I’m a caddie.
I live at my parents’ house, and I sleep in my childhood bed. It’s even the same mattress that I lay on as a kid as I stared at my TV and watched re-runs of The Simpsons and Seinfeld, while I watched scrambled porn on channel one, while I played Final Fantasy VII and Zelda 64. It’s the same bed I read The Catcher in the Rye on when I was in seventh grade, Crime and Punishment when I was a junior in high school, and Infinite Jest this past year.
I started caddying when I was 13 years old. I’m 24 now.
Caddies are called “loopers.” To caddie is “to loop,” as in, “You looping tomorrow?” One round carrying golf clubs is a “loop,” as in, “I’ve got a morning loop.”
You might think that circular metaphor applies to my life, too, that my existence is some dull track from my parents’ house to the golf club and back.
It’s not the case though. I went away to college, studied abroad, graduated, and then left the country to travel, teach, and write. I did the tourist shuffle through Machu Picchu, the Great Wall, and the Alhambra. I ate spicy street kebabs in Johannesburg, Jujuy, and Nanjing. I wrote letters sipping coffee in Montreal, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town. And there were women, too—the Israeli landscape architect who’d gone to Amsterdam to see the tulips, the tulips unfortunately having all died the week before in a heat wave; or the Argentine lit student who carried a Ray Carver anthology in her purse, the pages sprayed with a perfume that smelled like bubblegum.
But all those trips just proved to be loops, too, taking me back to the point where I started. That point—the big tack pinned into my inner map—is in the Midwest, in the suburbs of a big city.
A friend recently said—with the derision that comes from having had unwanted romantic moves put on her—that I was still just a boy, living with his parents. As if it were immature to come back home, to have that big tack still fixed to where it’s always been.
Is it? I’m still trying to figure that out. My mom brought home from work the other day a copy of the New Yorker, an issue from May with a Daniel Clowes cover. It’s got a satisfied young man hanging his Ph.D. to the wall of his childhood bedroom, while his parents look on from the hallway, their eyebrows tilted in a less pleased direction than their son’s. On the door it says: TIM’S ROOM KEEP OUT. Maybe this was a hint?
But what if there’s something, not just OK, but healthy, good, in accepting a loop as the basic form of existence? A teleology that isn’t some arrow forward, but a curve that comes back to where it started—a baroque orbit with epicycles of habit and curlicues of routine.
What if the child drawing with a spirograph—tracing dense weaves around a central point—is unwittingly mapping the repetitions of his future, of the days, weeks, seasons, and years of the rest of his life?
Look at Genesis 3:19:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Our lives are shot upwards with a spark, from a pile of space dust. We spiral into the world a screeching lump, then we get some sense of ourselves, some measure of trajectory. We orbit around one another, drift from attraction to attraction. Then, we reach an apogee—some high point of joy, victory, contentment, health, actualization—some quiet moment, far above the void, some moment we’d like to believe will be exceeded by others, further up. And then we spiral back down to the pile of dark nothing, impervious to the gravity of the living, to cross the threshold of being and disintegrate into dust, into grains of inert potential.
Yet, even if our lives are inherently spiraling, looping, circuited, there’s still some choice about the kind of rounds we make, which cycles we follow. So, why be a porter for the rich: walking up and down the same sequence of holes; carrying a bag over a big, enfolded, grassy loop; spending all day—and many of those hours in and around a shack—at a private, exclusive golf club, one that values the white, prosperous, heterosexual, in-shape, church-going, Republican-voting male as the standard from which all aspirants deviate; one that sprays copious amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticide onto its fairways and greens; one that suspiciously employs Latin American immigrants as its maintenance crew?
Is it pathetic to serve golfers: to wait patiently and quietly for a plump, gruff retiree to take a shot out of a sand trap, to skull his ball over the green and into another sand trap, to wait for him to waddle out, neatly rake the footprints, smooth the sand as if no one had been there, then pick up his golf bag, scurry to catch up with him and do it again? Or to have a chain-smoking investment banker swing, take a big divot of grass and soil, hand you his muddy club to be wiped and scrubbed—immediately because the ball only went 20 yards and he’s going to need that club again, as if a toddler wanting mommy to wipe his bottom—to pick up that divot, carefully tamp it down into the fairway like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, then pick up his golf bag, scurry to catch up with him and do it again?
Here’s what Ishmael said at the beginning of Moby-Dick:
“What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.”
Is caddying any more or less vicious or unproductive or silly than… being a sailor on a whaling ship?
I caddied, and played golf, because it was a thing to do for kids, especially boys, from the place I’m from.
Maybe by continuing to do it now I’m just being lazy, parasitic, instead of looking for a little more redeeming, useful work, instead of finding something new to do.
But it also lets me get close to something that’s of here, that’s part of the soil from which I grew. It’s something that—like it or not—is very American. Golf started in Scotland but became professional, industrialized, big, in the United States.
Even The Sound and the Fury opens with a golf scene, with Benjy and Luster walking along a fence, watching the golfers hit, a red flag flapping against the grass and the trees, one player calling out, “Here, caddie.”
The flags are red at my home course, too. The flagsticks are striped red and white like a lighthouse, and the flags glow when the sun shines on them. From a distance, against a wall of dark foliage, the flags flap in the wind like red flames, they gleam like beacons. The 18 flags of the 18 holes hover over rolling hills, trim greens, and the long prairie grass. They loom over us like they’re watching, red eyes that see in all directions, that open with morning and shut with evening. They see us as if our footsteps leave a trail that only their red reveals. And they gaze without blinking, at all of us—the members, the guests, the caddies, the pros, the maintenance crew—as we head up or down on that big twirling loop of existence, as we try to make some money or play a game, as we put our lives together or let our lives dwindle. Watch us while we’re too busy, distracted, exhausted, or concentrated to watch ourselves.
The red flags flap in the breeze like they’re trying to tell us something, tell me something. Maybe to tell me: that it’s a good thing you’re walking loops around a golf course only a mile from your house, from the schools and libraries and playgrounds and parks of your world as a kid; or to wake up and quit being servile to people you often resent or dismiss; or that it’s OK what you’re doing—it might be a little more responsible to move out and buy a car and get a 9-5, M-F career, but it’s not irresponsible to save money, to think hard about what you want to dedicate yourself to; and though it might be a little sad to be working at a job in which some of your coworkers are middle schoolers, a little sad to be an instrument for a game of affluence, that it’s OK to be willing to get inside this private, insulated world, that it’s a chance to get to know yourself by knowing where you’re from, that it might be kind of ugly but, it’s still… you, your town, your world.
That maybe it’s OK, for right now, to be living at your parents’ house and sleeping in the same room you grew up in, to be writing down these thoughts and questions on the same bed you did your homework on.
Maybe that, it’s OK, right now, to be a caddie.