It was one of those personal moments that you look back on in your life and say, a la Yogi Berra, I came to a fork in the road–and didn’t take it.
Private men’s club, Boston, 1868
A guy I worked with had grown to like me and so he extended to me the highest compliment a WASP is capable of; he invited me to join his private men’s club on Boston’s Beacon Hill.
“Thanks,” I said, genuinely appreciative of his gesture as the young social climber that I was back in my 30′s. “That’s just great. How does it work?”
“Well,” he said, “I put your name up for membership, I get a couple of guys to second you, and then it’s put to a vote.”
A vote? Funny, the club I already belonged to–housed in a former auto body shop in the student ghetto of Allston-Brighton–hadn’t held a vote when I joined. They swiped my credit card and that was it.
“Who gets to vote?” I asked, like an incumbent politician fearful of rejection by the rabble.
“Everybody,” he said. “It’s a one-ball system.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means everybody has a veto right. If they put a black ball next to your name on the ballot, you don’t get in.”
“That seems a little harsh,” I said.
He looked at me as if my nose had started to bleed spontaneously. “You want to keep out the dinks, don’t you?” he said, as if explaining the fundamental fairness of a native system of government to a foreigner.
Faced with the prospect of sure rejection–I have gone through life making enemies right and left, like a member of a New Orleans krewe tossing colored beads to Mardi Gras revelers–I decided I wouldn’t throw my hat in the ring. And anyway, some of my best friends are dinks.
As a result, I retained my membership in a club that would take any applicant whose check didn’t bounce, and have missed out on the secret rites of private mens’ clubs, whatever they may be.
I have, nonetheless, visited many such clubs as a guest for lunch or squash, the sport developed in British debtor’s prisons but now described by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam as primarily a “white male herd-thinning device.” And I have to admit–the dink-filter really works, although you end up with a membership that, like the ancient Manicheans, defines themselves by what they are not–dinks.
Court tennis players playing court tennis on a court tennis court.
This is not to say that such clubs engage in illegal racial, religious or ethnic discrimination; they now admit Jews and Catholics, which wasn’t the case until the mid-twentieth century. At the Tennis & Racquet Club, the only club in the area that offers court tennis, a French game with medieval roots, I played against a one-armed black guy–a twofer! When I prepare my obituary, I will duly note that I lost a squash match to a one-armed man, one of the more noteworthy achievements/failures of my life.
The process of getting into such a club, for one who takes the initiative, is long and fraught with pitfalls. First you must know someone who’s a member, and get him to sponsor you. He gives you his club membership book, and you go through it to find others who might be willing to recommend you. A partner at a firm I worked with back in the 80′s was desirous of joining the Union Club, the private watering hole where the WASP heirarchy met to support the cause of the North in the Civil War (good club!), and suppress the rise of the Irish Catholics who flowed into Boston as a result of the Irish potato famine (bad club!). He perused the club roster for likely prospects, and came across the name of a man who we were suing for defaulting on millions of dollars of loans. “You think I could get a recommendation from him?” he asked in all seriousness. I don’t think that’s how it works, I told him–not that I would know.
If all this sounds like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, it is, in somewhat attenuated form; the life of the downtown clubman, so regularly depicted in cartoons lampooning the lifestyles of the rich and infamous, doesn’t exist anymore. The clubs are dying out, primarily for reasons of fashion; no one–well hardly anyone–wants to be viewed as a hidebound relic of a bygone era. Everyone wants to go to LA Sports Club, where cool people from the West Coast like Kobe Bryant hang out when they’re in town.
This has left a great void in the lives of people like my friend, who once were able to busy themselves looking down their noses at others all day, but now find themselves idle, like laid-off workers replaced by technology. For these lost souls, nursing their third martinis while lunching at places like the Somerset Club, I have a jobs plan; put them to work enforcing America’s immigration laws. To keep the dinks out.
The way it would work is this: sons of the idle rich/scions of old-money families would be dispatched to the Rio Grande, to Ellis Island, to northern New England where Islamofascist terrorists are said to gain easy access to America due to lax immigration enforcement in Canada.
“Welcome to America! Are you a member?”
They would be equipped with census tracts listing the names of all American citizens and, when Jose or Mohammed or Jolie wanted to enter the country, he or she would be given a copy to see if he knows anyone here. If so, the elite WASP guards would allow the Applicant-American to make two phone calls, or write to two people. (Phone charges/postage not included–we’ver already got deficits as far as the eye can see!)
If and when the applicant had obtained recommendations from two reputable U.S. citizens in good standing (no unpaid back taxes, please), the matter would be put to a vote by the entire population; one ball and you’re out pal!
Tough? Sure it is. But America’s the greatest nation on earth, based on ideas of man’s essential dignity developed in the Enlightenment. We’re the country that gave the rest of the world rock ‘n roll, the ice cream cone, penicillin–I could go on, but you get the point.
We wouldn’t want just anybody to become a citizen by taking the stupid exam the Immigration and Naturalization Service currently uses, would we? I don’t think so. It’s manifestly unfair.
Foreigners study for that thing, and end up knowing more about our history and government than we do–even when they fail.
What a bunch of dinks!