Vassar College was always there.
As a toddler I was a Vassar laboratory subject, studied and experimented on – and cared for – by Vassar girls. The laboratory was the nursery school run by Vassar’s Child Studies Department. When we sang “Row Row Row Your Boat” it often was into a tape recorder and girls were taking notes.
When I was in the bicycle gang, we could spend an entire afternoon wheeling slowly around the Vassar Campus accosting the girls who ambled by, with their books and cigarettes, with the latest witticism from our collective eleven-year-old minds. “Excuse me. Could you please tell us where Dean Martin’s office is?” Pregnant pause. “It’s right next to Jerry Lewis’s office!” hooting, then quickly pedaling away.
At no other stop on our bicycling odysseys could we, with impunity, behave like brats. Certainly not, for example, at the Dayline Dock at the bottom of Main Street, where poor people and Italians gathered around the Dayline Dock Snack Bar for hot dogs, popcorn, popsicles and soda and where colored boys dove off the piers for coins tossed by passengers leaning over the rails of a departing boat. Brats were not allowed on lower Main Street, only good kids, like us, and bad kids. The bad kids policed the dock and would charge, snarling, at the slightest hint of brattiness.
Wherever we went, the Dayline Dock, the Cider Mill, miniature golf, we had show some degree of respect for the other people around. If not, there could be consequences. But not at Vassar, with the Vassar Girls. Even if there was the odd girl who, instead of giggling at us, or smiling at us like an indulgent aunt, or ignoring us, or scowling, would burst out in anger with “Brats!” there still were no consequences.
When I was in high school, and we had cars, the Vassar campus became, at night, a steamy preserve for sex – from heavy petting on a concrete bench within the hedge that squared the Shakespeare Gardens, in which grew every flower Shakespeare mentioned, to coitus beneath the huge oak in the dark dell along the stream that meandered down from Vassar Lake and disappeared into a culvert behind the chapel.
With its Gothic Revival architecture set in a vast, pampered park, its romantic associations (Millay, primarily), its aura of sophistication, its security – if we were discovered in flagrante delicto, it would not be by our parents or teachers or anyone who knew us – and an atmosphere permeated with the emanations hormonal and histrionic of four hundred pubescent girls, the Vassar campus was our Midsummer Night’s Dream woods.
Although not exactly vestal virgins, the Vassar girls radiated a mystique which not only rendered them unapproachable, but rendered the idea of approaching them unthinkable. Besides, I wouldn’t have known how to begin to pick up a Vassar girl. (Although, come to think of it, we had no problems chatting them up when we were boys on bicycles only a couple of years earlier.) There always were stories about so-and-so, another boy in our class or the class before us, who’d done it and had had sex with her too, so there was always the hope that it might happen naturally, all by itself, without one having to undergo the peril of saying or doing something mortifyingly jejune.