A Storyby Terry Eicher
The village of East Rock sits beneath the unlikely precipice that rises rustily from the meanderings of the Mill River and an apron of dark woods and playing fields. From the summit of the trap-rock cliff one can see the ocean. Below, a four-hundred-foot Tarzan dive in a tail wind would land a daredevil on the rooftop of the high school. Beyond the school, Orange Street opens into the village of lindens and maples and gabled houses—some gingerbreaded, some plain, most three story and multifamily, none fenced, all hugging the sidewalks. A few small shops—mom-and-pop grocery, pharmacy, post office counter, tavern, liquor store, café, pizzeria, Laundromat—make the village the sort of place of the past that urbanologists now tout as the wave of the future. A short walk upriver, remnants of Eli Whitney’s factory still stand, its covered bridge and dam and propelling torrent enduring reminders of the ingenuity and craft and power that once sustained the factories of New England, which employed the first inhabitants of the village. But though I have named it a village—and so its citizens consider it—East Rock comprises more properly just one neighborhood of an old Eastern harbor, and a good part of what lies beyond the neighborhood, along with a good number of its denizens, belong to Yale, as do most of the towers—Gothic and Georgian and International and Brutalist—that one regards from the top of the Rock.
A winding road, and a switchback trail, loop up the long spine of the promontory to its sheer edges. But the most surprising ascent of East Rock is head-on and straight up: a climb and a scramble with hamstring-stretching strides up the Giant’s Steps, roughly hewn from the stone face of the Rock, which is inscribed with graffiti and the passionate tales and longings they suggest. The graffiti that lends its name to this story, as the Rock lends its name to the village, is painted bravely in white cascading letters in a spacious cranny well above and beyond the decrepit and twisting handrail that offers tentative assistance at the highest and most treacherous steps, as though it were lovingly lettered by a bird or an aerial acrobat or someone hovering by balloon. A poem—a text, they would say—for deconstruction by the sages of the university. The graffiti is like a pennant that has hung for years above the village and above the city and above the university, and it suggests the most abiding and essential story of New Haven, or of any college town. Who put it there? Who scaled the face of the Rock at dawn or at twilight or in the dark of night, chuteless and netless, leaving the trail, cleaving to cliffside, balancing bucket, and brushing words? Wherefrom this winging wish, this daring act of writing?
Nick’s mother, no doubt.