Looking for a gift for someone who isn’t quite sure what they want to be when they grow up? Or for someone who never grew up? Or for someone who might want to re-live the final Grateful Dead performance at the Fillmore West. Or for a student of social history of the 1960s and 1970s. Or for someone who taught themselves to play guitar. Or for someone who attended Kansas University in the late 60s/early 70s. Or for someone who could use a laugh. Take a cue from Santa. Hardly Working might be the answer. If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift for yourself, order a copy for yourself.
I wrote this song about a friend, a goodly hearted cat I grew up with in Clarendon Hills. We were Little League heroes together. Endless one-on-one hoops in the driveway. Lots of girl talk. During high school years, we would drive up to Lake Forest to woo exotic damsels—exotic because we were unknown to each other. He always had girlfriends who didn’t go to our high school.
A bit after high school he enlisted in the Army out of penance to his dad, who was President of a local American Legion chapter. He survived Vietnam and came back with good weed. A couple pounds of it. Back when it was easy to smuggle. We smoked, connecting the days of our youth with now, while fantasizing about some idyllic future that involved beach life. A couple of years later, he introduced me to my wife, Linda. While he explored Mexico for a spell, Linda and I watched his little mutt, Thunder. He was the best man at our wedding, As deep a friend as you could have. A goodly hearted cat.
Somewhere during this time he moved to Arizona and eventually started a business— packaging and selling mesquite charcoal sourced from the Yaqui tribe in northern Mexico. On a quest to outrun his suburban, Catholic upbringing, he had become entranced with the Teachings of Don Juan and the Yaqui ethos. At the same time, he was getting involved in medium to large scale weed trafficking. My Little League pal was now living the desperado-in-the-desert lifestyle. One time he escaped a raid by the feds, snuck through the desert and somehow ended up on our doorstep in Lawrence, where we were living at the time. With a chainsaw. He had hitchhiked from Arizona while cradling a chainsaw. You had to be there.
Take Your Pick
Maybe ten years later, when Linda and I had moved back to the Chicago area, he came through town on desperado business. When I met up with him he was holed up in a drab, city hotel with no view, chain smoking and absently watching TV reruns. He had changed since the last time I had seen him. You could feel he was in the midst of a stressful transaction. He didn’t give me the details and I preferred not to know. We grabbed cheeseburgers at the Billy Goat and within a year or two he died of heart failure. Speculation was that it was caused by too much stress—he also had a wife and two kids—the lingering effects of malaria from Vietnam, too many cheeseburgers, too much smoking, a ten year freebasing habit, a history of family heart disease, take your pick.
Back to The Song
I wrote most of the song decades ago but finished and recorded it with Geoff DeMuth maybe five-six years ago. This is not a literal depiction of something that happened to my friend. I took artistic leeway or poetic license or fool’s liberty, whatever. Sadly ironic when a goodly hearted cat dies of heart failure at a young age. Especially someone who was a Little League rival. We’ve missed him for 30 years.
An excerpt from the Hardly Working chapter, “Go West Young Man.” Attending the final performance of the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West………..
The line waiting to get into the Fillmore reeked of patchouli oil, righteous b.o., reefer and incense—the absolute freakiest freak-show the culture could assemble. There were be-robed gurus, dirty-footed flower girls, speed freaks, acid heads, dropouts, used-to-be-clean-cut-but-now-zonked-out-ex-varsity-athletes and assorted expats from the small towns and suburbs of America, wearing fringed vests and patched jeans, high school band jackets, puffy sleeved Zorro shirts, tank tops, granny dresses and threadbare thrift store garb adorned with feathers and buttons and beads. And many headbands. It was a scene to make most older Americans shake their collective head in befuddlement and beeline for the liquor cabinet. My reason for coming to San Francisco was to simply experience what was out there. This was definitely out there: a laid-back utopia to some, a dystopian anarchy to others. There may never have been a time so dominated by youth.
Security that night was provided by the Hell’s Angels, the respected, feared, and often reviled biker gang that began in Oakland and had now achieved an ironic, almost heroic status with the peace and love crowd. They too were non-conforming California originals who thumbed their filthy noses at anything remotely bourgeois. During the Dead show, I bumped into an Angel as he took a long pull of something in a paper bag. He grunted. My Angel moment.
“Dark Star!” yelled someone from the audience. “Morning Dew!… New Minglewood!!…play something heavy!” Would the performance go on forever, until the building levitated, nirvana achieved? Would the secrets of the universe be revealed to the faithful? Every single person in the joint was high and dancing—or doing what passed for dancing—blissfully shrieking, jumping up and down, gyrating, undulating, inhabiting their own time and space, communing with the spirits, achieving ecstasy, until the entire place melted into a screaming Edvard Munch scene. Visitors from another planet would have been confused. Middle American suburbanites would have been terrified. George Washington might have wondered if crossing the Potomac had been worth it. This wasn’t the revolution he had in mind.
Many hours into the show, Brian and Sally told me they were going back to the apartment. I assured them that I could find my way home—although I had little sense of where the Fillmore was in relation to the apartment on Cole Street just north of the Panhandle—but I didn’t care. I would find the way. I would improvise, like the Dead. With about a thousand other zapped souls, I stayed until the bittersweet end, adding my whoops and exultations as the swirling pageant of sensory madness throbbed, as each song started and swelled and petered out or hit a dead end only to be resurrected by Jerry or Phil or Bob. Jerry the hipster shaman displayed the constitution of a long-distance runner or one who knew the right chemist, never leaving the stage, playing with The Rowan Brothers, then the New Riders of the Purple Sage and finally a few hours with the Dead. Johnny B Goode was the last number and I’m not sure how much more I could have taken.
Somewhere between midnight and daybreak, I loped out of the Fillmore into the other world of an early morning city, quiet and surreal; where tomorrow had already begun and yesterday seemed a thousand years ago. I managed to snag a ride with some revelers in a pick-up who were headed to a donut shop near Sally’s apartment. The way. I passed on the donuts and scrambled home. When I woke up the next afternoon, Jim Morrison’s Parisian death was in the news but all we talked about was the Dead. It was the final performance of the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West.
author’s 1970s look
As a recently self-published author, I am often asked: How are book sales going? Selling like hotcakes? Tall stack? Short stack? Lingonberry?
We all know that sales figures are the sole determinants of a book’s commercial success. Hardly Working entered this commercial world the day it went on sale. No longer just a manuscript, indeed, It became a product, the same as Jello or Dawn dish soap or DQ Dilly Bars. Every day a handful—or fingerful— of citizens orders this product: not a great example of selling like hotcakes. At this rate, by my calculations, if I live to be Methuselah’s age, I might make back all the dough I spent getting the book out. Of course, my goal wasn’t a financial one. My goal was to chronicle the world of work as seen through my eyes.
A Question of Relevance
So, sales are not yet on a trajectory that allows me to quit my day job—if I had one—a job that no longer exists, in an industry that has changed, in a world that is simultaneously accelerating and regressing.
Can a story recounting my work experience and my work philosophy in the 1960s-2000s be of interest in this current world of impending artificial intelligence, creeping fascism, degrading environment, decreased critical thinking skills, high inflation, and digital addiction? How might a book about what was feel relevant in a world of what is? Well, people still read Don Quixote, written over five centuries ago. Because the story remains entertaining and relevant. And doesn’t that old book about a Jewish carpenter remain a popular read? Each generation shares basic wants, needs, and desires. Forging your own path is a universal theme. My hope is that Hardly Working stands up as an entertaining story set in the recent past. I wrote it as entertainment not as a career self-help book.
The Stranger Consideration
Will those who don’t personally know me be interested in the Flange Ladies or the Ace Hamburger Flipper or Dishwashing Moses or how it feels to cross dress while playing kazoo for and audience of kids and nuns?
Consider that my original intention was to write something for my kids. After working with editors and joining a writer’s group—Writer’s Ink at Arlington Heights Memorial Library—the project morphed into a story that, I hope, both explains and transcends the time in which it was told. A story that a stranger could enjoy. A story that might sell like hot cakes. (Slathered in butter and syrup with a side of maple bacon, served by a gum popping waitress with a pony tail, who is a single mom writing a book about her own experience waitressing with a college degree. She’s shopping it to a university press.)
Author or Marketer?
Back to the threadbare thread…What I have quickly come to learn: self-publishers must be self-marketers. Having spent much of my adult life in various forms of marketing, this should be easy for me, no?
Marketing begins with defining the target audience, yet I’m uncertain of my target. I didn’t write the book for a target other than smart, curious people of any age who possess a sense of humor, who are still interested in life. I will have to “see how things go” and perhaps my target will be revealed. Until then, I must contact this library or that bookstore or professor or old friend or podcaster. Remind readers to post a review. Contact everyone I know. Suggest that friends do the same. Beg for book club consideration. Practice the fine art of reaching out.
Feels like there is always something to do. Leave no stone to unturned. Sheesh, what a marketing strategy!
Hardly Working Again
Which leads to a dilemma. How much work does the author of Hardly Working wish to do? Well, if I enjoy the book marketing hustle, then I’m hardly working because work, as defined by me, is doing something you would rather not do. Conversely, if I find self-marketing to be tiresome and endless, then I am working and no longer a role model for the hardly working set—which includes myself. What a conundrum. (Incidentally, I prefer writing to marketing.)
The Car Wash Incident
I interrupt this message to give some anecdotes. For example, as my sister-in-law was reading Hardly Working at the car wash—take a moment to picture this—a woman next to her, also waiting for her car to be groomed, asked, “What are you reading?” “A hilarious book by my brother-in-law,” came the reply. A few clicks and the unknown car wash woman punched in Amazon on her phone and ordered the book. I would like to meet this woman! I should suggest to friends that they, too, bring their copy to the car wash.
Read at your own Risk
One reader informed me that, after reading the book, she quit her job. If “Take This Job and Shove It” could be a hit song, might Hardly Working find similar commercial success? Will the book cause unemployment to rise? Can capitalism withstand this potential onslaught? Hardly Working might spawn an anti-Calvinist work ethic? Will it be banned for sending the “wrong message” to hard working Americans? (Sorry for getting carried away.)
One collection of friends from a previous lifetime sent me a group photo posing with the book, warming my heart cockles.
A visual artist friend informed me that Hardly Working is the first book he has read in over ten years. Is this testimony to our friendship or my literary skills?
A musician friend, who happens to appear in the book, believes I should pursue a Netflix deal and requests that Brad Pitt portray his character in the series.
A gourmet chef reports that his wife reads a chapter aloud each night as he prepares dinner: like the readers who read aloud to the rollers at Cuban cigar factories in days of yore.
Yet another fine reader claimed that the book is banned in his bedroom because it caused him to chortle and guffaw, preventing his wife from sleeping. Another book banning, of sorts.
Mind If I Watch?
Recently I gave a beach reading to fifteen or so as the sun slipped into the bay. You never know who your competition will be in the book hustling game. Breathtaking sunsets are tough competition.
Earlier that day, on the same beach, the sun shone brightly as I read Raymond Chandler while five or ten feet away, a woman read my book. (Farewell My Lovely vs. Hardly Working.) This made me both pleased and anxious. I glanced at her expression, looking for signs of boredom. What is it called when you’re looking at someone who’s reading about your life? Reverse voyeurism?
I must now choose my next course of action because I will continue to get asked, how are book sales going? Should I finally open an Instagram account? Oh please no! Must I waste a few copies on Oprah or Terry Gross or Obama? Do I pursue the Netflix deal? How? Or, shall I have a sandwich board made and hawk copies at the train station?
All things considered, I could now write a book about writing a book, then write subsequent books about the experience I had with the previous book—like a literary Russian nesting doll. Or, should I be satisfied that I authored and published a book, a task only a sliver of the populace accomplishes? Hmmmm. I’m ready for a tall stack of hot cakes so lemme know if you have any ideas.
Roger Bain’s memoir, Hardly Working” How I Found My Career and Kept My Soul, surprises and delights as it answers that thorny question: What do you want to be when you grow up? This coming-of-age tale, filled with a cast of colorful characters, is by turns thought provoking, amusing, and nostalgic as it describes the author’s quest for the American Dream, navigating as many twists and turns as Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building.
In the years immediately after college when most graduates are scrambling to reach the top of the food chain, Bain hatched a plan, “a life map where I would ‘retire’ at the beginning of adulthood. Of course, I would need to work, but as little as possible.” The candid description of the author’s unconventional journey does not disappoint.
Bain rivals participatory journalist George Plimpton in the variety of jobs he has held: golf caddy, drill press operator, Fuller Brush man, waterbed purveyor, itinerant hippie, song writer, store Santa, and cable TV adman, among others. He says: “Throughout my journey, I’ve always sought out that sweet spot: to have just enough without being possessed by my possessions, or by ‘the man,’ and to always have time for my own creative pursuits.” Ultimately, he draws upon his multi-faceted life experiences to establish a successful advertising agency that feeds his creative Muse while also paying the bills. Win-win.
Like other good memoirs, Hardly Working doesn’t simply chronicle the vicissitudes of Bain’s quixotic life; it also offers personal epiphanies: “I had a growing realization that my path was my own decision and to hell with expectations. . .” And “I knew I was lucky. I’d had a comfortable, trouble-free upbringing. But I wanted more from this life. I was on a quest, and the only way to discover what I was looking for was through experience.” And experiences he has had!
Hardly Working is well written and engaging. Unlike the spate of best-selling life stories later proven fraudulent, Bain’s account rings true, amply supplemented by photographs and an amazing level of detail. Fans of Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will appreciate its nostalgic look at life from the 1950s to the present. Devotees of music from bebop to hip hop will resonate with Bain’s recollections of music culture and his contributions to it. And those seeking to “find” themselves will have an entertaining guidebook of do’s and don’ts.
If you’re looking for a memoir that is both comical and substantive, grab a copy of Hardly Working. Then buckle up for a rollicking ride.
Nancy Walker, PhD, professor of psychology (retired)
Author of The Child Witness, Children’s Rights in the United States, and Lost Opportunities: The Reality of Latinos in the U.S. Criminal Justice System
Question: Why did you write the book?
Many years ago, I decided to sketch out what I had done to make money throughout my life. The original motivation was to provide a document for my kids; not a path for them to follow but more an entertainment. These “job sketches” evolved into an autobiography filtered through the lens of work. We each have a story to tell. This is mine.
Question: What was your favorite job?
My very last one. I created it. (You’ll have to read the book to find out.)
Question: Does a career define a life?
Not always. In my case, I would say, yes, it does because my work became my life. In a good way. I shaped my self-created job to my talents. (One might say whims.)
Question: Which jobs most shaped your view of life?
I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a worthless job. Each one contributes to your understanding of the world and how it works. But be careful not to overstay once you grow bored or feel stagnant.
Question: How did you recall the things you did many decades ago?
It is remarkable how memory works. Dwell enough on something and small details return. Not necessarily important details, rather, snapshots from the photo album that is our mind. For the most part, I have written what I remembered. And I have tried to be truthful. But memory and truth are two different things. I confess to augmenting my memory with Google searches from time to time. How else would I have known the number of people employed by the auto industry in the 1960s?
Question: Who are some of the most unforgettable characters you worked with?
Doc, the caddy master, at the Hinsdale Golf Club. The Ace hamburger flipper at Lum’s restaurant in Lawrence, KS. Dishwashing Moses at Grinnell Hall at Southern Illinois University. The Fabulous Johnny A at Sunflower Cablevision. Sherlock the Basset Hound in Minneapolis. Dr. Bingo, the mad pharmacologist.
Question: Who are your most likely readers?
I am of the baby boom generation, but the book provides a social history for any age group. I believe dividing populations into age blocs can miss the point. A better gauge might be dividing people into taste blocs. Here is who might enjoy Hardly Working: young people who are curious to expand their frame of reference, who may be uncertain of their career path. Ex-hippies. Social historians. Corporate dropouts. Wannabe corporate dropouts. Ad industry people. Memoir enthusiasts who wish to absorb a point of view from a regular (not normal!) person. Cable TV alums. It may also serve as a gift for recalcitrant kids or grandkids. The geo-focus of the book includes Chicago and its western suburbs, Lawrence, KS, Minneapolis, Carbondale, IL, San Francisco and the open road.
Question: What do you hope the book can accomplish?
I hope that Hardly Working might serve as a look at the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first from the perspective of a non-famous person. I hope the book is provocative in a positive way. About twenty people have read the manuscript as of this writing. Two of them have already changed the direction of their work life.
Question: What was your writing routine?
It varied from one afternoon-a-year to three hours every morning for a month. My library in Arlington Heights, IL, has a monthly writer’s group. Reading aloud chapters and getting immediate feedback gave me some direction. The ensuing discussions often veered into similar jobs that group members had. They recalled tasks that were bureaucratic or time wasting or bosses or co-workers who were wonderful or not. Of special importance seemed to be jobs that are deemed low skill or incidental or low paying. Summer jobs. Starter jobs. Dirty jobs: the jobs that are the binding agents of society. The jobs deemed essential during a pandemic.
Question: Is there a soundtrack?
Yes. I thought you would never ask. Most friends and acquaintances think of me as a songwriter. I have collected some twenty compositions that are mentioned in the book or reflected my circumstances at various stages of the story. https://rogerbainmusic.com/hardly-working
Question: Do you have advice for young people beginning to think about what they want to be when they grow up?
Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid of failure, have fun, don’t settle for the obvious, pay attention to what fulfills you and read many books, hopefully this one, available Feb. 25 on Amazon and (I hope) other fine platforms.
If you are a bookstore or book reviewer, I will send you an ARC upon request.
Excerpts from the Hardly Working chapter titled Fried Pie and the Redneck Brothers…
My first Kansas summer found me at a crossroads. By now, it was easier for me to list the things I didn’t believe in than those that I did. I was skeptical of marriage, careers, the Vietnam War, government—in short, most of society’s institutions. That was for squares, man. I wanted no one to tell me what to do or to think. The choices I made had to be mine. All mine. In a notebook I scribbled, live as if your life depended on it.
I hatched a plan, a life map where I would “retire” at the beginning of adulthood. Of course, I would need to work, but as little as possible. And nothing career oriented. Hell, I had no idea what I might do.
Though I never referred to myself as a hippie, that was my stereotype. If you had long hair and wore threadbare clothes, you were a hippie. It was a look. Simple as that. You are how you look. In 1971, if you looked like a hippie, one could extrapolate that you smoked grass, were anti-war and laughed at the American Dream. Being a hippie made you feel like an outsider in a culture that you didn’t wish to fully participate in. And that made you feel kind of good, like it was your best chance to experience the heroic status of the minority. Minority heroes were the hip heroes. Rosa Parks, Caesar Chavez, Huey Newton, the New York rabble rouser, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Garcia, the acid guitar shaman with the Latino last name.
I didn’t believe in society’s institutions, but I did have my beliefs. Very strong ones. I believed in the magic of existence; the magic around every corner; the magic of the moment. And now, the magic of guitar playing. During that melting summer of 1970, alongside teaching myself to seem crazy, I taught myself to play the guitar. I wanted to write songs. My inner voice needed an outlet. Because I hadn’t begun playing during the typical teenage timeframe, I had a lot of ground to make up. A girlfriend bought me a cheap acoustic, I picked up a few songbooks—one by Donovan, I remember—had guitarist friends show me chord changes, and I was hooked. Nothing has had a more profound effect on my life.
A chapter excerpt from Hardly Working, the tale of my circuitous career path, published in 2023.
I Believe in Santa
Gibson’s Department Store Lawrence, KS 1978
The first time I peered into the Gibson’s lunchroom mirror as a white whiskered Santa, I had to laugh. Sardonic laughter. It had come to this. My intention was to write a feature story for the Kansas City Star: “Santa Like Me.” Then I could explain to any who wondered that I was simply doing background research. By the end of the gig, however, I realized that writing about the quirky things that kids said and did— the angle that a Star piece required—would force me to tamp down my own feelings about this mythical, pipe smoking dude who had become a symbol of capitalism. Santa doesn’t ask kids what they need. He asks what they want. Needs are fine but wants are what matters if GDP levels are to continue upward. Santa was the be-whiskered, Coca-Cola drinking Pope of capitalism. The newspaper would never publish my true thoughts: that impersonating this beloved icon—for money—was a low point of my job cavalcade.
My suit and hat were made of stiff red felt-like material, cruel to the touch. The fake beard became a form of torture, causing a brutal rash to break out on my increasingly ulcerous upper lip, requiring gobs of Vaseline. Beneath the hideous whiskers, my philtrum glowed the color of Rudolph’s nose. My aviator style glasses were a dead giveaway of my fakery, and I had no money or inclination to invest in wire frames. My brown sideburns stood out against my white wig and beard. I was a cheesy Santa in a cheesy department store, who bellowed “Yo Ho Ho” (and a bottle of rum) instead of “Ho Ho Ho,” who jigged around his throne when things were slow, as if victimized by Saint Vitus’ Dance disorder. I was a madcap Santa ready for action. Read the entire chapter in Hardly Working
In the late 1970s in Lawrence, Kansas, I was hardly working. Every morning, when Linda left for her job at the Casbah Café and later, when she began teaching first grade, I sat down to write for at least two hours.
My meager income to date had often relied on skills that required my back, my hands, and my patience—but never my writing skills. During these morning sessions I began to write short stories, primarily because they were short. Seemed easier to write something short. I attempted that one true sentence technique ala Hemingway. I bought a copy of the Writer’s Digest and versed myself in the art of the submission. A few of my stories received hand-written rejection slips with words of encouragement from the editor or publisher. Being politely rejected was progress of sorts. Most of the stories were never sent to anyone or seen by anyone but Linda and a close friend or two. They currently rest in a file cabinet to my right.
In this age, prior to personal computers, a yellow legal pad and a #2 and-a-half pencil or a ball point pen were my writing tools. I sat on the same upholstered chair every day, in the same tiny house—that we referred to as the cottage—legal pad on my lap with scattered stacks of other legal pads and loose papers at my feet and on the surrounding furniture. At the end of the writing day, I would straighten the papers into a stack, which Linda referred to as “my piles.”
During this time, I wrote lyrics for a song that I finally recorded in June 2021. Have a listen:
Chapter #1 from Hardly Working, my memoir of jobs and work.
Caddy in Clarendon Hills, IL. 1960
The first time I set foot in the clubhouse of the Hinsdale Golf Club was on the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. That October night, the club was crawling with weird, saggy renditions of my former classmates. I didn’t feel saggy, but I also looked far different than the picture on my name tag, taken during my senior year for the yearbook. Over 50 years before, the club had provided me my first job: caddying for the esteemed members. Though I had often been on club grounds, I had never seen its innards until this reunion night. It had been off-limits to me fifty years ago.
My caddy career began a few months short of my thirteenth birthday, when I still harbored notions of becoming a major-league pitcher. From 23 Blodgett Avenue in Clarendon Hills, I walked ten minutes down the street and across the peat bog, which had recently been turned into a park. On the other side of this ex-bog was Chicago Avenue. There sat the Hinsdale Golf Club.
Hinsdale is the next town east of Clarendon Hills on the Burlington train line, but the country club was—and still is—in Clarendon Hills. No club member actually lived in Clarendon Hills. That was against the rules. Members had to reside in Hinsdale, home of the rich uncle, the corporate titan, the live-in housekeeper, the afternoon martini, the sprawling, manicured lawn. Coach houses. Brick streets. Columns. A few old money families still employed butlers. Although it had a large section of ordinary middle-class neighborhoods, the town’s reputation was predicated on wealth.
Soon after I began my caddy stint, I started attending Hinsdale junior high. On many Saturday afternoons my father would drive me in the Rambler wagon over to the proverbial other side of the tracks to a newfound friend’s house. I recall one occasion when, in the midst of our pickup football game on the lush front lawn, a live-in housekeeper called to my new friend, “Hubbard. It’s time for your lunch.” Hubbard went into the house with his shoulder pads still on, to dine on pork chops prepared by the cook, to dab the corners of his mouth with linen napkins. Although this rather elaborate lunch struck me as far different than the baloney sandwich I might have had at my house, it mattered little to me at the time—wealth made scant impression on me as a kid. Most of my new friends from Hinsdale took their lives for granted, as did I.
My town of Clarendon Hills was modestly middle class. Most homes had one bathroom and three or four kids who shared bedrooms. It would be several decades before Clarendon Hills transformed into Hinsdale Lite, though the new muscular, trophy homes—too big for their lots—would never be the rambling mansions of an earlier era’s wealth.
For those who lived along the brick streets of Hinsdale, membership at the Hinsdale Golf Club was a must. “The Club,” as it was referred to, was a gathering place for those who had arrived. It was where like-minded, well-bred folks with similar aspirations gathered; folks eager to showcase their faith in the status quo while being catered to and smiled at. Club members shared a belief that they were blessed, that there was a divine element involved in their good fortune. Sure, hard work got them to this exalted position—maybe not their hard work, but someone’s. “We are so blessed to have all this” was a frequent mantra. These were God’s creatures, steeped in an aura of entitlement and a knack for conversations about golf swing mechanics, the renovation of the fourteenth tee, membership rules, recent purchases and investments, second homes, booze-fueled gossip, and how swell things are if we can just keep them this way.
To caddy at the Hinsdale Golf Club, you had to be at least 13. I was still only 12 but tall for my age, so I passed. Caddies were divided into three descending classes—A, B, and C—subject to the judgement of the caddy master. For the record, most of the C caddies were pipsqueaks. Numbers were then assigned to us, ranging from one to ninety-nine and the lower the number, the more qualified the caddy. At least that was the theory. In spite of my age but because of my height, I was assigned number A-13. Class A! Being tall is a natural confidence-builder.
What stands out about the job was not the actual caddying, or the members, but the caddy master, Doc, and his cohorts Moose and Harry. These characters were of a type I had never been around, and very different from the dads I knew. They were certainly not Little League coaches.
Doc was about 40 years old and clearly not from Hinsdale. He dressed like a golfer, wore thick glasses, and his beard was a permanent five o’clock shadow. He reminded me of Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s TV show; a bit of a hustler and a schemer, and definitely a gambler. Club members had a winking appreciation for this rogue in their midst. It was Doc who decided which little creep was going to carry which golf bag for 18 holes at the going rate of $3.00, a sum enough to keep me thick in baseball cards and milkshakes from Parker’s drugstore, where I had begun to ogle Darlene, the 15-year-old, tight-sweatered soda jerk.
Moose was Doc’s enforcer. He had a world-class menacing stare and didn’t hesitate to frighten a suburban caddy. Looking back, I’m not sure he had any other function than terrorizing us. His black hair was well-greased, his gut pushed out above the waistline of sans-a-belt slacks. He wore shiny shirts of a pattern and color unknown to the dads on my block. He was from an entirely different world. He was Moose.
Harry was downright scary. Gaunt. Way tall. Pock-marked complexion. Doubtful that he’d ever seen a dentist. The demeanor of Frankenstein. He was a professional caddy and a golf hustler who spoke double negatives through broken teeth. In downtown Clarendon Hills I had glimpsed him getting off the train in his cracked, wing tip golf shoes then followed him at a safe distance as he strode up Blodgett—right past my house—to his job at the Club. Was he one of those guys who lived on skid row?
When things were slow, Doc, Moose, and Harry played cards and swore and accused each other of cheating or bluffing. This was my first exposure to real cursing. It wasn’t practiced in my neighborhood. At least not in front of the kids. When word came that a member was ready to golf, Doc leaned out of his office and peered through his thick glasses at the pathetic collection of caddy boys, all of us cooling our heels on the bench that lined the walls of the shack. He seemed to delight in this moment. He knew which members were ball-busters, and which ones had low handicaps and needed a competent caddy. Which scrawny kid would he pair with a captain of industry or the well-coiffed wife of the bank president? “Here, Bain,” he’d say, handing me a card with a member name and number on it. “Go pick up the clubs for Mrs. Templeton. They’re on the first tee.” I was always gripped with a moment of giddy anxiety on the way to the pro shop to pick up the clubs, knowing that I was about to undergo a three-hour golf etiquette examination.
The club had a no-tipping policy, with signs posted in the pro shop to reinforce the idea. Seemed a bit cheap even to my young mind. On occasion, though, a member would hand me twenty-five cents at the turn, golfspeak for passing nine holes, which I’d spend on a Baby Ruth and a Coke in the caddy shack. A quarter was a small amount to truly be considered a tip, but it still created a minor conspiracy between the member and me. The offer and acceptance made us both complicit. We were bending the rules together.
I recall a general air of indifference when it came to the members’ relationships with caddies. Some tolerated my existence, a few noticed that I was alive and breathing. Some ignored me altogether, an invisible arm handing them a club. Occasionally one would ask where I lived or where I went to school or if I played golf, pleased to be displaying a concern for the welfare of the help. Some wore plaid pants. Some had wives who drank too much. Some had red cheeks. Many owned the firm. All believed that golf is what civilized people did.
I had played golf a few times with my uncle, who was a real ace, and on public courses with kids in my neighborhood. Through playing, you pick up a sense of the rules. My only other training was the occasional tidbit from Doc or Moose about how to hold the flag or to be sure that my shadow didn’t cross paths with the line of the putt. Always keep your eye on the ball. Speak when spoken to. Never laugh at a duffed shot. Don’t make your player wait for you. And keep the clubs from clanking too much as you walk down the fairway.
Caddying provided a good opportunity to sing under your breath whenever your golfer was at least twenty yards away. If the member was good enough and he hit the ball far enough, I’d get to sing a whole song between the drive and his next shot. Most songs were two minutes or less. How long did it take to explain that Betty Lou Needed a New Pair of Shoes or that it was Finger Poppin’ Time? I didn’t yet know about Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter.
I eventually doubled my pay by doing doubles—carrying two bags at once. This also doubled the work, especially when one of your golfers had a slice and the other a hook. Golfers can get aggravated waiting for their pitiful caddy to help them find their Titleist in the rough even if the caddy has been waylaid helping his other lousy golfer 100 yards away in the bushes on the opposite side of the fairway. An aggravated golfer decreased your chances of the 25cent bonus at the turn.
One nice perk was that caddies could play free golf at the Club on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance. We had to dodge the sprinklers and skip any greens that were being repaired but who cared? We played 18 or 27 holes, practiced our cheating, and tried out some of the cuss words. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, two sides of America were being exposed to my growing mind. Where else could I be hanging around Doc, Moose, and Harry one minute, then handing a club to Mr. Comiskey or Mrs. Johnson the next? Right off the bat, I’d stumbled into a job that revealed a swath of our social strata. As I matriculated through Hinsdale junior high and high school, I became friends with many club members’ kids, but I never thought to myself, “One day, I’ll become a member.” Not because I felt that I couldn’t, but I found Doc more intriguing than any of the members. Chalk one up for the salt of the earth. There had to be more options than either hitting the balls or carrying the clubs.
I had the Hinsdale Golf Club in mind when I wrote and recorded this decades after my stint as a caddy: