Four years later I made the Newton North golf team as an alternate, which meant, essentially, that I got to practice with the team a few days a week after school. It was a step above ‘honorary captain’—a designation normally reserved for kids with cerebral palsy or some other debilitating handicap. Being an alternate on a golf team isn’t like being the second-string quarterback or back-up catcher; there’s no need for a reserve golfer to suddenly “suit up and get out on the field”. Golf-related injuries are limited to heart attacks, blisters or electrocution by lightening bolt. And if God forbid one of the top seeds died in some other tragic, non golf-related way, I’m pretty sure the coach would have rather forfeited the season in tribute than have me represent his team.
I was not a good golfer. I was “inconsistent”, to put it kindly.
Regardless, my dad was thrilled that I had taken up the classic, gentleman’s sport. He offered to buy me a new set of clubs, so I’d no longer have to use his old, worn-down Walter Hagens that I pulled from the garage and cleaned with Windex. Having my own set of clubs would officially make me a golfer; I could polish them, talk to them, develop individual relationships with them and take them out for ice cream after a particularly good round. Like kitchen knives to a chef or a Gibson Les Paul to a guitarist, golf clubs were an extension of the player, the bridge between art and artist. And the better the clubs, the shorter the bridge.
All of my friends had nice clubs: Ping, Ben Hogan, Titleist, Wilson, Tailor Made. These were the same clubs used by the golfers at Brae Burn. When I suggested those brands to my father, he waved them off. “Son, I know a guy, friend of mine, makes custom golf clubs. Better than all that other crap. Let me give him a call.”
I felt a cold breeze of doubt waft over my excitement. It came and went, but it was there.
The following Saturday my dad and I went to get my custom clubs. We drove up I-95 to Norwood, a town I had previously known only for its highway exit signs. The main road was a typical suburban thoroughfare, only shittier: a lot of small businesses, auto parts stores, legion halls, empty parking lots. We turned onto a dead-end side street. The asphalt became gravel and then became dirt. We pulled up in front of a lonely one-story house with weather-blasted siding and a flat roof, a relic of 1960s architecture that hadn’t seen a single upgrade since it was built. I stared out the window of my dad’s Oldsmobile Cutlass, raindrops sprinkling the glass, and imagined the Brady Bunch inside that house, all of them sprawled across the living room floor, dead from a carbon monoxide leak or a family suicide.
My dad grabbed his Dunkin Donuts coffee from the cup holder and got out of the car, laboriously, groaning Je-sus Christ like he always did when he rose from a sitting position. The car rocked side to side from the weight displacement. I watched him as he headed up the front path in that slow gait of his, sipping his coffee while adjusting his trademark Irish cap. He reached the front door and knocked. The sky darkened and the rain fell harder.
The front door opened. A skinny, disheveled man in a wifebeater stood there. He looked confused and defensive for a moment and then made a goofy “oh, hey!” expression once he recognized my old man. Okay, I thought, so maybe this guy is some sort of reclusive genius who makes things, an eccentric blacksmith who bucked the corporate system and had gone to seed in the backwoods off some interstate. Maybe he was the head die caster at an elite golf club manufacturer and was fired for being too brilliant. Maybe he discovered that his clubs were being used for the wrong reasons, like black market golf sales, or nuclear warfare. Maybe he was the best of the best, too smart and talented for his own good, and now he would come out of retirement to make one last set of irons. Mine.
But how would he know my old man?
“Danny, this is Joe, Angie Cedrone’s oldest boy, from up Hawthorne Street,” my dad informed me as I shook the man’s hand.
He looked vaguely familiar. “Did you…used to work one of the food stands at the carnival?” I asked him. The “carnival” was Newton’s annual Italian street fair, held in the middle of July at Hawthorne Park.
“Yeah,” he said. “The cherry stones.” Only it came out derry dones, because he was missing all of his teeth. He nodded his head and blinked his eyes rapidly, a nervous tic. “Doh, you’re Bunny’s kid, huh?”
Bunny was “Sonny”, my father’s nickname. My heart sank. This man was no genius craftsman; he was a goddamned carnie. A Newton townie transplanted to this drab, industrial suburb. My dad probably helped him get his GED. Then I thought, Of course! This guy is like Igor. Every brilliant recluse has a mentally incapacitated hunchback answering his door. After we dispense of the introductions Joe will lead my father and I down to the lab, where a tall, gaunt man with a disturbing pageboy haircut will appear from a dark corner, put on bifocals, switch on an overhead lamp and then ask to see my hands. Before I have a chance to respond he’ll yell “LET ME SEE THEM!” in an Austrian accent. I’ll hold out my hands and he’ll lean forward and examine the contours of my palms while nodding and saying “yes…I see…very good”. Then he’ll put on heavy-duty rubber gloves and proceed to make my golf clubs, toiling away with passion, precision and dedication, as though commissioned by King Arthur himself.
Instead, Joe led us down into a tiny cellar filled with cardboard boxes marked 100 CT or FOR RETAIL SALE ONLY. There were random items strewn about, multiples of everything: ten black hockey sticks leaning against one wall. Two dozen plastic lawn chairs and matching side tables, stacked high in the corner. Lined across a shelf was a row of white orthopedic shoes, all with the tags hanging from the laces. I peeked into the box next to me and saw that it was neatly packed with purple CONAIR hair dryers. “Where’d I put em?” Joe said, scratching his whiskers and looking around. He moved aside a framed picture on the floor, a paint-by-numbers of Jesus meditating on the beach, wearing headphones. Behind it was a set of golf irons, held together with rubber bands, resting against the wall. “Here ya go, kid,” he said, handing them to me.
“Wow. Thanks,” I said, looking down at the clubs. The handgrips were thin black rubber with a white v-shaped tread, a design that brought to mind the soles of 1960s basketball shoes. On the back of each clubface was the name PRO SWING, a brand I had never heard of, etched in a lightweight, sans serif font, similar to that of the premium PING EYE 2 clubs. So similar that from far enough away one might mistake them for Pings. At least that’s what I hoped.
“How dey beel?” Joe said.
“They feel great,” my father replied. “Danny, take the clubs and wait in the car. I gotta talk to Joe about a few things.”
I walked up the stairs and back to the car, cradling my new set of irons as though it was a puppy that just leapt happily into my arms and then abruptly died.
The following Monday was a practice day. I took my new clubs to the golf course for their maiden voyage. I was nervous, as though I was about to walk into school with my ear pierced or my hair permed. What would the other kids think? Would they be impressed? Envious? Would they even notice? Would I want them to notice?
“Are those new clubs?” Dave asked as I took some practice swings off the first tee. He reached into my bag and grabbed an iron. “Pro Swing. Huh. Where’d you get these? K-mart?”
“They’re custom-made, actually.”
“Really? They don’t look custom. They look like beginner’s clubs.” He took a practice swing, then grimaced and shook his head as if to say yuk. “If they’re custom, how come they don’t have anyone’s name on them? How come it doesn’t even say ‘custom’ anywhere?”
“Because the guy had a heart attack before he could do that part,” I said, grabbing the club out of his hand.
I had a similar conversation at least a half dozen times that day. Kids would ask if my clubs were new, and then upon closer inspection they would recoil in horror, as though I had showed them an infected wound.
“Pro Swing? What brand is that? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s my brand, okay? My own brand of golf clubs. Do you have your own brand? No.”
“That’s a terrible name, dude. It’s boring.”
“Yeah well you’re a boring, terrible asshole.”
As the afternoon wore on I grew progressively more defensive and humiliated, two emotions that, for me, are fused together and processed as rage. Unable to get out of my own head, my golf game suffered. I took an X on most of the holes, and those I actually finished I double- or triple-bogeyed. The low point came on the eighth tee, when two other passing foursomes stopped to watch me hit. “Let’s see that pro swing, Danny!” one kid yelled. I got in my stance, swung and missed the ball outright. The gallery snickered. Now fuming, I took another swing and shanked the ball off to the right, where it hit a nearby tree and ricocheted back in our direction. The snickering turned to howling laughter.
“You like that?” I yelled to my teammates, red-faced. “The next one’s gonna hit you right between the eyes. There’s more where that came from, you motherfuckers!”
After practice I waited on the street for my dad to pick me up. A Jeep Cherokee packed with the top-seeded Newton North players pulled out of the parking lot and sped past me, leaving the sound of Pearl Jam and the scent of marijuana in its wake. Valet attendants drove up in brand new Porsches and Mercedeses, holding the doors open for the club’s wealthy, private members and then stowing their three thousand-dollar golf clubs in the trunks. Finally my dad arrived, in his 20-foot Oldsmobile, chewing his spearmint gum and listening to talk radio. I put my new clubs in the backseat and got in.
“So, Danny, how’d you make out with the new clubs?” he said.
I started to cry.
* * * *
My father hung around with a bunch of low-level gangster types, guys with names like Lefty and Fatty and Dominic. They weren’t real gangsters, but they looked the part well enough, and they certainly enjoyed playing the part. One of their pseudo rackets was swag—merchandise obtained in bulk from warehouses or bankrupt wholesalers, usually arbitrary crap that nobody would ever need, want or think to purchase for themselves. Things like football tees or American flag beer koozies or travel-sized tubes of Crazy Glue (that were cleverly renamed “Wacky Gloo”). One evening my father came home and handed me a plastic bag. “Here ya go, son. I got you a little something.” Inside the bag was a flexible elbow brace, the kind worn by tennis players. My elbows were fine, but since it was a gift and it smelled new I figured I should put it to use. I wore it to school for a couple weeks as a fashion statement, to see if I could start a trend. It didn’t catch on and eventually smelled like spoiled milk, so I tossed it.
In fifth grade my dad gave me a Rolex watch. He made a ceremony out of it. “Son, this is a Rolex. The finest watch ever made by the finest watchmakers in the world. You’re ten years old now, and pretty soon you’ll be a man. A man’s wristwatch is a sign of his integrity. A sign of his class. His dignity. It shows his respect for time and respect for himself. Take good care of this.”
I took care of it. I had never heard of a Rolex but I liked the little gold crown below the number 12. It was a regal accessory and I cherished it. I showed everybody at school, even my teachers, who seemed amused rather than awestruck. I even made a little bed for it out of a Kleenex box, where I kept it during showers or baseball practice.
A month later the Rolex stopped working. I assumed the battery had died, and when I tried to remove the back plate to replace it, the plastic shield popped off of the face. I picked it up and tried to push it back on but it cracked down the middle and my thumb jammed into the dial and bent the minute hand. When I then tried to straighten out the minute hand with a pair of tweezers, it snapped off entirely.
I told my dad the Rolex broke and, to my surprise, he was not angry. Instead he gave me another one, same exact design, same black and gold color scheme. I wore that one for two months until my friend Matt informed me that it was a fake. “Rolexes don’t tick; they sweep,” he said, with the snooty air of a Sotheby’s auctioneer. “And by the way, they cost thousands of dollars. You really think your dad would give you a watch that expensive, and then, after you broke it, just give you another one?”
“Yeah, actually, I do,” I said, and I picked up my Trapper Keeper that was held together with electrical tape and stormed out of the classroom.
Pride kept me from admitting it, but I knew Matt was right. The watch was a fake. Both of them. The quality was cheaper than the digital video game watches that CVS sold for sixteen bucks. I got home from school, tore the Rolex off my wrist and threw it in the family junk drawer, where it stayed until 2006, when my mom remodeled the kitchen.
Nearly all the watershed moments of my adolescent life were commemorated with knockoff products. My baseball cleats always had the three Adidas stripes but never the Adidas name or logo. For my sixteenth birthday I got a STREET LITE ten-speed racing bike, the lettering of its logo an exact rip-off of SHOGUN. In college, while everyone sat in their dorm rooms typing papers on Dell or Hewlett Packard laptops, I used a Bonavenci desktop computer that took up my entire desk plus most of the surrounding floor. It had no internet connection ports and the user manual was in Mandarin Chinese. I had to ask someone in the foreign language center to install it for me.
These experiences have bred in me a genuine complacency with substandard quality. Today, whenever I have the option, I always buy the cheaper product. Recently I bought a new iPhone. I got the 16 GB model, rather than the 32 GB one, because it cost a hundred bucks less. After taking thirty-five selfies and uploading four Guns N’ Roses albums, my phone is now out of storage. I had to delete most of my apps in order to watch the new Star Wars trailer on Youtube. I apply the same principle to bigger things, like vacations. Rather than spend thousands on a trip to the Bahamas or Europe, I always opt for something more convenient, like Quincy. “Jesus, nothing ever makes you happy,” I yell at whichever girlfriend accompanies me. “The sky is blue. The food has calories. The people are human. The fuck more do you want?”
* * * *
As I write this, I look up at one of the bookcases in my study, on top of which stands a framed 8x10 picture of my father. The picture is from the late 1950s, during his time in the service. He is dressed in pilot’s gear: leather bomber jacket, white scarf, captain’s hat, and a set of headphones with a mouthpiece that he has pushed aside for the purposes of the picture. He is young and handsome, with a lopsided and devilish grin. The colors and edges of the photo are soft, appearing almost airbrushed, like an old pre-Technicolor war film. I imagine my father posing briefly for that picture and then saying, “alright, see ya”, then climbing into the cockpit of a B-12 and taking off for Korea. It is my favorite picture of him, and I have kept it in my study since the day he died, nearly twelve years ago.
It doesn’t matter that the picture was fabricated, that my father was down in Tijuana with a group of G.I.s and they stopped at a penny arcade where one could get a portrait taken in a variety of different costumes, from policeman to cowboy to professional baseball player.
It doesn’t matter at all. It’s a great fucking picture.