King of the Road

Originally posted by O Ceallaigh on the discontinued blog Felloffatruck Publications, 4 May 2007. Reposted here, with updates, in support of a retrospective currently ongoing at the Dude & Dude site.

Written on a transcontinental flight. Posted from a San Francisco hotel room.

Trailers for sale or rent,
Rooms to let, 50 cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets –
I ain’t got no cigarettes;
Ah, but:
Two hours of pushing broom
Buys a eight-by-twelve four-bit room.
I’m a man of means by no means,
King of the road.

My father and mother grew up together during the Great Depression. And not on the sunny side of the street either. My mother wasn’t one of the children of the little old lady who lived in a shoe. But it was a near thing. Seven of them (I think she said it was seven) in a five-room two-story postage stamp, living on the $19 a week my grandfather made – and only during golf season, which in southeastern Massachusetts is six months.

My father’s father had passed away when Dad was five. Dad caddied at the country club to help make ends meet. Four hours, five miles, for 60 cents plus, if he was lucky or good, a dime tip. He would have been better off with the broom. But if he ever pushed one, he never told me about it. And he hated the road. Grew up in this town, lived all his life here, would die here and he didn’t care if he saw anything else, he’d already seen enough.

And so he did. Though his wife did drag him out on occasion. Like the time they travelled across the country to visit me in Seattle, while I was in graduate school. That must have taken a whole lot out of him.

When I caddied as a teenager in the 60s, the pay had gone up to $2.50 ($5 for doubles). I did it again as a graduate student in the 70s, the rate had gone up to $10 ($20). Now, the rate is $0. Most clubs no longer allow caddies.

Every once in a while, when I was like ten years old, I would rise at a ridiculous hour on a Saturday morning and join my dad at the country club. Not to play golf, but to make the course ready for those who did.

holeHis duty, in the three hours between first light (5 AM) and the first tee time, was to set the cups on the greens. He would take a hole cutter (specially designed for the purpose), a hook to pull the metal lining of the old cup out of the ground, a watering can, and a bucket of dirt. He’d stow these things on the back of a tractor and drive from hole to hole, every time the same way. He’d get to a green, inspect it for a place where the grass more or less matched that where the old hole was and was suitable for play, drive the hole digger in the hole, pull out the plug, take it to the old hole, pull out the liner with the hook, plant the plug in the old hole, using the dirt bucket to make sure the plug was level with the rest of the green and using the watering can to settle it in, then drive the lining into the new hole.

He was good at it. Every once in awhile, he’d try to teach me. I wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t master a minimum-wage job. I keep telling people, that’s how come I got a Ph.D. Mostly, I got to pull the flag out of the old hole, and plant it in triumph into the new one. And, between holes, I would ride on the hood of the tractor and listen to my dad talk.

A favorite pastime of those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is to bash those on the higher steps. My father did his share, though it was tempered by his generally cheerful nature. He was a peasant, knew it, and wanted it no different. He was singing Don’t worry, be happy three decades before it was a hit, and he hated the very thought of doing anything that might have made it a hit. To him, people with money talked to themselves, and on occasion put loaded pistols into their mouths. His brother was the superintendent of grounds at the country club, he benefited from that arrangement, and that was as close to running things as he wanted to get. Near-minimum wage was a fair price to pay for comfort. And he didn’t let his wife work until it was almost too late.

One pearl of his wisdom has stuck with me all these years. I don’t know if he made it up or just parroted it from somewhere else. But it pretty much sums up his attitude, and that of the men with whom he worked all of his life.

A man who’s short a million dollars eats in the best restaurants.
A man who’s short a nickel goes to jail.

I hope Dad ain’t lookin’ right now, ’cause if he is, he’s hatin’ my ass. I’m not short a million, but I’m short enough. And I’m in a five-star on San Fran’s Nob Hill. Yes, someone else is payin’. No, I can’t tell you about it. ‘Cept to say, there’s a reason I’m moving to Hawai’i. And it’s not to take pictures of dolls in grass skirts.

I haven’t ridden a long-haul bus in several years. But a peasant whose car has just died a miserable death has to get himself from Maine to Boston somehow. So I boarded a Trailways bus in Wiscasset, expecting to relive my cramped and smelly memories.

I knew something was amiss with that memory when the bus stopped in front of the corner market that doubled as the rural depot, and it kneeled to let me on. The seats were plush, there were snacks, and on the back a console for a personal sound system. Not to mention the video screens showing movies. And the thing didn’t smell of a thousand stale farts. Hell, it was almost pleasant. It sure ain’t your father’s Greyhound. Or third boxcar, midnight train.

I don’t always feel that way, and I sure as hell don’t deserve it, but I’ve been lucky. And maybe some of what my parents learned from the dirty end of the ladder got passed on to me after all. Sometimes, you just gotta know every handout in every town. And all the locks that ain’t locked when no one’s around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

King of the road …

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