On Feb. 8, 2017, email@example.com changed the font of their Wednesday Night Dance Party email from Papyrus to Georgia, the color scheme from rainbow to black and blue, and the graphics from ***DANCE DANCE DANCE*** to the official Yale Bulldogs symbol that’s found on the sweatshirts of sports teams. Naturally, there was some outpouring of indignation: the Overheard at Yale post has 22 outraged comments and 170 “sad” reacts, my suitemate Kate Cray, SM ’19, replied to the email with a message that began: “I’m emailing to express my profound disappointment,” and my friend Emily Ge, BK ’19, with the ultimate burn, came out with: “I thought it was from Payne Whitney.” I learned later that the switch was prompted by Toad’s’ shift from Lyris to Mailchimp, which gave the writer of the emails the opportunity to format them differently. The writer is not wedded to the new style, which should assuage the many students who view the colorful weekly emails as a beloved tradition: “This was one of few constants in my life,” one Overheard commenter wrote; another lamented: “the end of an era.”
I enter tentatively. “Hi,” I say,“I’m looking for Brian?”
Toad’s isn’t my usual locale—I can count my Woad’s adventures on my fingers, and save my first-ever night of college, and (for some inexplicable reason) my 19th birthday, I have never been to Soad’s—but I am here on a mission.
“WHO?” one of the bored-looking bouncers yells over the music, scrutinizing me and my backpack curiously. It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday night. There is a dance party, Domino’s pizza, Stella Artois, and people actually using the coat rack.
“Is Brian around?” I try again.
“BRIAN OR RYAN?”
There’s some murmuring between them. I begin to wonder whether perhaps one of these bouncers is Brian, or if, perhaps, Brian doesn’t exist, and was simply the name assumed by the mysterious persona behind the weekly Toad’s email. But someone grabs a phone, and after a moment, ushers me inside. “You can go upstairs,” he tells me with a shrug.
A red-cheeked, white-haired man greets me at the door to the office: a long room filled with Xerox machines, coffee cups, and cardboard boxes that would be totally indistinguishable from any other office space were it not filled with toy frogs (plush, wooden, etc.) and literally vibrating with Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” The man appears totally oblivious to the quaking floors and welcomes me in, gesturing to a couch. He wears black ASICS sneakers, a knit sweater over a blue collared shirt with folded wire glasses adorning its neckline, and a dark green TOAD’S PLACE cap perched on top of his square-ish, white-haired head. He introduces himself as Brian Phelps, the “president and owner” of Toad’s Place since 1995, and an employee of the nightclub since 1976.
The Toad’s email, according to Brian, has been sent out “since the beginning of the Internet” sometime in the mid-late 1990s. It’s an advertising tool, and one that’s much more efficient than the postering and “table-tenting” they used to do. Toad’s wants to let Yale students know who’s playing, and what the deals are.
Brian won’t reveal how he gets the email address of every student on campus. At first he says somebody “anonymously” mails them to him.When I press him further, he shrugs mysteriously and says, “It could be a fairy.”
On Saturday, December 10th, 2016, Brian sent out a Soad’s email with the subject line “Saturday Night Dance Party- huge bonus for Yale students…” The email advertised “FREE ADMISSION for ALL students with YALE ID all night long!” The usual font colors, the usual original Saturday night dance party photo, the usual promotion of penny drinks. But wedged in the middle of the email, in size 9.5 font, Brian added:
“Special note: the turnout from other schools will be very light because they start exams this Monday. There will be plenty of room to dance and not get hassled.”
This “special note” shocked me. It was a direct and more-or-less explicit appeal to the disdain Yale students have for our counterparts at Quinnipiac. As Daisy Massey, JE ’19, wrote so eloquently in her Yale Daily News column, Shaming Q-Pac? Shame on us: “We openly act towards Quinnipiac women in ways we would never act toward women at Yale.” The rhetoric with which the Yale student body (luckily, with many exceptions) talks about Quinnipiac students drips with condescension, slut-shaming, and intellectual elitism. It’s an attitude that I am shamefully accustomed to hearing amongst my peers: what surprised me was to see it articulated in red Papyrus font to a subscriber list that, Brian tells me, includes 6,600 people.
“A lot of [Yale] students just don’t like the Quinnipiac students,” Brian says with a shrug, “It gets more students down here.”
It’s hard to blame him for making the choices that most benefit his business. It costs a lot to run a nightclub in New Haven: between the taxes and the insurance there are, he says, “tons and tons of bills, so it’s nowhere what you’d think we’d bring in.” It makes it harder that they’re basically seasonal: bands don’t want to come in the summer when they could be in outdoor venues and when university students aren’t around. Brian has to pay his 65 employees (he says he has as many as 57 people working on a busy night) and make back his investment on the new lighting and sound systems he purchased this summer, which cost $100,000 and $250,000 respectively. He’s noticed that more Yale students pay the entrance fee to his club and buy drinks at his bar when he specifies that Quinnipiac kids aren’t going to be there—that’s basically the whole point of Woad’s—so it makes perfect sense that he’d mention it in his email.
But the inclusion of that sentiment on a SATURDAY NIGHT DANCE PARTY email should prompt some sort of reckoning about how that attitude is now so mainstream as to be presented as neutral to an undiscriminating email list of nearly 7,000. It’s the same entitlement exuded by the group of seniors attempting to make Box more like Woad’s, with ideas like a line-cutting membership offered for free to Yale students but with a price tag to everyone else.
Toad’s is one of the few spaces where Yale students ever interact with students from other colleges in New Haven. Toad’s’ clientele, Brian says, is mostly not Yale students. The Quinnipiac students come in on Dattco buses that park on the Green each Saturday night, and residents of New Haven and other Connecticut towns drive in for the concerts. Toad’s may be smack in the middle of Yale’s campus, but it isn’t the University’s property. It’s actually one of the only buildings in the vicinity that Yale doesn’t own.
“Does that cause tension with the University?” I ask.
Brian pauses. “There are discussion points,” he says, shrugging his shoulders and speaking nonchalantly about how universities and nightclubs sometimes have different priorities. But at times, this discussion has taken on a more sinister tone. In 2010, Yale sued Toad’s over patrons’ loitering, smoking, and littering in the Yale-owned walkway adjacent to Toad’s that leads to Morse and Stiles. That litigation lasted years. Brian wrote in a Yale Daily News op-ed in 2013: “Yale has virtually an infinite amount of money to spend going after me and it knows that I am going to incur very substantial legal fees defending my rights.”
His account has its biases, but it does cast light on a larger pattern. What we see at Toad’s is a sense of entitlement over the greater New Haven community that is leveraged by the corporate Yale and its student body alike. This is by no means limited to Toad’s and Box. Yale has already faced criticism for glossing over the vital participation of New Haven activist groups like Unidad Latina en Accion in the campaign to change the name of what was once Calhoun College.
The email Brian is most proud of is the one he sent after this year’s triumphant Harvard-Yale game. He brags to me about the unprecedented open-rate, complete absence of unsubscribes, and the speed with which he sent it—immediately after the score was announced—so that he was the one to break the news to Yalies all over the country and world. Yale, the winning email states, is FANTASTIC, SUPER, INCREDIBLE, AMAZING, POWERFUL, and TREMENDOUS.