Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Jack of Diamonds, Queen of Spades. Those are the cards that form the combination known as a "pinochle" in the game of the same name. When I was little, I'm sure the first card game I learned was either "Go Fish" or "Old Maid" (I remember the Old Maid cards from my paternal grandparents' Florida house). Not long after, I progressed to "War," "Crazy Eights." I played those with my parents, often to pass the time on airplanes, back when the airlines still had decks of cards to distribute free of charge (along with "wings" pins; now you're lucky if they'll give you peanuts and a half can of soda with your outrageously priced economy ticket). There were various forms of solitaire, regular and clock. Eventually the repertoire included "Spit," a fast-slapping game that I'm pretty sure I learned at camp while bunking with a bunch of other pre-teens. We also played some version of poker there, assigning a range of values to different colored M&M candies instead of using game chips or coins. But ultimately, pinochle became my preference and near addiction at one time. It's a little weird, considering that my mom is the one who taught me, and she was from Michigan, and as anyone from Michigan knows, Euchre is the game to play. But I've never played Euchre, only lots and lots of pinochle. When my mom taught the game to me, we were living in Miami. Rather, my parents were shuttling back and forth between New York City and Miami, while Pan Am was still in existence and its Passenger Services division was based in Florida (Dad was needed both there and at global headquarters in NYC). I was already spending most of the year away at a performing/visual arts boarding school, so the first pinochle lesson must've been while I was on vacation. I don't remember how old I was, but it had to have been during the first couple years of high school. I remember these things: It was hard to hold so many cards in my hand (the game is played with a thick deck of 64 cards, not the usual 52, and at some point you've got half of them in your hand at once, if you're playing with only two people). I was having trouble remembering the peculiar order of value, from high to low: A-10-K-Q-J-9-8-7. Why is a ten higher than a king? I still don't get it. I couldn't help thinking of prostitutes every time someone "turned a trick" in the game. In the beginning, I lost every game, many times over, and I became obsessed with the goal of finally beating my mom in a hand. We both hated the heat and humidity, so we played a lot in the summer months, cooped up with the air conditioner on, sitting at the dining room table (the chairs sported a pattern that I am not even going to try to explain, but that came to be visual shorthand in my mind for two things: Florida pastel decor and pinochle). We played very late into the night, or the early hours of the morning. I think that the first time I stayed up past midnight with my mother was during one of these "c'mon, one more game" sessions. Eventually, once I figured out how to count cards, I managed to beat her, and the gratification was immense. We played a lot during certain periods, then later, once I was out of college, we would go for years maybe without a game. We still love to play, though. It's good time spent together, we can play and often the playing leads to talking, the talking to serious talks, deep exchanges, cards momentarily abandoned. We pulled my father into the game at one point, too, so now it's a family game (one I look forward to teaching my son someday). The final memory: my dad, never playing as frequently, looking puzzled at his hand and about to ask the question my mom and I both anticipate and answer for him before he asks it. Jack of Diamond, Queen of Spades. It's worth forty points.

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