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:
Note: A couple of years into starting my ad agency, Roger Bain Communications, I followed up on a lead that the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana DQ account might be worth pursuing. Circa 1995:
Part I: The Big Meeting
I phoned the guy named John and before I could finish outlining my experience, he stated, “We need new blood.” I told him that my blood was in that category. The two of us then proceeded to have one of those animated conversations where you’re coming up with a new idea every thirty seconds and they’re all good and it becomes obvious you’re on the same marketing wavelength and the timing is perfect.
John wanted to give the lethargic local DQ ad program a kick in the ass and I would be the kicker. He arranged an introductory meeting with the Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen ad committee. The local group was dissatisfied with their current advertising and appeared eager to try something new, but they were skeptical that Corporate would allow me to have the account. Wait a minute, thought I. Corporate? What? This was the first time I realized that it would not be the ad committee’s decision to engage me. It would be up to the corporation. John had failed to disclose that important bit of information. I had been speaking with committee members, not decision makers.
After some behind the scenes negotiating between John, the ad committee, and Corporate, the IDQ (International Dairy Queen) team begrudgingly decided to “allow” me to make a presentation at the big annual franchise meeting for Chicagoland/Northwest Indiana Dairy Queen. In attendance would be franchisees from 155 stores, a slew of folks from DQ’s corporate marketing department, and a half dozen account, media, and creative department representatives from the current DQ ad agency, Campbell Mithun.
Campbell Mithun and International Dairy Queen were both headquartered in Minneapolis. This client/agency relationship was as tight as it gets: two corporations holding hands. Representatives from each company sat on the other’s boards—a lot for me to overcome if I was going to get a piece of the account. The franchisees would have to exercise some newfound power instead of acquiescing to whatever the corporation dictated. My partner in crime, John, was wildly enthused at the new path he was spearheading. I looked forward to the opportunity with a mix of confidence and the anxiety of the unknown.
At least 150 people crowded into the large, generic meeting room at the Holiday Inn in the far south Chicago suburb of Matteson to witness this real-life David vs. Goliath showdown: a gigantic national ad agency with thousands of employees versus a solo ad agent. Six besuited C-M soldiers were prepared to do battle with me.
First up, the big agency boys. The Campbell Mithun suits gave their stunningly blasé presentation with pie charts and flow charts and stiff shirts and weak humor—basically the same presentation the franchisees had seen for years. They mailed it in. The room had little reaction. How much does a DQ operator want to hear about gross ratings points and cost per thousand?
After the Campbell Mithun presentation, John gave my introduction.” Here’s a guy with a different approach. I think we should hear what he has to say.” Showtime! I strode up to the microphone with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I was wearing slacks and a shirt, the only presenter not in business attire. The audience of franchisees was also casually attired. I was dressed like they were. Major franchise drama unfolding.
I stepped up to the microphone and surveyed the franchisees. “People already know who you are. You are an American icon. Dairy Queen means fun. Your advertising should be fun. Not contrived. It should be memorable and bring a smile to your face. Music on the radio is an efficient way to remind folks of your iconic, beloved brand. Rhyme, repetition, and melody are some of the most important tools we have to break through the drivel of advertising clutter. Songs about DQ will make people smile. Not jingles. Songs. sixty-second songs.” The franchisees were listening to the bald guy with the guitar.
And now I unveiled my secret weapon— Miss Rhoda Jean Kershaw. She was a redhead country singer I had previously collaborated with on a Tool TV song and she overflowed with genuine good spirit and a downhome voice. “Hi y’all”, she waved to the crowd. The room murmured “hi” back. I voiced a one-two-three countdown—just like at a corner bar gig—and Rhoda Jean launched into a song that I had just written, The Cake You Don’t Have to Bake, incorporating the current “Think DQ” tag line.
The room dug it! Whoops and hollers and applause. The franchisees were finding their voice. The suits at the back of the room conferred and huddled and attempted a vibe of indifferent nonchalance.
Other dramas were also playing out. During the performance, the bearded, truck driving, jeans wearing, outgoing local franchise ad committee chairman—he had just been voted out of office—was in the lobby bar sucking down his third beer, loudly and profanely getting in the face of some IDQ corporate players. This hubbub had wafted into the conference room and added a noticeable tension. When Rhoda and I began to sing and play, though, the room had lost its tension. The franchisees could sense something different brewing after years of corporate despotism. (With a tad of irony, Something Different became a new tag line a few years later.) I thanked Rhoda Jean, I thanked the franchisees, I thanked the corporation, I even thanked “the team from Campbell Mithun.” With my guitar again slung over my shoulder, like a working man with his pickaxe, I sauntered back down the aisle to the rear of the room as the sound of real applause delighted my ears. A successful performance. A successful song.
As I joined the crowd standing at the back of the room, a silver-haired account super for C-M—a guy with over thirty years of industry experience—complimented me with a bemused look of…envy? Or so I thought, though he may also have been thinking that it was not fair that I got to have more fun at my job than he did. “Nice tie,” I told him.
Especially abhorrent to the corpos was the fact that I was proposing that we use radio. This was sacrilege! IDQ and Campbell Mithun—and all big agencies— prefer TV because it’s “sexier” than radio, production budgets are more lucrative, it’s easier to buy and creative directors get to travel to LA for the commercial shoot. If you’re a hot shot creative director and you don’t have cocktails at the Chateau Marmont or the Polo Lounge a few times a year, why are you working?
IDQ and Campbell Mithun were singing from the same hymnal. I was singing a different tune. No matter how much the franchisees dug my presentation, there was still plenty for me to overcome.
I went on to create a couple of dozen DQ songs with my producing partner Chuck Kawal, Here’s a snippet of one of my faves, featuring Rhoda Jean and me in a call and response ode to the DQ Chili Dog.:
I was probably practicing a guitar lick in my Church stall, on a day the waterbed store was closed, when George called me to come downstairs for some cake. It was his birthday. As I descended the stairs, I heard a note from a pitch pipe followed quickly by the opening lines of the most over-the-top, enthusiasm-on-steroids, opera-style rendition of “Happy Birthday” I had ever heard. Belting it out was a short, sweating gentleman dressed in a blue blazer and red bow tie, his eyes ready to jump out of their sockets, his dark hair slicked back. The performance was post-eccentric. The volume he achieved was astonishing. Could have filled an auditorium. “Ozzie,” said George. “I want you to meet John-John.” John was an opera singing tenor who could hit high “C.” He was a friend of George’s from his Baker University days in Kansas—just the sort of person who would fall into George’s orbit. George had served as John’s protector from the louts who populated the pin ball parlor near Baker. He was the kind of person who had been mocked all of his life for being too boisterous, too different, too unique, too much.
Look around where you are right now, then proceed ten years into the future. How could I have possibly known that a decade hence I would utilize John’s talents to promote a television channel that no one had yet conceived, in an industry that had barely been born. At this moment, I was not conceiving anything beyond the birthday cake that John was devouring. This guy could eat.
Here is a compilation of some of my work with John Andrews, one of the most sincere and indefatigable performers I have ever encountered. The first video is pulled from Not For Chowderheads, the 1982 special produced by KTWU, Topeka. The videos that follow were part of a seasonal campaign for MTV while I was marketing director at Sunflower Cablevision in Lawrence, KS.
“We will never run
out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private
dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big
basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my
freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my
first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the
fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an
The promise of delicious,
plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once
hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free
meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the
state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option.
What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?
It rankled me,
though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that
moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These
were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on
One of my duties
was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone
un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch
item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined
the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper
napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most
popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the
trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took
one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire
burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and
When the staff
bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me.
Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s
youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel
was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was
crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a
dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied
the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff,
went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more
pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine
article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction
of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed
The food service
manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was
an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m
sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam
or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray
suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18;
he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,”
I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the
Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my
fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing
During one back
dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always
hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock
with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something
about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I
began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the
dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are
bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from
the corner of my mouth.
Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.
The advertising industry is fueled by seminars, conventions and cocktail parties. At an after-work Holiday cocktail bash sponsored by a now-defunct cable channel, I ran into a friend who worked for MTV. Between sips of punch, we commented on the general lameness of everything in sight, how shallow and full of shit so much of the industry was, especially most of the anointed rising stars. This is what you do when you are not a rising star yourself and are generally skeptical at the power dynamics that have passed you by, even though you wanted to be passed by. That was the goal.
This exercise in mockery eventually
meandered into a discussion of things that we considered to be worthy of our
praise. That’s when we discovered our mutual love of the Rolling Stones. We
settled into animated chat of our favorite Stones tracks. Sway. Spider and the Fly. You Got the Silver, Moonlight Mile. I
relayed my story of speaking to Bill Wyman on the phone while I was in high
school. My cohort had a story about a Mick encounter. Then she dropped the
bombshell: How would I like two passes to the live taping of a Keith Richards
and The Expensive Winos concert that VH-1 was producing locally at WTTW’s soundstage?
And maybe an after-show introduction to Keith! This is why we work. It’s not
just for the money, it’s for the opportunity to meet Rock Gods. If offered the
chance to meet any musician from any era, if Robert Johnson was busy being
chased by a hellhound, I would have chosen Keith.
On the day of the taping, Linda
contracted stomach flu but was going to give it a try anyway. After all, it was
Keith! Sadly, on the way to the show we had to turn the car around and return
Linda home to deal with her gastric misery. This lost opportunity amplified her
illness. She was now both sick and devastated. After dropping her off, I didn’t
have time to think about anything other than threading through expressway
traffic and getting to WTTW on time.
The studio held about 200 standing
fans. A low-key, pre-concert buzz filled the room, emitted by rock fans in the
know, sharing stories of other times they had seen Keith or the Stones or other
famous rockers. We were the chosen ones and we knew it. This wasn’t some stadium
show with 30,000 anybodys in attendance. This was a hyper exclusive event to
witness a legend. I wormed my way to the very front, pressed against the stage.
A small camera tethered to a cable zipped behind me. The director was
practicing a shot that would swoop over the crowd, right up to the Winos. Just
before the band appeared, I heard my name over the studio public address
system. “Bain! Move to the back. Your bald head is in my shot.” I knew the
woman who was directing, and she had recognized me. I moved about twenty feet
back. Still a great spot to see the band smash through Take It So Hard and about ten other tunes including Time Is on My Side, sung by Sara Dash.
The set ended with no encore
because it was a television taping. I headed for the stage door where my MTV
friend had told me to meet her. As I made my way to the backstage door, I said
hello to Winos drummer, Steve Jordan and sax legend, Bobby Keys. “Great set,
guys!” What else could I say? The rock royalty was looking for the room where the
buffet was. Because of the small, private nature of the show there wasn’t much
security. I walked in. Backstage was a non-descript, dark-ish room with drapes
on the walls and a few overhead lights. The gathering was just me, the MTV gal,
the President of VH-1 and a guitar maker with a custom guitar for Keith to
autograph. As we waited for Keith, we were all equals.
I was making small talk with the
VH-1 President when a hush seemed to settle over us, a barely discernable
change in atmosphere like the pressure drop that precedes a tornado. From the
shadows, Keith materialized and noiselessly glided our way. He simply appeared,
as if waved in by an unseen wand. I swear I detected an aura surrounding him.
He seemed in good spirits but how would I know? Had he just smoked hash? Had he
just looked at his bank account? Had he just had a plate of bangers and mash?
In any case, there was no pretense. I could tell that he had done this meet and
greet hundreds of times. It was the retail part of his rock star god job. He
was polite, gracious, at once both all-knowing and oblivious.
What do you say to an icon? I hadn’t rehearsed any questions. I thought that a prepared question would seem hokey. Do stars ever get tired of being told how much we love them? Or how many times we have played their first album? I settled on blurting out, “My wife got sick this morning and she’s going to die because she didn’t get to see the show and meet you.” Without missing a beat, Keith says, “What you want from me mate? To pay for her funeral?” He was busting my balls. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied, “but could you tell her to get well soon?” An assistant who had slipped into the room handed Keith an event invitation postcard and a sharpie and Keith scribbled, “To Linda. Get well soon,” and signed his name. I posed for a quick photo with Keith and the others. For reasons known only to God and Elvis, I never got a copy. It slipped through the cracks of my life. What I most remember was the handshake. Keith’s hands were incredibly soft.
Consider the business suit. Wrapping up in one of these once or twice a year for some special or somber occasion is fine, but to do so every day, for me, is overload. I view the suit as a costume. A fancy uniform. But that’s just me. You might feel differently. You might be among the millions who love to play dress up.
When you wear a suit, you are frequently in the company of others wearing suits. Part of the club. It signifies that your job does not require digging, heavy lifting, sawing, mowing or a tool belt. In a nice suit and tie, as you step off the train, enter an elevator or get seated at a restaurant, the world sees a person that can at least afford a suit, who is going somewhere and whose drudgery is more likely mental than physical. In the preferred job of my dreams I would dress for work the same as I dressed for a Saturday afternoon with the kids. Work is no more important than family, right? Why dress differently for it? Yeah, I know. On the job, you dress to impress. You dress for success. But what if your definition of success doesn’t require a business suit? Mine doesn’t.
When I accepted an offer to work for the Centel Corporation (not a fake name), it went without saying that a suit would be standard attire. During the previous ten years, my jobs had never required a suit. My work apparel had been some combination of jeans, boots, sneakers, khakis, aprons, work shirts, collared shirts and even a Santa Claus outfit. Now, things would be different. It was time to play dress up for real.
I would need at least three suits to rotate through the work week. I already owned a tan, summer weight number, and one other now forgotten garment. Let me tell you about my third suit. I found it at Irv’s Men’s Warehouse, sort of an outlet store for suits. (Note: Irv’s Men’s Warehouse no longer exists but has been reincarnated into a luggage outlet.)
The lighting at Irv’s was a bit dim, either to cut down on the electric bill—after all, this was a discount emporium—or because the merchandise was better viewed in crepuscular light. I was searching for something of a different color than the two suits I already owned. After swiping through the racks that were in my size and price range, I settled on a cheap brown thing made of some indestructible material that claimed to be wool but was more like thick burlap. At the very least, this wool was from a scrawny, low grade sheep. There were better suits at the Warehouse but not in my size or price range The brown one would have to do. Leaving the store, I felt that I had done something terribly wrong.
To say that this suit was vapid would be an understatement. Its hue was similar to chewing tobacco or dog do. It had no give. It didn’t drape. It was stiff and could almost stand up on its own. It was the opposite of fashionable. The suit would have been banned in Italy. When I looked in the mirror while dressed in this third suit, I actually felt embarrassment. It was hideous.
This nasty garment came to symbolize the oppression of my job. I never donned the suit outside of work. The only time I wore it was in my cubicle, in the bland office on the 6th floor of a featureless office building near the airport, home base for this rather boring corporation where I was trying to fit in. I went through the motions clad in brown. While wearing the brown suit, I felt mirthless, but I continued at the job because I had two kids. I had rent, obligations and now a cheap, brown suit.
Removing the suit was a daily highlight. On my after-work dash to the car, I tore off my suit jacket and loosened my tie. Soon I would be in jeans and a t-shirt. Upon arrival home, the kids often hid behind the draperies as I wondered aloud where could they be. When they could stand it no longer, they came bounding out. I was surprised every time. They didn’t seem to mind the suit.
When I left Centel, I vowed to never again wear the hideous brown suit and I have kept that vow.
I Meet The Champ
The summer of 1965, my 16th year, a friend of my parents had snared me the exotic job of car hiker for Z Frank Chevrolet in Chicago. Every workday Mr. Burr picked me up on Blodgett Street in Clarendon Hills and drove me to a six-story garage on Federal Street on the south edge of the loop where Z Frank Chevrolet had leased some space. My singular duty was to shuttle (hike) rental cars from one Z Frank rental spot to the next.
One morning while shooting the breeze with some fellow hikers, a white convertible Cadillac with red leather upholstery pulled into our garage on South Federal Street. Moments before we had been tipped that The Champ was coming and here he was. Hardy, a short dude with a limp, the head car hiker, instructed all of us to not call him Cassius Clay. His name is now Ali.
With great controversy, Cassius Clay had recently changed his “slave name” to Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim name. The name change didn’t bother me. He had just beaten badass Sonny Listen for the second time a couple months prior, this time by a knockout in the first round, another controversy. I thought he was impossibly cool. As the big white Caddy convertible whooshed into the garage, the five or six of us car hikers gathered around. Ali sat alone in the middle of the back seat with both arms spread out on the red leather seat backs. A driver and a bodyguard—sure looked like Black Muslims to me—sat in the front seat. Ali looked extremely relaxed when he got out of the Cadillac. He was all business but gracious and rather soft-spoken, quite different than his public persona. We all briefly crammed into the tiny garage office and he shook everybody’s hand. Not a crushing handshake. Just a regular shake.
For a second I looked into the eyes of the most famous person on earth.
And that was it. I have no idea where he was going or why he parked his car at our garage but I had met the Champ. It never occurred to me to get his autograph. Who had a camera handy in 1965?