Over the past ten weeks, a few of the locations from Infinite Jest this series has explored relate in some way to David Foster Wallace’s own life and times in Boston. The most prominent among them is the former Granada House, an addiction treatment center where he was a patient in 1989-90, and the obvious model for Ennet House. As D.T. Max explains in his recently published biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Wallace was required to hold job outside the house—just like his novel’s characters—and one of these was at the Mount Auburn Club in Watertown. But he did not stay long:
He went to work as a front desk attendant at the Mount Auburn Club, a health club in Watertown. His job was to check members in—he called himself a glorified towel boy—but one day Michael Ryan, a poet who had received a Whiting Award alongside him two years before, came to exercise. Wallace dove below the reception desk and quit that day.
The club’s role in Infinite Jest is just as brief, and concerns a character we never really come to know, the wife of the “Near Eastern medical attaché” who figured in the Back Bay Hilton entry. Living under the strict, patriarchal rules of Saudi society, the club is a rare environment where she can find a measure of freedom:
Wednesday nights … are permitted to be his wife’s Arab Women’s Advanced League tennis night with the other legation wives and companions at the plush Mount Auburn Club in West Watertown. … At 0015h., 2 April, the medical attache’s wife is just leaving the Mount Auburn Total Fitness Center, having played five six-game pro-sets in her little Mideast-diplomatic-wife-tennis-circle’s weekly round-robin, then hung around the special Silver-Key-Members’ Lounge with the other ladies, unwrapping her face and hair and playing Narjees and all smoking kif and making extremely delicate and oblique fun of their husbands’ sexual idiosyncrasies, laughing softly with their hands over their mouths.
I had intended for my own visit to the Mount Auburn Club, toward the end of the second day of my trip, to be similarly discreet. While my cab driver waited in a parking spot, I snapped a few shots of its front door, then its uncovered courts, and headed back out to the street for the entrance sign I’d first seen in Tim Bean’s 2008 Flickr set. With photos obtained, I was making for the cab when a late middle-aged man exited the building and began calling to me, asking what I was doing. I had run into minor trouble with authority figures at previous locations, so I was a little worried about being considered a trespasser. But I had the shots I needed, and took a chance on meeting the proprietors and telling something new about their own place of business.
This is how I came to meet Bill and Paul Crowley, the two brothers who have operated the club since opening it 1974. Following them inside the club, I explained the gist of my project, their health club’s bit part in a gargantuan novel, and the late author’s brief employment here. Neither remembered him—no surprise, considering just how low a profile Wallace intended to keep, not to mention his hasty exit. The Crowleys seemed amused by their appearance in this unfamiliar book, and readily agreed to give me a look inside their tennis dome (as I’ve since learned these things are called). In the novel, it is simply called “the Lung,” described as an
…inflatable dendriurethane dome, known as the Lung, that covers the middle row of courts for the winter indoor season.
Like the Enfield Tennis Academy, the Mount Auburn Club raises the domes seasonally, though this one had been left up over a little-used court. To enter, one must pass through a narrow, pneumatic revolving door; because they are air-supported, the PSI change is instantly noticeable. Neither brother had ever heard of it referred to as “the Lung” before—a touch that seems to be all DFW. Alas, I forgot to ask if there was a “Silver-Key-Members’ Lounge”—although I probably didn’t need to ask whether anyone there might be smoking kif. Perhaps better to leave both a mystery.