At age 16, I graduated from mowing the neighbors’ lawns and watering their plants to my first real job, which was clearing tables and washing dishes at a college cafeteria, and then to a still better job, with looser hours and wider vistas, as golf caddy at Trump National Golf Club Westchester, known in those days as the Briar Hall Golf and Country Club, in Briarcliff Manor, New York. My career at the cafeteria was brief. During perhaps my second or third day on the job, I noticed that we cafeteria workers were entirely at the mercy of our supervisors, and we were not as well-remunerated as seemed to me just, and, furthermore, many of us, though not me, were members of a cruelly oppressed racial minority—notably the cooks, who were significantly older than 16, with power over the kitchen and impressive skills. And we ought to resist oppression.
I proposed unionization, to be achieved through militant action. And, a week or two later, I was, in a phrase that puzzled me, “let go.” I never gathered the courage to tell my parents what had happened. I was ashamed to have lost my first job.
I was proud of the next job, though. After school when the afternoons were long, or on weekends and over the summer, I made my way to the caddy shack at the golf club and sat patiently on a bench until all the caddies with greater status than me had been called, and my turn at last came up. I threw a canvas golf bag, or maybe a leather bag, over my left shoulder and trundled around nine holes of the course, or around all 18 holes, in the footsteps of whomever I was serving.
Sometimes, I was asked to carry two bags, which was difficult. My right shoulder was not as adept and horizontal as my left one, which allowed the bag to slide off. Two bags were heavy, and if they were plush leather and filled with extra and peculiar clubs, a 5-wood or 1-iron or an alternative putter, they were more than I could handle. No one took pity on me. The golfers strode about in their golfing attire and chatted among themselves and said almost nothing to me, apart from issuing orders. Nor were the other caddies full of talk. I labored. Zealously I tramped about in the weeds, looking for lost balls. And I set off along the fairways.
The slopes were ocean seas. The green grass brushed at my toes and parted in foamy waves, and a brine of the freshly mown swept over my cheeks, and I floated along with everyone else from tee to green, and tee to green, almost in silence, except for the regular thwack of the club blades hitting the balls, and snatches of conversation. Some of those golfers were laughably awkward at the game, the women especially, out for the first time, perhaps, on a golf course, unsure how to stand or swing. But we caddies knew how to stand, which was upright with the bags in front of us, like Civil War soldiers at parade rest in the war memorials, wordless, expressionless, snickerless, and reliable.
Best were Tuesday afternoons, when the greenkeepers irrigated the lawns and undertook repairs. The course was closed to the club members, and the caddies were allowed their day. Only a handful of us showed up for those afternoons, mostly the high school boys, and we wandered the course alone, past the noisy lawn tractors and the water sprinklers, carrying our own bags. I owned a set of nine or 10 mismatched clubs and was always well-stocked with the slightly damaged balls that I gleaned from the roughs, and the banged-up wooden tees that were everywhere to be found, and a leather fingerless glove, and that was sufficient.
Like most golfers, or like all of them, I was, of course, an excellent player—excellent because, from time to time, I would get off a lucky shot. And if I could do such a thing once, the potential was evidently within me, and my failure to do it ever again could only be taken as a failure to marshal my own talent. But shortly I would learn how to do so, in evidence of the certain truth that my best shots were my authentic shots, and my bungled shots were false to myself and to reality, and, from the standpoint of truth and beauty, my bungled shots might even be thought not to exist.
A theory of the true and the false is the logic of the mulligan, or do-over, in golf. It is a Platonic logic. It conforms to a belief in the distinction between the real and the departure from the real. A well-executed drive, lifting skyward and heading along the fairway before plunking down and bouncing in pleasure once or twice on the plump and healthy grass, visibly adheres to the mathematical structures of the universe. And a stupid whiff, or an ugly stab that sends a ball skidding into the brambles, or a ghastly slice into the woods, reflects the structures of the universe not at all, and, in that respect, should properly be deemed foreign to reality, as in, “Oh, let me do it again.” And then, with a new ball drawn from the side pocket of my canvas bag and replaced on the tee or perched provocatively on a scruff of grass, thwack, and the parabolas of truth and beauty were restored.
Wednesdays it was back to the caddy shack, where life conformed to a different set of structures. At the top of the social order were older tough-looking men with leathery cheeks and streaky hair, who got first dibs from the caddy dispatcher and were regularly asked to shoulder two bags, which doubled the pay. I never spoke to any of those men, if I could avoid it. The wild look in their faces made me wonder if, having spent the day broiling in the sun, they spent the night under the stars, and saved on rent. Next in the hierarchy were younger black men who took the train up the river from the Bronx in the morning, and did as many rounds as they could fit in, and returned to the Bronx.
Last were us high school boys and maybe a handful of college boys, our elders, home for the summer, pink-cheeked and white. And tying everyone together was nothing like what I had seen at the college cafeteria, with its paperwork contracts and social security numbers and paychecks handed out at the end of every second week. At the caddy shack there were merely the conventions of seasonal day labor, catch-as-catch-can, which meant cash and hustle and the dispatcher’s dictatorial whims.
I wonder how many of the members of the golf club gave any thought to the day-labor system at work in their own club. I suppose not too many of them: It is not in the nature of people who are enjoying themselves to dwell over the question of how everyone else is doing. And it is normal in America not to notice how strictly everyone is assigned to his or her very own demographic slot in the not-so-democratic universe. Golf caddies, as it happens, are banished to a realm of tacit invisibility. No one has ever called a party of golfers ambling around a golf course anything other than a “foursome,” even if, in reality, the party may be a six or seven or eightsome, of whom two or three or four are invisibly carrying the bags. Then again, I wonder what the club members thought of their own invisible circumstances, which were loftier than us laborers’, but not so lofty as to have lifted them above the concrete realities of American life.
There were two country clubs in that part of the world, and the Briar Hall that eventually became Trump National Golf Club Westchester was, by reputation, not the posher of the two. The posh club was Sleepy Hollow Country Club, a few miles away, with an aristocratic provenance among the Dutch surnames of the Hudson Valley. I never saw the place. Rumors of its glamorous nature came my way. Many were said to be welcome at Sleepy Hollow, and yet, not everybody. Briar Hall, then, was for the Jews. The golfers wandered around the course chatting in Yiddish, which, I suppose, is why they would never have been admitted to Sleepy Hollow.
Nor was anything unusual about “restrictions” of that sort. In the upstate counties, where the old America of colonial patroons and the Ku Klux Klan was still intact, not every home for sale was available to every buyer. It was tough on the Jews, not to mention the blacks. And yet, the foursomes at Briar Hall did not seem too upset—and why should they have been, tramping happily about in their cleated saddle shoes, firm in the knowledge that, at least, their own club was their own?
Briar Hall lost its groove after a while. Ownership of the club made its way from one corporate entity to another until, long after my time, the Trump Organization took charge and sunk a lot of money into the place. A geologically ridiculous artificial rocky waterfall was inserted into the mild landscape. And, in its jazzed-up version, the club attracted yet another membership, drawn not from the zone of old-money aristocrats, and not merely from the circles of the discriminated-against Jews (who by then were no longer facing much discrimination, and maybe none at all), but from still another zone of new-money happiness. Rudolph Giuliani is reported to have taken out a membership, and likewise Bill Clinton, and TV hosts and film stars. The joys of the fairway were joined to the joys of watching television. And, in time, Trump National Golf Club Westchester made its way into the news.
The first such occasion was in June 2016, at a glorious moment in the political career of Donald Trump, which was also an awkward moment. The moment was glorious because he had won a series of Republican primaries, which guaranteed his nomination as the party candidate; and was awkward because a federal judge named Gonzalo Curiel was presiding over the fraud trial of Trump University, and Trump had let loose a series of remarks about the judge’s Mexican ancestry, which some people judged to be poorly chosen (notably, Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House in those days, who described the remarks as the “textbook definition of a racist comment”).
Trump was in a delicate spot, then, needing for political reasons to assert his victory, and needing for human reasons to crow about the victory, but also needing to show that he was not as disagreeable as some people took him to be. He responded by presenting a tableau of himself at the Westchester club, orating from a teleprompter podium marked “Make America Great Again!,” with Melania and Ivanka behind him on either side like two dancers, identically lithe and sleeveless (though in gowns of different colors), their hair draped identically forward over their collarbones, and the rest of the family flanking the two women, and six gold-tasseled American flags drooping opulently at the rear—a tableau of a feudal patriarch, presiding over his sybaritic pleasure dome. This must surely be the image that fires up his supporters. Oh, to be commanded by such a fabulous lord, not merely a golfer like Barack Obama or Dwight D. Eisenhower, the original golfing president, but the owner of his own golf course, assisted by gorgeous dames! People in the room—they must have been members of the club—chanted his name.
Only, instead of trying to whip up the crowd, Trump recited phrases from the teleprompter. The Clintons and their corruption were a theme—the corruption that had led the Clintons to put America’s foreign policy up for sale to foreign powers. A still larger theme was “America First,” mostly in the positive sense of favoring the Americans, without dwelling over the terrible wrath that Trump, in other speeches, was proposing to unleash on beloved allies and hostile international institutions.
About the Mexicans and other Latin Americans and their murders and rapes, he said only this: “I’ve embraced the victims of illegal immigration, moms and dads who have had to bury their own children because of people who shouldn’t have been in the country”—which, by his standards, struck a tone of mild moderation. The speech was treated in the press as an example of incipient statesmanship. He said, “Our jobs are being stripped from our country like we’re babies.”
And then, in January just now, in the middle of the federal government shutdown and the controversies over the president’s wall, Trump National Golf Club Westchester returned to the news. It was because, back in December, a group of five women at Trump’s Bedminster golf club in New Jersey had staged a rebellion, indignant at the president’s rhetoric about immigrants like themselves (they were from Central America and maybe elsewhere in Latin America), and indignant at their treatment at the club. And, guided by a New Jersey lawyer named Anibal Romero, the women brazenly and courageously revealed that Trump’s Bedminster club, entirely in the know, was systematically staffed by hardworking people no different from themselves, from other countries and without papers. The New York Times reported the story. And the Trump Organization responded by making a preemptive raid on the workers at Trump National Golf Club Westchester, in order to ferret out anyone who might further embarrass the president.
A vice president of the Trump Organization from Miami named Deirdre Rosen made her way to Briarcliff Manor and summoned perhaps a dozen workers from the club, most of them Mexicans, and told them, one by one, that, unfortunately for them, they were being let go, as of right now. One of the workers recorded the announcement on her cell phone, and a couple of reporters at The Washington Post, Joshua Partlow and David A. Fahrenthold, conducted interviews of the people who had been fired. And the nature and scale of the quiet event made its way into the news—the instant termination of workers who, with the connivance of the Trump Organization, had labored faithfully and for lower-than-normal wages at the club for 10 or 12 years, or, in one case, 18 years. The most articulate and self-confident of the workers was Margarita Cruz from Puebla, Mexico (Puebla being the original home of a large portion of the Mexican workforce in New York City and its suburbs today), and the poor woman wept.
I wonder what Deirdre Rosen, the Trump Organization vice president—the señorita from Miami, as Margarita Cruz described her—has made of her own role in the affair. I suppose Deirdre Rosen tells herself what people generally tell themselves under circumstances like hers—that human decency is fine and good, and everyone must be respected, but the law is the law. I have always regretted that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have gone out of fashion, and that is because, in its prosecutor-like machine-gun fashion, Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers the ultimate in discussion of this kind of thing, the arguments that make people feel rather good about putting legal considerations above human considerations. For while it is true that everyone is a human being, and God created us all, and no one’s soul weighs more heavily on the divine scale than anyone else’s, still, isn’t law the cement of civilization? Aren’t property rights the key to American freedom? Mustn’t freedom be preserved? Yes, Harriet Beecher Stowe had America’s number.
My own response to the news from Trump National Golf Club Westchester might seem a little absurd. I felt and feel a surge of indignant solidarity. It is true that my experience laboring at that club in its pre-Trump days was less than recent, and the seasons of life have come and gone, and yet, as everyone notices sooner or later, nothing in the past ever really disappears, and personal identity is a tangle of verb tenses. I am a worker at the club, then. I feel that we, the workers, have reason to be furious. The wrongs at that club are as old as the club itself, and, even so, I suspect that, over the decades, nothing worse has ever taken place than what has just now taken place. Anyway, the news has sent me retreating into my own long-ago past.
Sometimes I wandered the golf course at night. I did not live nearby—I lived a good long walk away, followed by a hitchhike down Pleasantville Road, unless someone had a car—but I was in the neighborhood often, visiting my friends from school, or bringing my girlfriend home at the end of an evening. And then I would stroll along the roads and discover that, as soon as I had rounded a corner, the dark slopes and fairways were in front of me, and I would enter into them as if into an alternative realm of existence, everything silent, not a soul to be seen.
The slopes at night were sultry and soft, like a breast or a hip hidden in a bed, slipping ever more deeply into a darkling blackness. Today I recognize, prompted by the news, that somehow those nighttime lawns and the rolling green tints are landscapes of my unconscious. They come to me in my dreams. I wonder if the workers who have been fired just now will discover something similar in whatever place they have fled to, either in the United States or in Mexico or somewhere else, when they shut their eyes and drift into sleep. Will the lush dark terrain deploy across their own dreams? I think it is possible.
To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.