I have never been in a country club, except for a family wedding or two. Country clubs just weren’t Us. Nobody in my immediate family played golf, wore those pants, or paid that kind of money for belonging to a Set, a like group of people.
But my brother, Ethan, has been in country clubs. Many, many times. And last year, as we were having one of our regular discussions about Trump’s racism, he told me, “People like him have been around for years, talking just like that. They’re the guys who belong to country clubs.”
Ethan is a musician — guitar(s) and banjo. Over the years, he’s played gigs in country clubs. Weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversary and birthday parties. All kinds of celebrations which offer music and dancing, along with the dessert buffet.
So I called him and asked him to be specific about the country club set he has worked among. Was there overtly racist language?
No, he said. Their conversation among themselves is so ingrained, they don’t need to use overt words. They’ve fallen into a verbal shorthand, and they all know what they mean.
(Of course Trump, a gilt-coated owner and member of the Country Club Set, has sort of blown the coded language business for these guys by saying it all out loud. We can assume what he says they’re all thinking.)
Eth described the country club as the 19th hole. The members show up from golf rounds and get stewed. They all know each other. If one of them says especially dumb stuff out loud, the rest of the boys think it’s funny. They have no awareness of how dumb it is. They’re so used to confirming each other’s viewpoints, they don’t know how offensive it sounds like to someone who isn’t them.
At almost every gig, at least one club member would come up toward the bandstand to talk to the sidemen. Talk at the sidemen, actually. Their attitude was, they were taking an opportunity to hang out with Real People, ordinary regular people. Learning what others were thinking, how they lived.
Yet they’d never elicit any genuine conversation with the musicians. They’d just talk at them. Ethan said, “I could be the guy cleaning the room.”
Then Eth told me a joke pertinent to my questions about the boys in the club:
A guy goes to prison for the first time. When he’s together with some other prisoners, he hears one of them say, “Twenty-five!” and all the other guys laugh.
Then another guy says, “Thirteen!” and everyone laughs.
The new guy is bewildered. “How come you’re all laughing?”
“Oh,” says a veteran inmate, “since we all know the same jokes, we’ve numbered them so we don’t have to go through the whole thing.”
The new prisoner decides to try it out. “Forty-seven!” he says.
Nobody laughs. “What was wrong with that?” he asks.
“It’s the way you delivered it.”