The first rule is: you do not talk about this club. The second rule is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THIS CLUB!
Tyler Durden’s voiceover ran through my head as I sat in an oversized leather chair looking down at a nondisclosure form. I signed.
I was sitting across a table—more like an oak platform—from Michael Caine’s doppelgänger. His eyelids were relaxed in that uncannily familiar half-closed way.
“I’ll show you where you’ll be doing your work.” He said from the other side of the table, looking at me with his chin tilted up as if using invisible bifocals. I put the pen down.
As I got up to follow him out of the lounge area and up the stairs, the plastic outsoles of my wedges clicked on the dark wood floors—I had decided to go with the pencil-skirt and ’60’s box-cut argyle sweater. With the sound of plastic against wood echoing in my ears, I took another look at his thin black tie, tailored dark grey suit, and oxblood captoe style oxfords. For the second time that day, I began questioning how I got here.
Our first encounter at the door surprised us both. Or at least I was surprised to see another Mr. Michael Caine, and I think he was surprised to see a very young person—dare I admit, a girl—standing at his door front. I wouldn’t consider myself terribly young, but my inherited smallness and somewhat round facial features still make it arguable.
“You are one of the few women to have ever set foot in here.” The Chairmen had told me after I followed him into the foyer.
“Oh?” I said, eyebrows raised, unsure if that was meant as a compliment or a warning. I shook his hand stiffly, bending at the elbow and not the wrist.
I reflected on the fact that there was no job application and no interview—something I realized in hindsight. Getting a job really is about who you know. Not that there is anything wrong with being young and female, I told myself, it’s just that here I felt in stark juxtaposition to everything, namely, all things old and masculine and, I began to realize, wealthy.
At the top of the stairs, it registered he was showing me to a bedroom. There are often times when I wish I had an inner Google search bar.
Google, “what to say when you want to sound professional when speaking?”
Google, “how to ask for money after a job offer?”
Google, “what is a gentlemen’s club?”
That last one actually did warrant some research. The original clubs were established in the West End of London. Clubs took over the role of coffee houses in the 18th century and reached their peak of popularity in the late 19th century. Club Life in London (1866) explains: “The Club in the general acceptation of the term, may be regarded as one of the earliest offshoots of man’s habitual gregariousness and social inclination.” In the United States, the term “gentlemen’s club” is a common euphemism for strip clubs—something I also realized in hindsight—which is why the traditional gentlemen’s clubs are often referred to as “men’s clubs” or “private social clubs” or the term I have come to use, just “social clubs.”
I tried not to think about the irony of the bedroom as he swung the closet doors open and revealed shelves upon shelves of discolored folders and wrinkled documents.
As Consulting Archivist, I was being hired to preserve these exposed relics of a bygone era and arrange them into something meaningful. The momentum of the swinging doors fanned air through the piles of papers and I watched as a few slid from an overflowing shelf to the ground. I reminded myself we’re all imposters at some level and our success rides on our ability to convince everyone, including ourselves, that we know what we’re doing.
I hadn’t planned on working at a gentlemen’s club—an exclusive membership of white men with perhaps white-haired principles and a culturally appropriated Algonquin name—but I was surrounded by Detroit history and I rather enjoyed speaking with this other Michael Caine, a perfectly poised, impeccably dressed gentlemen who smelled of a lifestyle from another planet. He made it easy to sound more educated and better spoken than I was.
“Is there a budget?”
“Not at all, we can provide anything you need—absolutely anything.” (to note: with the right angle, “anything” includes lunch—always fish, imported—because…pesco-vegetarianism).
“What about hours? What might the schedule look like?”
“Mornings, any day of the week is fine. The boys usually have lunch around noon, so best to leave before then.”
“Shall we do Friday mornings, then?” I was half-conscious of my fake British cadence, “Eight-thirty to eleven-thirty?”
So began a journey into the masculine culture of the 19th and 20th century—of the club’s founding generation and my speculations of their homosexuality, of my introduction to the evolution of erotic writing, pornography, and other less evocative primary source materials I won’t share for fear of breaking the first rules of nondisclosure. Yet going through the correspondence of these men helped to understand the life of this club and perhaps grant me a more tangible explanation for its purpose in a larger masculine context.
The desire to be masculine (like many other nouns and adjectives) to me reflects the desire to be a part of something larger and more definable, a group with the right set of characteristics. It’s apparent the definition of that group is changing. To be “macho” is increasingly off trend.
As the literal and figurative outsider to this institution, I confess that my speculation for its success is precisely because of its exclusivity. Something is more desirable when it is mysterious and unattainable. For a large percentage, being white and male fits into that spectrum. I know that I am not qualified to speak much on this, and I don’t feel I need a platform, but I also know I’m not intimidated by masculinity and I certainly don’t feel the need to lash out or pretend indifference or superiority over it.
It’s reasonable to believe this patriarchal society is evolving and if it doesn’t evolve enough, eventually it will grow white hair and someone will be hired to piece together its bygone history and maybe even write something interesting about it before it’s gone forever.
 Cited in the introduction to Women, Clubs and Associations in Britain by Doughan & Gordon, 2006.