The country escape or beach house is a fine thing, but what some of us who live in the city need are places that remind us of why we wanted to be urban dwellers in the first place. These places should not be replicas of country life within the city limits—say, enclosed gardens with no view to the outside. No, it is better when they brush right up against the concrete.
One such place for me is a driving range in Philadelphia. The sign tacked to the chain link fence at the entrance to the range reads: STRAWBERRY MANSION DRIVING RANGE, HOME OF THE LONG KNOCKERS GOLF CLUB, but I have never heard it called anything but Long Knockers.
There is nothing pristine about Long Knockers. It is set on the edge of the city's vast Fairmount Park, which is beautiful in some parts and neglected in others. Across a city street is a grim stretch of North Philly, where once-grand brown-stones stand dilapidated and boarded up. The grounds outside the driving range are a tangle of overgrown weeds and litter—an empty plastic transmission-fluid container, drained bottles of Colt 45, sun-yellowed newspapers and crack vials that are identifiable by their distinctive crunch underfoot.
The "pro shop" at Long Knockers, where buckets of balls are dispensed and some gloves and clubs are sold, contains an ancient cash register and a couple of overstuffed chairs with torn upholstery. There's a shoeshine stand there, although I've never seen anyone shining shoes. Usually there are several men standing around talking golf or baseball or politics, and it's often hard to know who's actually working. Whoever is closest to the register rings up the sale.
Conditions on the range are not the best. You spend the first five minutes or so searching for a spot to place a tee that isn't too chewed up. Only rarely at Long Knockers do you hear the whoosh of a ball that has been well stroked off grass. More often, there is a thud or a scraping sound followed by a puff of dust.
You can take lessons at Long Knockers—from a one-armed septuagenarian, a younger fellow who plays crosshanded, or a woman pro. Or you can get advice from any number of others who will adjust your swing for free. The one-armed pro, Dick Forest, has an excellent reputation for teaching beginners.
As an enthusiastic but inept golfer, I tell myself I come to Long Knockers to practice, although I probably succeed only in grooving my flawed swing. Mostly, what I like is its rich mix of people—from doctors and golf bums to judges on extended lunch hours, teens on cheap dates, whites and blacks, young and old, rich and poor. Still, Long Knockers is a real club, incorporated 20 years ago as a nonprofit group.
"We started out in 1969 as four [black] guys who just liked to play golf together," says Bill Stevens, who manages the range and is also the club president. "At that time, no black guy would go out on a golf course without getting dressed like he was going to church. So when we entered tournaments, which was just about every weekend during the season, we had matching everything—pants, shirts, shoes, golf bags. We even had matching blazers for when we went out at night. Other guys started noticing us and wanted to join, but the club has never had more than 18 members, which, according to our bylaws, is the maximum limit."
An eight handicapper, Stevens, 60, is a big man whose nickname as a kid was Heavy. He is mostly bald, has thick gray sideburns and a bushy gray mustache, and nearly always has a fat cigar clenched between his teeth. A former long-haul trucker and semipro football player with a gravelly voice and a big heart, he has a soft spot for boys. "I have three well-adjusted daughters," he says proudly, "but I never had a son." He took one troubled youth into his home, in hopes of straightening him out.
"I didn't preach to him," Stevens says. "I told him there's only one rule: You've got to take a shower before you go to bed at night and you've got to take one when you get up, because that's what my wife makes me do, and if you're going to live in my house you've got to do the same thing, because otherwise she'll kick you out. And if she don't kick you out, I will."