Christmas morning on the way to my brother’s allowed us the first good glimpse of my hometown since my return. We turned off Valley and onto the woody Cat Rock, a street infamous for its narrowness and hairpin turns. I remember one young man had been killed a few years before when his car slammed into a tree. Without knowing all the details I believe it was all high school alcohol related. The hairpin bend didn’t help either.
We were entering what was known as the mid-country section of Greenwich. According to the post office, this is still part of Cos Cob, and that may be so, but physically it has the feel of all the back streets of Greenwich. Cat Rock must be a very old road. What gives it away are the numerous houses which stand practically on the street’s edge, an unusual feature considering most homes are set back well beyond a healthy front yard or are hidden deep and only are visible when the trees are bare. The design of the property was totally different and people probably didn’t necessarily think about factors like long driveways and literally pulled out into the road. I also discovered two very old private graveyards in the area, and that’s a dead give away too. The years etched in the stone were no longer visible. That automatically makes them ancient in my book. The woods were still covered with snow and the brooks were alive with young water from freshly melted snow.
We threaded Cat Rock, managing to head in all four cardinal points at least once, and soon arrived on a side road where my brother lived. We piled out of the car in Christmas morning fashion and wished each other a Merry Christmas in Christmas merry fashion, and cheered a lot. The girls equipped themselves to spend the rest of the day playing out in the snow. They and the cousin did just about everything a person could do too and in the snow. No verbs were spared. They rolled it, packed it, sculpted it, tossed it, fell in it, tumbled in it, froze in it…just the way you should when you’re a kid. We had left the front yard look like a herd of wildebeests had rumbled through, a unsightly scene of unspeakable proportions for Greenwich, but the fact was rain was on the way and predicted to arrive in just a few hours and if they didn’t take advantage of it then, by the next day it would be pretty much all gone.
Soon my parents and my sister joined us and the festivities began. Christmas at brother and sister-in-law had done a magnificent job of decking the house so that it looked and smelled and sounded just the way you want it to on that day, especially if it has been a couple of years since you’ve been back. The day was a lot of fun and lunch was delicious. It really was. And it was nice to just hang around with the family for a few hours, look out at the snow-laden backyard and woods and watch the day start to age. We went for a walk after the meal and spent a lazy afternoon until it got dark and the jet lag lurked and we began to think about getting home.
Mom and Dad were staying the night in Greenwich. My brother had booked them a room at the Greenwich Country Club, and since nighttime travel on the treacherous winter roads of backstreet Connecticut can be challenge for anyone, let alone the elderly, I jumped into the car and took them over.
Country clubs have long been a natural part of Greenwich’s vast landscape. Where many towns call themselves home to one or maybe two of these private social societies,Greenwich boasts more than ten. Here’s a list from just off the top of my head:
Burning Tree Country Club
The Field Club
Round Hill Country Club
If water is more your thing, you can always try entry into one of these yacht clubs:
Belle Haven Yacht Club
Greenwich Boat and Yacht Club
Indian Harbor Yacht Club
Mianus River Boat & Yacht Club
Old Greenwich Yacht Club
Riverside Yacht Club
And we can’t forget:
The Greenwich Polo Club (Founded in 1982, by the way. That was just what the town needed to become what everyone expected of it.)
A number of these, and I won’t name which, are extremely exclusive, but the one that stands out as a symbol of this town is unquestionably The Greenwich Country Club, also known as GCC, or simply “the Club”.
Self-billed as the Premier Private Country Club of the Northeast (though I get the sneaking suspicion it’s not an official title of recognition), GCC was founded in 1892 and originally known as the Fairfield County Club. It was one of the first private golf clubs in the country. Not long after it would adopt its current name and for decades it lived a quiet existence at a time when people cared little about these places.
The Country Club I grew up with was not the original building since a fire in 1960 devastated it.
Back then, the 1970s I mean, the place was nice and all, but far from the top-notch luxury palace someone with a fanciful imagination might come to expect. My family joined in the 1970s and GCC quickly became one of our homes away from home, especially for me. I’d say I used it more than anyone else in the family. My friends and I were a gang of classic club rats; a dangerous breed of kid from a wealthy upbringing with a lot of time on our hands and little to do. Friday bowling….Saturday golf…and in the summer more golf, some tennis (not too much because it might ruin your swing) and a jump in the pool from time to time. There was lunch at the mixed grill, lunch at the halfway house, or a snack at the end of the round before calling home to get picked up. That pretty much summed up my existence. Pathetic, don’t you think?
To claim that the Greenwich Country Club is not Snob-Centro at times would be sort of like lying in your face. It’s very exclusive and pretty snooty too, though not as much as some people would imagine. There are plenty of very friendly and very generous members.
A lot of times you just have to put up with a lot of ridiculous rules like not being able to wear denim to the 4th of July picnic but it’s considered too casual and visually unattractive. Then you go to the picnic and see just what types of outfits are allowed in the name of good taste, and you stop worrying. They can make a blood vessel pop in you eye. It should be a crime to treat fabric that way.
And yet surprisingly, it is not the ominous club you hear about in other parts of the world. There never was a gatehouse with a guard turning away undesirables. In fact, it is shockingly easy to access the club. I like that because it makes me feel that that there is still something unpretentious about the place.
GCC was never one to preach or practice multicultural diversity, and I doubt it is much better today in that respect, if at all. Members were white, and from what I can tell, still are. And they were mostly Christian, and from what I can tell, still are. In my youth I recall only once seeing a black man who was not a worker there. I am not kidding.
To be fair, most clubs in the area went by that policy, so I can’t quite accuse GCC of behaving any differently from the rest. In fact, barring African-Americans and other minorities from super-exclusive institutions was common practice all over the nation. Augusta National did not admit its first black member until 1990.
Speaking of the early 1990s, and of blacks, around that time, the Greenwich Country Club and the town itself took an unexpected hit of poor publicity. A former Princeton student and lawyer by the name of Lawrence Otis Graham went undercover as a busboy in a private country club to write a report for New York magazine. He wanted to get an insider’s look at these places and recount his experiences as a black employee there. Where did he work? At theGreenwich Country Club, of course.
Later he included it in a book called A Member of the Club, which is a collection of articles about polarized racialAmerica.
It was a big deal when word of the article came out, I tell you. Oh, yeah. It was the talk of town. Most people were indignant about the slyness of the reporting and critical of his nitpicky complaints. The little part about racial discrimination seemed less scandalous.
If something can be said in the Country Club’s favor, it was that at least they hired him. The writer had interviewed at three other clubs in the area and not one even offered him a job. He had actually applied for a position as a waiter but the post was switched to a backroom busboy the minute the managers saw the color of his skin; at least that was what was suggested in the story. Even if it meant sticking the man in the kitchen and out of sight, they gave him the work.
The rest of the article exposed little surprising coming from a place like that in a time like that. If anything, it portrayed that world as a sad and almost desolate place. Regardless of the controversy, it was still a good reminder that in the days, when people tried to pretend that racism had all but disappeared in the U.S., the writer made it clear that such a belief was a crock and that you didn’t have to watch Out of Africa to find clubs where white males were still the kings. And he knew just where he could prove his point. He choseGreenwich. That’s part of its reputation. That’s not what makes it special; it’s what makes it an especially prime target. And I should know because I was about as preppy a child as you could get. I spent summers and summers at the club just playing golf, and that’s about it.
In the past couple of years, Greenwich Country Club has made a concerted effort to modernize and adapt on many levels, from the physical to the social to the moral. It has undergone several upgrades and been submitted to a facelift or two. The facilities have improved enormously. They have even made some concessions towards integration. The once untouchable Men’s Grill has been opened up to women, while the Family Grill (once the Mixed Grill) is where everyone can be. Hispanics still fill up the bulk of the menial jobs, but on the front line there is a new breed of worker. The young European.
This is disconcerting because in a deliberate decision, though no one may be willing to admit it. There is nothing more satisfactory to the preppy American ear than the sound of service in the form of a British accent. It’s dreadful. Not the accent, mind you, but the notion. It sounds more professional, even if the guy has just peed in your Coke before serving it to you. You’ll say “Thank you!” and he’ll say, “Not at all” In the most gracious manner you’ve ever heard.
Well, I couldn’t have picked a drearier more desolate evening to stop by. Except for the cheery but solitary illumination of the Christmas lights clinging for their lives on the bushes and trees and a lamp casting a beam of lonely light on the underpass at the front door, absolutely everything else lacked even the remotest suggestion that life dwelled within. The place reeked of a bloody and uncomfortable death. I had to admit I was feeling somewhat irresponsible and uneasy about leaving them off to fend for themselves. I think even my mother muttered something about Jack Nicholson and an axe as we pulled up. But there we were. That familiar white building with those horrible columns. They have got to be the ugliest and least majestic I’ve ever seen. They look like lanky legs, totally unfit for such a noble social club. We went up the flagstone steps and inside. The reception was as quiet and forlorn as a person could endure. Sitting low behind a dimly lit desk, a night watchman courteously tended to our questions. I saw them upstairs and then left, adding before I went, that they were to call me should they see the word “Redrum” scrawled on their bathroom mirror.
I went back to my brother’s place, picked up the family and returned back to our friends’ to retire for the evening, which was an easy task for us because we had been up since the crack of dawn and earlier. It had begun to rain and the snow started to deform and droop and turn just plain sad. It became pock-marked and dirty. The air warmed and the night grew balmy and melencholy. It was time to turn in. It was certainly time to check into the Unconscious Hotel and forget about things for a while.
Either that or I needed an extra long episode of the Yule Log.