June 17, 1994|By Jim Burger

I'VE had three major influences in my life: the Marx brothers, Mad magazine and my father. All had a hand in instilling a healthy disrespect for authority. To this day I don't trust big business, politicians on any level and those people commonly referred to as the "inner circle."

I'm from a small town. There, like Baltimore, like anywhere, there were people on the Inside and people on the Outside trying to get In. More often than not, my parents, Jewish immigrants, were judged unworthy and kept Out.

When my father was a young man, a doctor asked him to play golf at the local country club. Such an invitation was a great honor. He must have been very excited. A day later, the doctor called my father back to revoke his invitation. The club didn't allow Jews, even as guests. I've never known my father to be embarrassed about anything, but when he tells that story I can hear the embarrassment in his voice -- not just for himself and the doctor, but for the community that let it happen. Years later, when he became a successful businessman and the laws (if not the attitudes) changed, that same club offered him a membership. He declined.

"Son," he would say to me, "I prefer to sit on the outside and laugh. Who needs them?"

We spent our summers lounging in our back yard or around a community pool. Little by little, I became more like Dad -- shunning neckties, belts, hard shoes and scratchy suits. We kept our sense of humor. We sat on the Outside and laughed.

I must admit, however, that I am not without sin. There was a time when I thought I could leave the Outside. A few years ago, I dated a girl from Wilmington, Del. Wilmington is an Indian word meaning "Members Only." Her parents wanted to take us to their country club for dinner. The specters of Groucho Marx and my father appeared before me: Groucho at a restricted swimming pool, asking if his half-Jewish daughter could "go in up to her knees," my father on the ninth tee, a yellow Star of David sewn to his golf sweater. I waved the images off and jumped at the chance.

I'd never eaten at a country club before, especially a Wilmington club with a Du Pont around every corner. I didn't even fuss as my girlfriend tied my tie.

I offered to drive, but we took her step-father's Cadillac instead. When we arrived, it took two guys to park the car. The place was mammoth, like an old hotel, stately and pampered. Two people took my coat, not the two who had parked the car. We weren't seated right away, but rather were escorted into a room about the size of my grade school. There were leather chairs and couches and coffee tables arranged in groups. The walls were covered with paintings and prints, all in ornate frames. We sat in a couple of big chairs, and soon a waiter took drink orders. I played it safe and drank what my host was having. The drinks came in glasses that weighed a pound when empty.

By drink No. 3, I was feeling warm, a bit more at ease and . . . clubby. People I didn't know stopped by to say hello. It was kind of fun.

Until . . .

A waiter was summoned to take our dinner orders. There was no printed menu. He recited the entrees, specialties and vegetables. The Canadian Club had affected the part of my brain that could remember the names of food. I had him repeat the salad list twice, only to forget what the specials were. "Sir," he said impatiently, "the antelope is very good."

Without thinking, I said, "I had antelope for lunch" and started to laugh . . . alone. The waiter straightened up, blinked at me once and moved on to the next person. That blink lasted not a second, but it spoke volumes. It said, "You are not a member here, nor will you ever be a member here, and we don't appreciate jokes about our antelope."

I was miserable at dinner. I picked at my salad and gulped down martinis. Suddenly my feet began to hurt. I tugged at my collar so hard that my girlfriend kicked me under the table. Eating antelope . . . what a preposterous thought! Everyone was glaring at me. I kept quiet and wished I were bowling. I thought of Groucho and my father.

As we rode home, I pretended to be asleep. I would never fit in. Forgive my foolishness, learned Father. Pardon my social climbing, wise Groucho.

I'm writing this from the back yard of my Remington row house. A hot day is becoming a warm evening. Somewhere people are dressing for dinner at their clubs. No thanks. I need another beer and begin to rise, but my girlfriend motions for me to stay. She'll get it. She wants to order a pizza anyway; we have a two-for-one coupon. I watch as she walks off through the grass that needs cutting.

Ah, sweet life!

Jim Burger is a photographer for The Baltimore Sun.

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