by Jerry DeNuccio
For five summers during my college undergraduate years, I worked in the Pro Shop of my hometown’s country club. I sold merchandise, regripped golf clubs, kept tee times, set up and managed any special events for the day, retrieved members’ golf clubs from the storage room and placed them on carts in preparation for their arrival, and cleaned and put away their clubs when they concluded play. All the members knew me on a first-name basis, and we chatted in an easy, casually personal way. I had played with many of them at one time or another. I had won the club championship three years running. My mother and father were long-standing members of the club. Everyone knew them and knew that I was their son. I was a known quantity.
And yet, despite this familiarity, I often found that, upon encountering members outside the country club setting, they did not recognize me. I would greet them, and I could see behind their eyes a tenuous “Who are you again?” look and a quick ransacking of memory. I was vaguely familiar, but, in that place, beyond their triangulating power. “Jerry, from the country club,” I would say, and then recognition kicked in, accompanied by a light, abashed chuckle. Beyond the boundaries of the country club, it seemed, lay a Bermuda Triangle into which I vanished.
At first, this experience raked me with anger. I bridled at being unrecognized, or partially so, like a tick without a tock. I resented being pinned to the cartography of the country club’s latitude and longitude. I felt as if what I took to be the dead-center of me had been disavowed, as if the marrow-deep who-I-was had been forced a step back from being real.
A surge of late-teen, early-twenties narcissism, no doubt, but I also knew enough to quickly suspect my first impressions. A character in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood says, “In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” While true to personal experience , the quote misses the world outside our heads, the social contexts in which we are embedded. We are not just first-person persons, an “I am” subject that speak of ourselves, but also third-person persons: “you are” objects among others who speak of us.
In an almost quantum-like way, we exist in two places at once. We inhabit a rich inner world, a sealed world that speaks its own grammar of preference and bias, of need and desire, of perception and memory. But we are not the Esperanto we believe we are. We don’t all thumb the same script. Our grammar is only partially decipherable in the outer world, among others with their own grammars.
In a sense, we are sampled, our pits and lands scanned and processed into an inside view of us. It’s not us; it’s a version, a theory of us based on imperfect knowledge, a way to know what cannot be known, a kind of knowing, a proximate discerning. It’s not surprising, really, that the image of us reflected back by others often seems incomplete, not the whole of us we recognize, considering that our inner world is inaccessible in the outer world, and the only points of reference by which others can translate us, the only clues in the outer of us that bear witness to the inner of us, are the signs we give off by word and action, by gesture and body language, signs distilled through the interpretive inner of others.
One of those signs, surely, is location or place. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, had the feeling Haruki Murakami describes in his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the feeling “that you’d like to go to a different place and become a whole different self.” Few would doubt, I’d guess, that there are small town or urban temperaments, that neighborhoods have a particular character, countries an ethos, bureaucracies a sensibility, leagues and associations a personality, or a country club a disposition. A place is overwritten with experience and desires, ways of thinking and ways of being. To enter and dwell in it toggles an act of transference. The force of a place, its gravity and physics, become ours. For those club members I encountered, my being a fixed presence at the golf course, a habitual expectation of their experience there, meeting their needs and rendering them service, led them to equate where I was with who I was. What more, really, could I expect?
It’s remarkable that others can often tell what we’re thinking or are about to do. Cognitive scientists call it Theory of Mind and consider it an evolutionary trait selected for survival value. Place – our physical or geographic location – can predict us with some accuracy because our relationship to it is transactional, we shaping it as much as it shapes us. But the deep recess of us; the minute-by-minute feeling of being in our own lives, our own bodies, our own selves, is a cul-de-sac on which no through traffic is possible. There, in that most private and defining place, that small smatter of subjective universe within which the us of us is laired, we are an unknown quantity, to others, and, sometimes, maybe most times, to ourselves.