The Last Page

Beyond the Gate

By Yona Zeldis McDonough '79

Senior year at Vassar was a momentous time; it represented a culmination and a beginning, a reckoning, and a farewell. Having made it through the hopeless confusion of freshman year, the sophomore slump, and the rigors of junior year, you were poised to enter the ranks of Vassar’s undergraduate elite.

Arriving on campus that final September—I was rooming in Main, a tradition among seniors—I viewed my own last year with excitement and trepidation. I had a hefty course load, a senior thesis (Art History, presided over by Miss Askew) and a slew of graduate school applications to complete. I managed to schedule all my classes between Monday and Thursday afternoon. Fridays were free. My intention was to use this block of time to tackle the thesis, the most daunting of the projects I had undertaken thus far.

But by week’s end I was skittish and wired—not a good frame of mind in which to hunker down to serious academic work. So after a quick breakfast at ACDC, I walked out Main Gate, down Raymond until I hit Main Street. I then continued downtown, a leisurely stroll through the then derelict but not unbeautiful city of Poughkeepsie. I loved all the dips and inclines along the way; sometimes, the Hudson River came clearly into view; other times it was obscured by a frame house barely hanging onto a ramshackle charm, or a Deco-style apartment building, remnants of its former elegance visible through the decades of neglect.

Main Street itself had a sorrowful, haunting appeal, not unlike the cityscapes photographed by Walker Evans in the depth of the Depression. Bars with names like Sit and Sip, package stores selling discount cigarettes and beer by the mega-case, Laundromats, a pool hall, a pawn shop where a cache of guns resided in a locked metal cage, scads of thrift stores.

It was the latter that drew me. I found inspiration in sifting through the castoffs. My hunts yielded beaded frocks from the 1930s (I wore one to the senior prom), jackets worthy of Katharine Hepburn, silk ascots, and a Majolica pitcher, its gaudy glaze and brilliant colors a marvel of Victorian excess that sparked a collection. (I now own about 15 such pitchers, and the one bought in Poughkeepsie—for a dollar—holds pride of place among them.) There were also a few stores selling new merchandise. I recall a vast, barn-like shop that seemed to have been transplanted from some grim, Soviet-era city. Despite the acres of floor space and cavernous ceilings, the place was curiously empty, and each of the shiny yet forlorn-looking racks held only a garment or two.

After walking as far as the train station, I’d turn around. I might stop at a run-down luncheonette for a grilled cheese or a jelly donut—inevitably stale—as a way to end my journey. I returned to campus renewed and rinsed clean—the perfect state in which to begin the work that awaited me.

I took this walk every Friday, watching the trees go from green to gold to scarlet. When the leaves were gone, the bare branches read black against the winter sky. Come spring, buds appeared, tender and slick, just waiting to burst open. By mid-May, the campus was a riot of lilacs.

My exams were over, my thesis written, typed, submitted, and graded with a very respectable A- but not the golden A for which I had been striving. Graduation came, and under my cap and gown I wore a grey dress and a faux pearl necklace purchased on one of my Main Street jaunts. The fact that it mimicked what a Vassar debutante might have worn in the 1950s was an irony I savored, even if no one else was in on the joke.

And then, a move to New York, grad school, and the beginning of the rest of my life. Naturally I was nervous. What fledging is not apprehensive about leaving the nest? But my solitary forays down the streets of Poughkeepsie had readied me, guiding me, literally, outside the stone walls and loving embrace of the campus, and nudging me ever-so-gently, into the wider world that lay waiting just beyond.