Sunday, August 30, 2015


"Invasion of privacy"

My first novel about a road trip, the result of rolling in my Clubhouse On Wheels (COW), has just been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

It will be published in Fall 2016. 

The following post tells the story of how the COW was born.

(This is excerpted from an eventual nonfiction book about road trips.)

So I got sponsored for membership at the ridiculously expensive Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club in Montecito, California where I live.  (The beach is actually public, so all they really have is a swimming pool.)

I’m not a club person.  I learned this the expensive way, by joining private clubs I hardly ever used.

First there was the Royal Arts Club in London.  I jumped the membership hurdles, paid an initiation fee, and dues for several years—and maybe visited twice for lunch, on both occasions just to show off.

Later, living in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. I joined the Kenwood Country Club:  Drank a few drinks in the bar, ate a few meals in the restaurant, did kiddie birthday parties a couple times.

In Monaco, I joined the Royal Automobile Club.  Another couple of meals and a pretty car badge I never used.

Back in London a few years later, I joined the trendy Home-House Club, got a little more use out of this one as it was walking distance from my home and in my life at a time when my meetings with intelligence operatives required discretion.  But still not worth the entrance fee and monthly subscription.

Yet I allowed my wife and two daughters to delude me that a "social" club—one with a swimming pool—was needed for our proliferating family, namely, two toddler grandsons.

So, the masochist I am, I put up a twenty-grand deposit for the Coral Casino, and enjoyed immediate access pending confirmation by the lofty membership committee.

Catch:  Only one daughter (under 24) would enjoy family membership privileges.

My elder daughter, and her husband, would have to pony up twenty-five dollars apiece every time they joined us by the pool.  Ditto, guests.

Add monthly dues of over four hundred dollars to the mix. 

This was the most expensive club I ever joined yet it offered the least amount of amenities.

Through the summer, my family put it to use—and me, too.  I enjoyed Tyde’s, the upstairs bar and restaurant that management endeavors to drag its members into through a monthly food and beverage charge they must pay whether they use it or not.  

I made it my hang, cocktails and dinner, perhaps more than any other member.  Plus on special occasions—birthdays, Thanksgiving—we booked the private dining room for parties of twelve.

Six weeks into the membership application process, I got wind of a hiccup from one of my sponsors.  After my name got posted, a few members complained that I had published photos taken at the club on a blog.  Invasion of privacy was suggested.

I quickly conducted an examination of said photos:  A tree, the ocean, me, my grandsons.

Said this sponsor:  “Do they care when guests from the Biltmore take photos and post them on Facebook?  And, besides, whatever happened to the First Amendment?”

Clearly, I had been singled out for special attention.

The membership subcommittee luncheon/grilling that was supposed to take place six weeks into the process got mysteriously delayed, and when it finally did take place—around an open-air table in the Coral CafĂ©—concern was voiced about my background as a journalist and writer.

Was it my intention, this costive collective desired to know, to write about their club?

No, quite honestly, it was not.  Furthermore, had I known of a policy governing the use of photos (there isn’t one), I would have refrained from a) taking any and b) posting them.

“If this is a genuine concern,” I added, “you should attach a confidentiality agreement to your membership contract.”

“Good idea!” several of these threshold guardians chirped in unison.

Weeks and weeks passed.

I continued to support my new club, eating and drinking at Tyde’s, even though the peach fluorescent lighting—and the average age of members—conjured up the notion of a station at which one awaits the grim reaper.

I began to receive the Coral’s monthly newsletter, and overheard a member of the club’s administration refer to me to someone else as “our newest member.”

I thought:  I’m in.  So why haven’t they hit me up for the other $180,000?

The answer arrived a couple weeks after their Open House, an annual complimentary buffet the management lays on for members.    People who belong to exclusive clubs have a way of conveying their exclusivity to others:  The odd look, a cold shoulder.  

I got it.  Something was surely amiss.  

That something soon arrived in an e-mail from Bill the membership manager.  Would I please stop by his office for an update on my application?

Next day.  Three o’clock.  Bill’s office.  

Bill sits me in his conference room and sheepishly explains that at their general meeting almost a month earlier, the membership committee shot down my family’s membership.

My first thought is:  why hadn’t they told me sooner, like, before I attended their Open House, where, clearly, I had not been expected.  Bad form to let me dangle in their flatulence.

Bill goes on to say that the club’s staff unanimously liked my family and me, thought us all very upright and polite, and were pleased that we utilized their upstairs bar and restaurant as much as we did.  And so (he continues), on the basis that the membership committee holds advisory status only, he and (more important) the club’s owner—Beany Baby tycoon Ty Warner—had decided to overrule the committee and bestow membership upon us anyway.

However, Bill continues, the only way to appease committee concerns about my respect for the club’s privacy is to make my membership conditional on a confidentiality agreement.

I shrug, amused:  It was, after all, my own idea.  I say, no problem.

Bill says their lawyers will draft something and e-mail it to me.

Over the next few days, I ponder the situation.  

Did I, and my family, really want to be part of a club whose membership committee did not want us?  

We did not even know who most of these anonymous people were, and yet we would be among them—and shedding big bucks for the privilege. 

But why not play it through, continue to hang at Tyde’s, where the folks whose company I enjoyed most were the paid staff, not the dour members.

Five weeks later, almost seven months since I had initiated the application and begun using this club, the confidentiality agreement arrived.  

I zapped it to my lawyer for his opinion.

This is the most onerous and unworkable confidentiality agreement I’ve ever seen.  It’s also very punitive in nature.  

The terms are so overly broad it would be impossible not to violate the agreement.   Here are a few hypotheticals that would result in a violation:

1. If a member tells you a joke in the club and you repeat it without the club’s written permission, you have violated the agreement.

2. If a member tells you about an anniversary party he’s planning and you later see him at the beach and ask how the party went, you have violated the agreement.  Even if you have this member’s permission to talk about it, you have violated the agreement.  
3. If you see an old friend and invite him to join you for lunch at the Club and you tell him a little about it, you have violated the agreement.

4. If you discuss with your accountant your membership fee without first getting the club’s written permission, you have violated the agreement. 

5. If you want to blog about or post a photo of a dinner party you host at the club, it would be a violation.  

6. You are gagged from ever criticizing the club.  If you have to complain to anyone (orally or in writing) about a bad meal, or a dirty bathroom or whatever, you are in violation.  

In all these situations, you could be faced with paying the club $25K and being kicked out.  It’s absurd.  

The incongruity of this document is best illustrated by a conversation I had with one of my sponsors over dinner at Lucky’s during which we talked about a few people we’d run into earlier at Tyde’s.  

My sponsor suddenly stopped and said, “You’re in violation—that’s $25,000!”

I contacted Bill the Membership Manager and asked to meet him.

“Bill,” I say,  “As I told you, I’m happy to sign a confidentiality agreement.  But what you’ve given me is overbroad and absurdly punitive." 

Bill says, simply, “That’s the agreement.  If you don’t want to sign, I can expedite the return of your deposit.”  He adds, oddly, “They know you’re around the club, they want this resolved.”

They?    Jeez, I’m actually being watched, monitored, and worried about!

Rather harsh.  And not very clubby.  

So it was easy for me to resolve the matter:  

Thanks, but I’ll keep my money and my First Amendment rights.  

I never returned to the club again.

I wrote Bill, thanking him for his patience and taking him up on his offer to expedite a refund.  (Three weeks later, I continued to await such expedition…) 

After a good night’s sleep, with fresh eyes, I saw this situation for what it truly was:  an opportunity.

No longer was I captive to over four hundred dollars a month in dues and an obligatory food and drink charge plus entrance fees for family members and guests—and a compulsion to spend time there to justify its vast expense.

No longer was I captive to a set of rules monitored by persnickety members.

Not joining set me free.

People, it is said, only truly come alive outside their comfort zone.  

Instead of ensconcing ourselves in a secure cocoon and excluding the outside world, I would create a traveling fellowship of like-minded adventurers beneath a rolling roof that ventured deeply into the outside world.

I would create my own club with it’s own clubhouse.

A clubhouse on wheels:  Acronymically, COW.

This would be the right home for our money—and our free spirit.  

It would be about living, not waiting to die in exclusion.

Thus far, the adventures conveyed here are about road trips.

Now we shall commence a regular series called COW About Town (Montecito).