I'm rolling south down Pacific Ave. Atlantic City's main strip where most of the casinos line the beach like Life Guard chairs, headed to McDonald's to grab a Sweet Tea, when I decide to stop by Caesar's poker room to see if Old Man James is in town. I slide into the poker room through the back door and right away I spot him seven tables away, headphones clamped over his ears, slightly slumped in his chair. And if I see James, before I hear him, then I know he's not winning. He's in a 1-2 No Limit game in the ten seat and never sees me until I tap him on the shoulder.
"Hey Son" he says, extending his hand.
"Hey Pop" I reply, taking his hand in our familiar shake.
He turns back to the hand in process and I survey the situation, he's got position on the other two guys in the hand who both check to him. As he bets, I notice how slowly he pushes the chips into the pot, which means he's been playing a long time. They both fold and after the dealer pushes him the pot, it takes him a long time to stack his chips.
"Long Session?" I ask.
"Too Long." he says, which means he's most likely been playing all night.
"You been playing all night?" I ask, although it's three in the afternoon.
"Yeah", he says "And these motherfuckers won't let me win nothing, they got $800 of my money and won't give me back a motherfucking dime."
Playing poker with James is like playing poker with Redd Foxx. he is nothing if not loud and profane. He can call you seven types of Motherfucker and mean seven different things, some of them even affectionate.
"You eat?" I ask, he shakes his head no.
"You take your medicine?" I query, again no.
"Get me out of here." he asks, and I nod OK.
"I need to go check into my room at Ballys, walk me over there." he says.
I tell the dealer James is done when the Big Blind comes to him, which is only a few hands away and the dealer Pete says OK, in his frog-like croak.
While I wait, I remeber the first time we met, in a 2-5 No Limit game right here in Caesar's where I used to play thousands of hours. Caesar's had the best 2-5 game in AC back then, better even than the games at the Borgata. There was tons of action and no shortage of bad players who came to gamble it up, as far as they were concerned poker was just another table game based on pure luck. James was winning that day and he was loud as hell, talking more shit than a septic tank. He got into a dispute with a dealer and cited a rule incorrectly. As I am wont to do, I interrupted and corrected him. He turned his then seventy-five year old white haired head my way and said
"Who asked you a motherfucking thing?"
"Nobody," I said, "but that aint never stopped me from talking."
He said "Well, fuck you, then."
"Sorry Pops" I replied, "You're not my type."
"Well double fuck you then" he said and we both burst out laughing.
I hadn't been at the table ten minutes, but I had already peeped his game. James liked to play the old fool and get under people's skin, which would then cause them to want to beat him and play poorly against him. But I know a hustle when I see one and this was a stone cold hustle, in fact although I didn't know it at the time, James was a legendary pool hustler from Brooklyn who had specialized in the game of One Pocket back in the 60s and 70s. Retired now from the hard green felt of the pool table, he had landed on the softer felt of the poker table. He played good cards in good position and let the idiots underestimate him, by the time the figured out he could play, he already had their chips stacked neatly in front of him. We became cool and I like playing with him, partly for the show and partly because he made the game good, getting folk riled up. But what really made us tight was the late Sunday night a few years ago when I was strolling down Pac. Ave after a big night at the Taj Mahal. I was taking my customary forty-five minute walk up and down the Strip before I headed to bed, when I approached Caesar's. The light turned green and I started crossing the street when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone stumble and fall, almost hitting their head on one of the concrete planters that front the casino. When I got to the other side the person was still there, layed out, apparently unconscious on the sidewalk. I hurried over, it was Old Man James face down on the concrete. During my five years I spent working as a Unit Leader in a sleepover Summer Camp in Virginia I was trained as a First Responder, which included both Fire Suppression and Advanced First Aid. I kneeled down, but James was still out, his eyes open, but rolled up into his head. I leaned close to see if he was breathing, which he was, I then checked his pulse and it was good too. "James, James" I called to him. Slowly, his eyes rolled down and came into focus.
'What's going?"he asked, "What happened?"
I told him he had fallen out.
"Where am I ?" he asked. I told him he was in front of Caesar's.
"I got to catch my bus" he said. "I got to get back to Brooklyn before my wife gets worried."
I told him to slow down and stopped him from trying to get up until I asked hima few questions. After I was sure he was OK, I had him sit up. He was lucid now, his bus was leaving in ten minutes from the Bus depot across the street. I told him I'd walk him across the street, but that he had to go see a doctor as soon as he got home.
"Motherfuck a doctor." he told me, "I'm alright, now."
'James," I said, "you got to go see a doctor, find out what happened"
"Fuck you and the doctor too." he told me, "You starting to sound like my wife."
I wasn't budging though, more black men in America die of preventable diseases than any other demographic. "James," I insisted "You got to go see the doctor."
"I aint going to see no motherfucking doctor." he responded.
I said "If you want me to help you across the street so you can catch your bus, then you've got to promise me you'll see the doctor."
Due to his two artificial knees and artificial hip, I knew James couldn't get up off the ground on his own. He looked around, he knew time was running out before the last bus left for Brooklyn.
"You's a motherfucker, aint you?' he said.
"Yes James" I said "I am, in fact a motherfucker." A motherfucker who wasn't budging.
"You trying to catch that bus?" I asked
"You know god-damned well I am." he said.
"You going to the doctor? I asked.
"I guess I aint got no motherfucking choice" he said, "Help me up."
I refused to move until he promised me, which he did. I knew as an old school gambler that he'd keep his word, because in that world your word was bond, your whole reputation was based on keeping your word. I helped him across the street and stayed until he caught his bus. It was the last time I saw him . . . (to be continued.)
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)