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When deck of cards could be salvation

 Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media

Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:44AM

On warm summer nights, when the sound of blues music and card slapping filled our West Side apartment until nearly dawn, the game of bid whist was religion.

Even if the “saints” at church thought playing cards was the devil’s business, it didn’t matter much to Mama who loved “bid” with divine passion.

For Mama, a deck of cards could be salvation.

No matter how tight money was, no matter what new troubles, a fresh deck of playing cards, a few good friends and something cold to drink — usually Schlitz beer — plus the serenade of blues from cassettes or LPs, had a way of washing those troubles all away like a fresh hard rain. That much was clear to me, even as a kid.

As “Ode to Billie Joe” played for the umpteenth time, Mama and my stepfather smacked cards on a folding table with their good friends, Miss Edna and Mr. Charlie.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear their midnight laughter, the joy of friendship and good times amid hardship and uncertainty, although back then bid whist did not mean to me what it meant to the adults.

A simple book-turning card game akin to bridge, bid whist is beloved by many black folks, and its best practitioners revered like a heavyweight boxing champ.

Mama was masterful. She had honed the card-playing lingo and she possessed the bravado requisite for being bid whist top gun. Mama was born to play bid. She was “bad” — in a good way.

By an early age, she taught each of her four children to play. But playing cards with Mama was not for the faint at heart. Sometimes I would be half afraid to put a card into play, knowing that if I wasn’t playing up to Mama’s standards, I could get a good quick cussing out.

Mama was methodical. She counted books and knew exactly which cards had been played and which had not. She could even detect what cards her partner was holding by the cards he or she put into play.

Mama didn’t cheat, although she taught my siblings and me how to detect if others were cheating and how to decode their signals.

Her weekend card games buzzed with trash-talk, with the snap, pop and hiss of another can of beer being opened, with the sound of hurried feet moving toward the bathroom whenever the beer had run its course, and with the occasional shout of “Boston!”

That meant one team had turned all 13 books in a single hand.

Sometimes my stepfather shouted, “Too late for the camel ’cause the pig’s got his eyes closed!”

I never knew what that meant. Except he only said this whenever he was on the verge of winning.

What I remember most about those nights isn’t who won or loss, or for how long they played. What I remember is the carefree girlie nature that rang in Mama’s voice, as all of her worries got lost in the endless shuffling of the deck.

As an adult, I too have sometimes turned to a deck of cards, trading in my worries for the slapping of cards and trash-talk.

I have done so understanding now, as a full-grown man: That having money is good and necessary for living but not requisite for happiness. That life is about the collection of moments, of memories, of family and a few good friends.

That finding pleasure in even the simplest of things can make life sweet rather than bitter. And that a good hand of bid whist can still soothe like a summer rain.

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