Commentary: Do old university alumni clubs still appeal to members?

Commentary: Do old university alumni clubs still appeal to members?

The Harvard Club of Boston seems to have become a relic of a certain age, says Financial Times' Joshua Chaffin.

Harvard club boston
(Photo: Instagram/@harvardclubboston)

NEW YORK: On a recent trip home, I accompanied my father to the Harvard Club of Boston, where he has played squash and taken a steam bath on most days for the past 50-odd years.

My hand under his arm, we passed gingerly through the lobby — across its thick carpets and beneath the gaze of its imposing oil portraits — and headed downstairs along corridors strewn with photos of bygone Harvard athletics glory until, at last, we reached the inner sanctum: The men’s locker room.

Awaiting us were the familiar leather chairs and wood panelling emblazoned with the gold-leafed names of generations of squash players. What struck me was how those names looked down at a near-empty room.

The only other occupants that day were two wrinkled mandarins sitting on recliners, naked as the day they were born, and puzzling over a longstanding frustration: The club’s challenge to attract a younger crowd.

It used to be a raucous place. I can tell you because from the age of seven or so I spent an unusual amount of time in the Harvard Club’s men’s locker room. This was owing to my father’s unconventional ideas about childcare — that, and his attachment to squash.

OLD LOCKER ROOMS

On a typical evening, its quarters would be filled with men like my dad — Boston’s lawyers and bankers and political hands — greeting each other with booming voices and slapping backs as they made their way to and from the courts, or in and out of the shower room through a fog of Tabac cologne, Vitalis hair tonic and mildew.

Mo Khan, the legendary squash pro, lorded over the place with a rakish smile and shimmering gold chains. 

Its centrepiece was the locker room bar, where men would congregate after their matches — always in the nude or the near-nude, revealing to me far too young the way flesh falls from the male body after so many years.

Locker room
(Photo: Unsplash/Raul Lazcano)

While the club members seemed to delight in their undress, Jerry, a beloved Filipino bartender, stood at attention in a bow tie and red coat. In addition to mixing drinks, Jerry also manned the telephone in that pre-mobile era.

Often wives would call, including my mother, and it fell to Jerry to report that their husband had left 15 minutes ago. 

“He’s probably on the Mass Turnpike, ma’am,” was a frequent reply, even if the man in question was then clad in a towel, watching a ballgame and sipping a second gin and tonic.

Jerry — and his bar — are long gone. Some years ago, a new version was opened on neutral ground, outside the locker room, where it serves men and women. 

Times change. Still, I did not have the heart to tell the hosts all the reasons why the old club might not hold the same appeal for my generation.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, feigning ignorance when they asked my opinion.

TIMES HAVE CHANGE

I suspect many would-be members will be working late into the evening, pitching deals or preparing briefings or — like me — rushing home to help with childcare and perpetually running late. The chances that they have a few hours in the evening to hit a squash ball, take a steam bath and have a chat are slim.

Those seeking exercise are more likely to take it at a sleek Equinox gym, possibly located in the same office tower where they work, and outfitted with a bar that serves detox smoothies — not gin and tonics.

Dumbbells at a gym
(Photo: Unsplash/Danielle Cerullo)

In this #MeToo era, the decline of an old men’s locker room is another rasp in the death of the patriarchy and, for some, a reason for celebration. They are not wrong. Much of the slack that enabled that particular party was afforded by women who were seldom invited to it.

My own time at the Harvard Club, watching my father play squash in exchange for a chocolate bar, has left me with an unnatural aversion to the game to this day.

MALE FRIENDSHIP

Still, I could not help but feel sadness to see that familiar room so empty. It once gave a young boy a window into an adult world. 

I saw the way a man could curse a blue streak on the court — even smashing a racket — while resuming the role of perfect gentleman off it. I learnt to take steam and practised applying aftershave — years before I ever shaved.

And it showed me something else: Male friendship. Those men shared a window of time that no longer exists in the modern world. My father’s squash circle were dear to him.

Their relationships were not oriented around the office, as so many of mine are, or conducted over social media. They were constant and deep. I suspect few Equinox members will ever attend a fellow member’s funeral.

Perhaps that is why my father still trudges down to the Harvard Club after all these years, the last surviving member of his squash circle. As he pounds the rubber ball against the wall, I imagine he hears the echoing laughter and tears of the old gang. Draped in towels, of course.

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)

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