shaking with excitement, perhaps part of us knew that the tunnels were nothing special. That steam tunnels are tunnels meant to carry steam. That they were built for convenience, not reveries. If you took a look at the “Architectural Drawings and Maps of Yale University Buildings and Grounds” papers, you would see that the tunnels were built along with the original eight residential colleges, Sterling Memorial Library and Payne Whitney Gymnasium in the early 1930s. The underground tunnels were meant to transport steam and electricity. Connecting the 10 buildings, they make it easier to transport services and equipment. Built for convenience, not reveries. Spellbound students might forget this fact, walking around campus with their heads down, searching for an alluring birth myth.
So as we descended, hearts pounding and noses running, into our very own alluring birth myth, we couldn’t help but wonder about the appeal of secrecy. What is it that makes the claustrophobic utility tunnels a sacred labyrinth? What makes the unseen want to be seen?
We wondered and wandered. The inside of the steam tunnels was dusty in a yellow way, or yellow in a dusty way. Large water pipes ran silently along cement walls. In forgotten corners were piles of even more forgotten things. Chairs tucked under tables. Chairs piled above tables. Some traffic cones. A stack of plates. A broken popcorn machine.
We circled the popcorn machine, trying to discern the doodles written across the broken glass shards. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenologist, addressed the tension between subjective perception and objective reality with a playing die. One person can only see one side of the die at one time. But together with six others, we can inform each other about our individual sides and piece together our collective reality. Even if we rotate positions so that we each see a different side of the die, the die we eventually piece together would be identical to our previous attempt. Only as a collective can we attest to the existence of an identical, external world. What a relief, says Husserl. Hooray, says Heidegger.
But as I left a trail of murky footprints on the crummy ground, as I stepped over stacks after stacks of forgotten pipes and plates and cones and a popcorn machine, I wondered if we as the “collective” love secrets because we need a break from constantly confirming the world for each other.
“I imagine that [being in the tunnels] feels like a completely different world,” said Rachel Diaz ’20. Maybe we want a place to ourselves. Maybe we want a fact to ourselves. Maybe we no longer want to be different people in the same place in the same world. Maybe we are seeking our own individual realities.
“I think I kind of romanticize the fact that we aren’t allowed to be in there,” said Amanda Patterson ’21. The anthropologist Victor Turner coined the word “anti-structure” to describe practices of revolt that intentionally counteracts mainstream culture. As we stumbled around in the tunnels with downturned heads to avoid the rumbling steam pipes, we became hyperaware of the intentionality of each step. The sense of radical agency comes not only from breaking away spatially but also socially.
But can we really escape a worldly reality and claim something solely for ourselves? A secret mentioned but unrevealed is a secret; a secret unmentioned is plain silence. We fumbled around the tunnels and discovered a forgotten box of vermouth. We decided a souvenir was in order. We dug through the box, found an unopened bottle and stuck it to the wall of our common room. Why is there a bottle of vermouth stuck to the wall? people would ask. We would smugly disclose a story of the vent and the wine and the plates and the yellow. Just like those before us who wandered upon an entrance to the tunnels, we revealed a narrative in hopes of concealing a reality. We told and retold. We found an anti-structure just to feel more secure in our structure. We confirmed and reconfirmed. We ran away only to come back.
The paradoxical nature of secrecy isn’t special to this day and age. Years ago, a student named Charles Albertus took a collection of scenic photos around campus. Photos of Sterling library. The residential colleges. Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The photos contained no human subjects. But two photos of the newly constructed tunnels snuck their way into the very back of the folders. The pipes were just as dirty and the floor just as clammy. Unlike the lonely depictions of the solitary buildings, the photo included five construction workers. They stood in a tight and comfortable line above a sturdy pipe, smiling assertively at the camera. I wondered if Albertus felt that the tunnels were different than the other buildings he took photos of. I wondered how the workers felt about the tunnels. I don’t really know.
But there are things that I do know. The last time we went back to the tunnels, the panel was tied down by an iron chain. I remember how my heart sank and floated slowly back up, how we hurried forward and how we stared down at it. We didn’t speak for a short moment and the short moment seemed very long. Even if the escape was brief and the exemption was illusory, I still wanted it. A few months after our adventure, my friend came back from Christmas break with a chainsaw — for the chain, he joked. For the semester, the chainsaw lay in the same room as the vermouth. It’s not in our room now. I’m not sure where it went.