Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mind Game

I'm standing in a spot of light surrounding a microphone at the front of a darkened room.  The mic stinks of stale cigarette smoke and worse, and I'm struggling to breathe.  A mass of anonymous humanity ripples out there in the crummy meeting room at the Holiday Inn.  "Hullo," I say. "My name is Newt and I play bridge."

A crowd that should be sympathetic remains quiet.  Someone coughs in the back of the room, a throaty, gurgling cough that signals unspeakable evil.  Bridge players.

"I play three or four times a week now."  That's a lie - it's really more like five or six.  "On a good day, I whup ass on a roomful of little old ladies.  On a bad day, they whup mine.  It's a foul life."

I explain that I play in a bridge club that meets in a nondescript office park.  Next door is a methadone clinic; the local AA office is across the way.  The whole complex teems with low-lifes.  A uniformed cop parks outside, afraid to get out of his cruiser.

I try to make the room understand how I got hooked again after 35 years on the wagon, a good 35 years, with no bad habits other than an occasional beer bender and a cigar now and again.  My shame is absolute.

Years ago, bridge was not so bad.  You bid one spade if you had four spades in your hand and some aces and face cards, and your partner would bid three spades if he had a few spades and some more face cards.  With great cards, you'd just up and bid two spades from the get-go.  It was a simpler time, an innocent time.  No longer, my friends.

Now, if your partner bids one spade and you have any four spades in your hand, even lousy ones, you bid three clubs - THREE CLUBS, for God's sake - or, if your opponents bid something, like two hearts, you go ahead and bid three hearts to show that you have some spades.  Or if you start out with a great handful of spades and aces, you jump right up and start with two clubs.  It's an insane wasteland.

And the little old ladies, they'll finesse the crap out of you for a miserable extra thirty points.  They'll strip your hand and end-play your lights out for a top board if you let them. My life these days consists of trying to figure out where the other 39 cards are.

Oh, I once had a productive life helping corporate clients make more money.  Now I scrabble night and day for a couple more masterpoints.  You get 300 points and they make you a Life Master.  Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, right?  A guy here in town has 55,000 masterpoints.  I have 26.   People wonder why I feel inferior!  26.  Damn.

This week I am going to The Nationals in Orlando.  With my 26 points.  I'll beat little old ladies over the head trying to become a Sectional Master.  That's like a Life Master in diapers.  Between games, I'll scheme with my partner - a woman of otherwise good reputation - about how we can ruin someone's day in the next round.

"In conclusion," I croak into the microphone, "I have only myself to blame for my life of dissipation and overbidding.  I am an addict.  I play bridge."

The crowd sighs as one.  Someone in the back shouts out, "Hey, you need a partner for Thursday?"


Saturday, November 27, 2010


To the lady with the funny hat who thinks I'm too long-winded: I'm not.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Return of the Native

I have lived in Florida for two years now, which means I have personally experienced about two percent of recorded local history.  I am a Native.

Oh, I know that Florida has been around longer than 100 years, at least  in the James Mitchener sense: the big sand bar left behind as the last Ice Age subsided to Canada (more on that in a minute).  But people who are even more native than I know that real Florida history doesn't go much further back than the early Carl Hiaasen novels. The Historical Society fights to save buildings thrown up in 1955.  The original Clearwater Beach Crabby Bill's has a commemorative plaque.  My own Ulmerton Road has a bronze sign reading:  "At this location on November 16, 2000, the first hanging chad was discovered by roving bands of aboriginal Republicans."  We have historically significant structures made of plywood.

As a Native, I now distinguish myself from the annual influx of snowbirds that is fluxing heavy as I write this.  You see them everywhere.  Men jogging sans shirt?  Must be from New York.  Lying on St. Pete Beach in the 75-degree heat?  Michiganders.  Bobbing in the surf?  Canadians, no doubt. We can tell a Quebecoise from a Newfoundlander by how high they float in the water.  Make no mistake: snowbirds are beloved here.  They bring money, a scarce commodity in this state of sunshine.  But there is a certain rehabituation required each fall. 

Snowbirds struggle with the time scale here.  We Floridians, for instance, don't generally need to be anywhere soon.  The line at the local Publix glaciers along because the cashiers like to chat with the clientele.  Before I became a Native, I chafed at the delay.  But when my turn came, the cashier, who turned out to be a sweet southern belle, chatted with me as well.  She didn't seem to care that I was not yet a Native.  Our New York snowbirds especially find this adjustment challenging.  Folks in New York don't chat.

But I'm not here to talk about history or snowbirds.  Florida Natives know at this time of year that - Bucs aside (Go Bucs!) - there is only one subject worthy of serious scrutiny: how's the oyster crop?  Crassostrea virginicus.  The same Eastern oyster that thrives from Malpeque Bay to Blue Point, Long Island to Chicoteague Island, Virginia, C. virginicus reaches perfection in the waters off Apalachicola on Florida's panhandle.

Apalachicola is back in business.  I popped into Crabby Bill's last week, and the oysters were merely very good.  Earlier tonight, they were better still: fat and sweet, swimming in icy oyster liquor and happy-looking, verging on outstanding.  I was pretty happy-looking myself after two dozen of the little darlings.  On the half-shell.  Nekkid.  (Not me - the oysters.)

But - but - but - THE OIL SPILL!!  Yeah, I know.  There's oil out there somewhere.  Well, there weren't no oil in my dinner tonight.  The news shouters have failed to mention that virtually the entire Florida coastline completely escaped the oil spill.  Including - thank you, God - Apalachicola Bay.

C. virginicus will only get fatter and sweeter as the season proceeds.  Life on the Gulf is good.  Did I mention that a dozen on the half-shell at Bill's cost me the princely sum of $6.99, complete with freshly grated horseradish, which I snubbed.  After all, we Natives do it nekkid.