I write in praise of the ugly golf shirt.
Oh, I’ve got a beauty. It’s not loud, no. It would be better if it were loud. It is, rather, a mottled mix of black and gray specks — inexplicably or inadvertently designed by someone in the employ of Bert Pulitzer to look like the ghostly nothingness of an old antenna television after the programming ends and the final bars of the national anthem fade.
The white noise of the fabric is broken up only by some piping’s attempt at sportiness at collar’s edge and sleeves’ end. The shirt was made in Pakistan, back before their coddling of bin Laden. On the plus side, the thing’s got a pocket, always useful; it’s adorned, in the sole nice touch, with a tiny tag showing a tan duck in flight against a green background.
I wear it all the time, to clockwork-like groans from my wife.
Golf shirts, particularly sin-ugly ones, are perfect for the office-casual world we live in. They can have all the style and sex appeal of a convention of insurance agents in Scranton — just as long as there’s a collar. I mentioned to a colleague once that the field of static adorning my torso had been my late grandfather’s and saw her gaze lose focus and her mouth go slack as she imagined that it had actually touched his decaying flesh.
It hadn’t, but it had been one of many shirts he won or was given by various golf clubs he belonged to or visited. (He was good, could shoot his age in his late 70s.) A handful of these were handed down to me. Not bequeathed, mind you, more like they were left lying around. One is from L.L. Bean, which bespeaks quality. But then it’s pale yellow, which bespeaks the toilet. Another, all white, is still in its packaging in my garage — stiff too-big collar, regal flourish of an insignia on its breast signifying . . . something regal.
At my grandfather’s funeral, 10 years ago in Panama City Beach, Fla., my father wore one of the old man’s suits in a combination of tribute and practicality. It fit pretty well, just a little big. There’s something unforgettable about that, so I didn’t need to be reminded of it, yet was nonetheless when I heard on NPR one day how Andre Dubus III built his father’s coffin, climbing inside it himself to get the dimensions right. (They say Dubus fils is a good writer, but pere’s stories have meant so much to me I can’t bear to read anything by his offspring.)
What I wore to the funeral that hot May day in Florida, after bombing across the Panhandle in a rented Ford Escort past scenery remarkably similar to eastern Long Island’s — sandy soil, scrub oak, shrimpy pine — was my only sport coat (Latham House, wool), my only dress pants (also wool), and my only dress shoes (pebbled leather by Nunn Bush, scavenged at the Bellingham, Wash., Salvation Army a year before).
In the wake of the momentous passing of a generation, even a decade on, what have you got? Besides my golf shirts, I’ve got my grandfather’s Springfield College diploma and a miniature keychain football. He was the football coach at Suffern High upstate, and then the athletic director at Rockland County Community College. He apparently did a lot to get the college a new field house, way back when, and felt robbed when it wasn’t named after him.
His was a classic American story of upward mobility — son of an Erie Railroad signalman, later a salesman for a drug company, later still retiring to a beach house in Florida. That world and those possibilities seem a thing of the past, as does all the leisure time he and his peers seem to have had.
But I don’t think about that when I put on my golf shirt. I don’t even think about all the visits I failed to make. Instead I think about that one-story house on a white-sand beach near the end of an undeveloped Panhandle in the 1970s, its views out sliding glass doors onto the Gulf of Mexico, watching for dolphins in the morning as my grandfather and I ate corn flakes and sliced bananas.
That part isn’t so ugly.
Baylis Greene is an associate editor at The Star.