At my first newspaper job, the editor marked me for a malingerer and malcontent. He believed that idle hands were the devil’s tools and that I was a veritable Black & Decker showcase of satanic mischief. On Monday mornings while slashing his way through the mail, he would bellow across the city room, a warren of beat-up old wooden desks, Royal typewriters and wire baskets full of cheap copy paper, spelling out: “R-O-T-A-R-Y.”
Thus I was dispatched to the weekly Rotary Club luncheon at Webber’s Steak House across the road from the paper plate factory to report back to our urbane readers on Pastor Bob’s trip to Guatemala; the Kennebec County extension agent’s musings on artificial insemination; or an analysis of American foreign policy by an overweight and sullen Danish exchange student.
What I loathed most about Rotary—more than the lukewarm Salisbury steak and the little Birds-Eye peas treading water on my plate and more than the lukewarm musings of Pastor Bob or Olaf Olafson—was the fellowship. I was just not “one of the boys.” Of course, I knew this long before I ever faced the Salisbury steak at Webber’s. If you’re a man, it is a thing that occurs to you very early in life.
My father and uncle were one of the boys all the days of their long lives. And Lord knows, every possible thing was done to make me one, too. I began playing golf at a tender age; when most children were in the sandbox I was in the sand trap. Our rainy day activity was poker—five-card stud, thank you—and I knew that three of a kind beat two pair before I was in the first grade. (It shocked the nuns at my school to find this out.)
But poker night with the boys? Not a chance. The racetrack? I have kinsmen in Ireland who’ve never lifted anything heavier than a racing form. I knew what the daily double was before I made my first communion, but I’m an indifferent punter. Fishing? I particularly despise the prep school Zen nonsense about fly-fishing that is current now. Hunting? No thanks. I grew up in Maine, but field and stream are not for me. It just never took. You’re either one of the boys or you’re not. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, race, creed or color. It’s a mysterious and intangible thing.
Not being one of the boys almost guarantees that one will be a loner. Not a joiner, not clubable. Because, let’s face it, there is really no difference between the Maryland Club and the Red Men’s Lodge, Opus Dei or Odd Fellows, Union League or Knights of Pythias. At these club meetings, the little roles cast in childhood return in full flower and never to the good. The bully. The wise guy. The know-it-all. The lady’s man. The lush. The braggart. The childish need to compete. I won. You lost. Mine’s bigger than yours. Whatever that might be. You want men behaving badly? A men’s club is the place to find it.
The uniforms may differ—you won’t see anyone in a wife-beater and cutoffs standing in front of the Maryland Club (they’d call the police) just as you won’t see the Red Men in seersucker or Madras—but don’t be fooled. They are essentially the same. All involve being one of the boys: exclusionary practices, traditions and tribalism. And possibly funny hats. (Sure, the food is slightly better at the Maryland Club. Slightly. But the Red Men know how to have more fun.)
Someone took me to his club once for lunch. It was an old, fussy place, a bit threadbare. The members had convinced themselves that this bespoke a certain genteel shabbiness they wished to affect. To the casual visitor from New England—the headwaters of genteel shabbiness—it seemed just threadbare. The members were trying a little too hard. Masquerading as Episcopalians. Keeping J. Press in business. Old school tie and all that.
We ate family style. My convent school childhood flooded back. (It was the overcooked vegetables.) Bores had been brought down from Broadmead lest the conversation not be dull enough. It was, in fact, dull enough already. My teeth began to hurt. Sherry was served. Retired insurance executives and men who never quite made partner pontificated on politics and the arts. It was like being in a John O’Hara parody.
The members wanted so much to belong. They wanted too much to belong. And so it was that they belonged. They were very proud that they had a Jew in the club. They showed him to me. The only blacks on hand were old women working in the kitchen.
And there’s the rub. Someone always needs to be in and someone out. That’s the basic rule, is it not? What makes a club is the old blackball. You can’t belong. You’re a Jew. You’re Irish. You’re not white. You didn’t go to Princeton.
Now, of course, in these prehensile times, we turn to the law for succor. I’ll sue! Sooooey! But who wants to belong to a club you have to sue your way into?
I imagine quite a few, now that I think of it. But I remain a Marxist in these matters. Groucho, not Karl. I would not join any club that would have me.