From the verses of Shakespeare to the violence of Football, a soft hand on the nape of my neck to a rim's hard rattle after a dunk, the mute of Miles to the rhymes of Rakim, Hershey's chocolate to a garlic peppered, cedar-planked salmon, Joel Dias-Porter's thoughts scatter like grains of black sand across a wind-blown beach.
"I don't think you understand" he said, narrowing his eyes until they were two black slashes across his face.
"I don't think you understand" I said, "I don't take requests. Period"
"Do you know who the fuck I am?" he asked.
"A better question would be to ask if I cared." I replied. I knew who he was, he was known as 'Saint' and he was a NY drug dealer with a reputation for violence, who came down on the Amtrak every weekend from Brooklyn with his posse to sell crack on the street corners of DC.
He pulled out his wallet and removed a $50 bill. "Alright, no problem. I'll give you this if you play my record in the next ten minutes" he thrust the $50 forward. "I already told you." I said "I don't take requests." He nodded, "OK, then, I'll give you a ball." he took out another $50. "No bet." I said, "No requests."
He stepped back, his eyes now alive with anger. We were about the same height, same build. I wasn't afraid of fighting him, it was his posse that was the problem. They ran 12-15 deep, a pack of wild teenagers who rode the train with him and had no problems jumping somebody if so directed. I had seen them stomp out a dude once when Saint had asked his girlfriend for her phone number. When she refused, Saint smacked her in the face with an empty Moet bottle and when her boyfriend came to her aid, Saint's boys jumped him.
It was 1988 and Ronald Reagan's Central American policies had caused the country to be flooded with cheap cocaine. Smugglers returning from Nicaragua, generals in Guatemala, Noriega in Panama; all were US backed at home and had joined in on the cocaine pipeline on the side. The advent of cheap powder coke made crack cocaine possible, which had lead to an epidemic of abuse. New York City got crack first on the East Coast and soon dealers were spreading out looking for new territory. Washington DC had no local mafia to organize or restrict drug trade, so NY dealers set up wherever they wanted, battling local crews for the right to sell on that block. The resulting explosion of violence had made DC the "Murder Capitol" of the country.
Many of those kids after a weekend of making money would head to the Eastside nightclub in SW DC, where I was the Saturday night DJ, to spend their loot and release the day's tension. The Eastside was known for the pretty Howard coeds who flocked there in droves every Friday and Saturday night to get their boogie on. Wherever there are pretty young women, young men are sure to follow and so the Eastside quickly became the place to be. The club could hold about 1700 patrons at max capacity, but there would often be a line outside that stretched three city blocks. Half street, on the front side of the club would have bumper to bumper traffic for six or seven blocks before the block the club was on. We called the long line of cars 'the Parade', some kids would come every weekend just to hang outside the club and be seen and mingle.
It was just such a Saturday night when Saint had knocked on the door of the DJ booth to request a record, this despite the sign on the door that informed anyone who could read that we didn't take requests. Most DJs when faced with a record request, just lie and say they'll play it. Because most requests are for popular records that they will play at some point anyway, most patrons are none the wiser. But no nightclub DJ worth his salt would ever really take requests, because most of the skill in spinning records comes from knowing when to play what record, what we call 'building a set'. The Set list is what allows you to manipulate the crowd and build the intensity until it reaches a climax, then you hit them with your prime material to set them off.
Saint was now really upset, he was used to getting his way, when charm didn't work, he tried money and when that didn't work he generally got violent. He balled up the two bills in his hand and then hit me in the face with them. "Either you play my record or I'll bust a cap in your ass." The money bounced off my shoulders and fell to the floor of the DJ booth. He turned and left the booth and I quickly locked the door behind him. "What are you gonna do?" my light man Scooter wanted to know. "Fuck him" I said "I don't take requests and I aint starting now." Scooter had known me long enough to know how stubborn I was, but this time he thought I was just plain being stupid. he tried to talk me out of it, but I wasn't budging.
I paged Don, the biggest bouncer we had to the DJ booth. He was 6'6" and weighed 350 pounds if he weighed an ounce. "What's up?" he asked when Scooter let him in. "We got a slight problem." Scooter said. "Don't worry." Don said, "I'll squash it. Who is it?" "Saint" Scooter and I said at almost exactly the same time. Don turned ashen, "What's he want?" "He wants me to play a record" I said, "OK, play the record then" Don said. "No dice." I said, "He wants to hear 'It Takes Two' by Rob Base and I won't be playing that for at least two hours." Don wanted to know if I could just play it now and then play it again later. "No." I said. Don peeked out the giant plexiglas window that covered the front of the booth, Saint was standing at the front bar staring back at the DJ booth with a scowl on his face. "Well" said Don, "You got a problem I can't help you with, they don't pay me enough to eat bullets." he turned to leave, "You better call Johnny."
Johnny, was Johnny Walker, the head of our security and a DC cop. He was also the one Eastside employee that liked me the least. Johnny was one of those cats that was always mad and always miserable. There were two kinds of humans though, that he really couldn't stand, criminals and women. When he was in a good mood he treated them with disdain, when he was in a bad mood it was utter contempt. As was to be expected, he was very popular with the ladies. Despite the way he treated them, girls lined up to be with him. Part of it was the absolute confidence he strolled through the club with, a confidence partly born from the 9mm Glock in the small of his back and the snub-nosed .38 he wore strapped to his ankle. Johnny walked like somebody who was in charge and as head of security, he was. He answered only to the club's owner and the other managers steered clear of him. Everyone's safety depended on him and his team of bouncers and off-duty cops. The Eastside was very popular destination for drug dealers and Johnny's mantra was "No weapons and no product" in the club. Everyone who entered was frisked and wanded down, only Johnny and the other cops were armed inside the club.
Despite the fact that I was neither a criminal or a woman, Johnny had a special hatred for me. Every Friday I'd sit at the bar before the club opened and relax by reading a book and every Friday Johnny would come past and remind me that when he was in High School he used to beat up "book reading punks" just for exercise. He'd also remind me that if not for my spinning records "No bitch would ever give you the time of day." Which may have very well been true. Well, except of course for the nerdy ones. But Johnny fancied himself a player and me a lucky bum. As you might imagine, part of his anger was due to a situation with a particular woman. L was a very pretty Howard student who had shown up two Septembers ago with the current crop of Freshman, she ran with a crew of lovelies who used to show up real early and try to get into the club for free.
The Eastside like many other nightclubs would often let attractive women in for free, it was very, very good for business. Thus scores of young girls would arrive early hoping to be chosen that week. Johnny spotted L. right away and always chose her and her friends. What none of us knew then was that she was a sixteen year old Freshman. The drinking age in DC then was only 18, it was one of the last places in the country to raise the drinking age and did so only when forced to by the federal government. L. however had her older sister's ID and used it to gain entry to whatever club or party she wanted. To make a long story even longer, L. was extremely bright, as one might expect a sixteen year old attending college to be, she was also mature beyond her years. She peeped Johnny's game right away and refused all his advances. This frustrated him to no end, but didn't stop him from granting her free entry every week.
Her third week at the club, she passed my corner of the bar and asked me what I was reading, when I said Frantz Fanon, she asked "Black Skins, White Masks or The Wretched of the Earth?" Needless to say, I was impressed. We talked and exchanged numbers. When Johnny found out he was livid. He held his tongue for about a month, but when she started showing up at the club with me, it was too much for him to take. He cornered her and asked her how she could possibly reject him for me, her answer was because she found men who read books like her father to be sexy, and it drove him absolutely mad. He never passed up an opportunity to give me a side-eye or grit his grill. Eventually L. and I broke up, in part due to me finding out she was only sixteen years old. But Johnny never forgot.
Then came the incident. One weekend, I stepped outside the Emergency Exit next to the DJ Booth to catch a breath of fresh air. There was a group of young boys standing there and they asked me to let them in. When I refused they started offering me money, when they got to $200 apiece, I relented. It was a stupid thing to do, even for $1000 dollars. I had Shaun the bouncer who covered that door, frisk them real quick and they disappeared in to the darkness of the club. As Murphy's Law would have it, they ened up getting stupid drunk and starting a fight in the restroom, whereupon one of them pulled out a gun. He was disarmed before he got a chance to pull the trigger, but it didn't matter. When the bouncers sorted everything out and reported back to Johnny, he was highly upset. The kids had tried to get in the front door, but two of them were too young, Johnny recognized them and asked them how they got in. One thing lead to another and I found myself in the club owner's office. Johnny was insisting that I had endangered everyone's lives and should be fired. He was probably right. But I wasn't just any employee, I was the Right Reverend DJ Renegade and along with DJ Kool the club's most popular draw. I also had an impeccable record up until that lapse of sanity. The club owner decided to give me another chance, but Johnny was beside himself. It would be years before he would forgive me for that and it took me testifying on his behalf at a trial (something I was loathe to do and only did to return the favor to the club owner for not firing me) for him to let it go.
So, because of all of this, I really didn't want to call Johnny to deal with this situation with Saint, but I didn't want to get shot either. Scooter excused himself from the booth, leaving me alone. I looked up at the bar, Saint was still there, still scowling, he pointed to his watch, then looked back up at me. I wasn't playing the record, that wasn't going to happen. I tried to cue up the next record, but my hand was so shaky it was all I could do to get the needle in the groove. I played a few more records and was starting to tell myself that maybe playing that song twice wouldn't be so bad after all. I looked around the booth for a napkin, when all the amps started kicking it could get a little hot in there. I reached behind a stack of records and plugged up the extra air conditioner that we had in the booth. Scooter had been gone a long time, that wasn't like him.
I was cueing up another record and wondering where Scooter was, when suddenly a commotion at the bar caught my eye. I couldn't see what exactly had happened but there was a crowd around someone and people were calling for help. A couple of bouncers came over and cleared the crowd back, They seemed to be staring at someone on the ground. I scanned the crowd for Saint, but didn't see him. I checked again, but still didn't see him. Scooter came back to the booth, "What happened at the bar?" I asked him. "Looks like somebody collapsed" he said. I could see Jeff, one of the cops who worked security for us, on his radio. I looked around again for Saint, but still didn't see him. I decided to go see what was going on for myself. When I got there I could see that someone was out cold on the floor and they were pressing wet napkins against his face. It was Saint. Just then, a very soft hand brushed my arm, almost as if the person who touched me knew that I was very ticklish (which I am). I looked up, it was L. "Hey!" she said, 'What are you doing here?" I asked, "How did you get in?" She cocked her head, "Silly Rabbit, I turned 18 yesterday, remember?" I've always been great with numbers, but terrible with dates, mainly because I generally don't even know what day it is. "No" I said, "I forgot." "Figures" she said. I asked her if she had seen what had happened, she nodded with an impish little smile.
"I had just come in," she said "And this guy" she pointed at Saint "started trying to talk to me. He was talking all this shit about how he was gonna shoot the DJ if he didn't play a record for him." She tossed her hair back "I told him he could only have my number if he could hold his liquor, I don't like guys who get drunk off of one drink and get stupid." She leaned over and started whispering in my ear, "He was bragging about how much he could drink, so I told him that if he could drink three Kamikazes in five minutes that I'd go outside to his car and give him the best blowjob he'd ever had." "He downed them too." she said "But when he got up off the bar stool, he had a slight balance problem. Funny how that works." I nodded. She said "Look, I feel really bad about lying to you before and almost getting you into trouble." She kissed me on the cheek softly, "Now, we're even. Call, me sometime, I'm legal now."She smiled "I gotta run, before they want a statement or something", she said and disappeared into the crowd. I turned around and headed back to the booth, I had a full night ahead of me, there were still plenty records to spin, and not spin.
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)
"You're an asshole!" F. said. Which was true.
"A complete fucking assshole." Which wasn't true, at least not completely.
I wasn't upset, because she wasn't the first woman to characterize me as such, and probably wouldn't be the last. "I can't believe you just asked me that." she continued, which was perplexing to me because we had known each other since we were five years old. At this point, that made almost thirty years and even if you've only known me for twenty minutes, you could probably guess that I would in fact have asked the question in question. She stood up and leaned across the table, one of the few in this particular corner of the Starbucks where we were sitting.
"I came to you, because I needed somebody to talk to, somebody to be there for me, not somebody to tell me that it's somehow all my fault." She was almost in tears now and also almost yelling, which was causing the other patrons to turn their heads in our direction. "That's not what I said" I interjected, "That's exactly what you meant!" she said. "No" I interrupted, "I didn't say it was all your fault", "My point was that you might have some responsibility for what happened". "So, it's my fault then right?" she was livid now. "Never mind that he lied to me, cheated on me and was verbally and physically abusive. because evidently it was all my own doing."
"That's not what I said and you know it's not what I meant" I said, as calmly as possible. You know what?"she hissed, "Fuck you. Fuck you and the little technical-ass horse you rode in on." Which was, I had to admit, an apropos insult. "Goodbye Joel" She snatched her purse off the back of the chair, slammed the chair into the table and turned away. She was premierely pissed off and anything I said at this point was probably just going to make things worse. She was mad, real mad, but I wasn't too worried about that. The line of people whom I had severely angered at one time or another could probably stretch from here to Borneo. It's always been a special talent of mine, to piss people off to the highest levels of pissitivity. One that just comes naturally, without much real effort on my part.
Mostly it's because, unlike most people, I seem to lack any filter between my brain and my mouth. Or alternately, as more than one of my exes has pointed out, I appear to not care what people are going to think about what I say before I say it. I don't know if it's true or not, but if you hear something enough times . . . I did feel bad though, a little at least. F. and I had grown up together in Pittsburgh and had both eventually found our separate ways to DC. Me in the USAF and her because she had a job with an airlines that had relocated her. Over the years we had stayed in touch and whenever she had relationship problems I was a good friend that she could call and get a male perspective from.
Her current relationship had ended much the same way that both of her marriages had, with her boyfriend cheating on her and then him getting abusive when she confronted him with evidence of his infidelity. She had called me and asked me to meet up so we could talk. I played poker almost every day in a little park in the middle of Dupont Circle in NW DC and it was easily accessible by the Metro, so we agreed to meet there a little after lunch time. Lunch for her that is, because most days I didn't get up until around 11AM. I would wake around 5:30 AM to help my girlfriend dress and feed our son before she headed to drop him off at Daycare on her way to work, then I would crash back in the bed and get the rest of my snores in.
She looked to be in relatively good spirits when she arrived, she was, as always, fashionably dressed, not that I knew much about fashion. We ordered drinks, coffee for her, Earl Grey for me and caught up quickly on each other's families. Then she got into the messy details of her latest breakup. I had as always, listened closely, held her hand and consoled her. Until about halfway through, she said "Why does this always happen to me?" I asked her if it was a rhetorical question? "No" she said, "Why me? why do I always end up with the fucked up assholes?" I leaned back a little in my chair, "If you really want me to" I said "I can answer that for you." Which I could.
"No, never mind" she said, "You're just going to repeat the same old stuff my mother and sisters have been saying to me all my life." "No, actually I wasn't." I said. And I wasn't, I wasn't even going to say the same old things that I had been saying to her all these years. "What? What Joel?" "What can you say that's different, or even helpful?" she asked. So, I answered her. My point, was fairly simple. F. like many very pretty women was only attracted to men that she found dominant, which was fine, because that's true of most women.
The problem was that she wasn't satisfied with a man who was capable of dominating her, she only wanted what she thought was the cream of the crop, a man who completely dominated her. On one level this makes sense, if he wasn't able to dominate with her how was he going to be able to deal with anybody else? The problem, as I pointed out to her, was that any man who was willing to completely dominate a woman like her, would only do so because on some level, he didn't respect her. "That's not true" she said, shaking her head. "Of course it is." I said. "I don't deal with men who don't treat me with respect." she said. Which was true, but had nothing to do with what I had just said. "I'm not saying that they don't respect you at all" I said, "I'm saying that on some level they don't respect you, which is different. It's a necessary condition for complete dominance." "At first that domination makes your little panties moist. But after few months of electric sex, the initial attraction wears off and you finding yourself waking up next to a guy who treats you like shit."
"I don't know" she said, "It sounds like some theoretical bullshit you read in a book to me." "Well, you asked me what I thought." I said. "If you insist on only jumping into pools with a shark in it, it doesn't matter how fast or well you swim; how cute you look in your bathing suit; or even how well you keep the shark fed, at some point the shark is going to bite you. Because that is what sharks do. There comes a time where it doesn't make sense to blame only the shark."
"Oh, I see" she said, "it's all my fault." "I'm not saying that" I said, "But what about guys like that dude Robert that used to like you, or Derek, who went to Carrick with us who was crazy about you?" 'Robert was cute and a nice guy, but I wasn't attracted to him like that." she said. "But, that's my point." I said. "Initial attraction is just one kind of attraction, it's got the sizzle that sells all the Romance novels and romantic comedies and all the hit songs, but sometimes attraction can build over time." She gave me that look. "If I'm not attracted to a guy" she said "Then I'm not going out with him." "I understand" I said "But the dirty little secret of successful long-term loving relationships is that the people are just really good friends who also happen to be having sex with each other."
"If I'm not attracted to a guy" she repeated "Then, I'm not dating him. Period." You're grown." I said "That's your prerogative, but how exactly, has that worked out for you?" She jerked back in her chair like I had just poured hot coffee in her lap and started dropping the A-bomb on me. I let her leave without saying another word, picked up my tea, which was only about half-finished and took a long sip. By my calculations I had just enough time to catch a matinee at the theater across the Circle before the evening card game started up.
The months went by without me hearing from her or calling her and piled up until they turned into a couple of years. In the meantime, I broke up with my son's mother after a five year relationship and moved back into the house in Bloomingdale where I had lived previously. Single again, I fell back into my old routine of hanging out in the Borders on 18th and L streets downtown every afternoon before heading up to the Circle to play cards. In fact, I spent so much time there that eventually the store manager would offer me a job. One afternoon around 3 pm, I found myself sitting downstairs in one of the overstuffed chairs they had spaced out around the store, reading a Dan Brown novel, when a guy walked past who looked like an older, heavier, grayer version of someone I had gone to high school with. I am pretty good about remembering faces and names too.
"Derek?" I said "Derek Robinson?" He stopped and turned around with a quizzical look on his face. "Yeah", he said. "Yo" I said "Long time no see" "Do I know you?" he asked. "Yeah" I said, "We went to high school together for two years, I'm Joel, Joel Dias-Porter, well, I just went by Porter then." There was no change in his face. "You probably don't recognize me." I said, "Because I was six inches shorter and seventy pounds lighter then. I used to be mad skinny" Still, nothing, not even a glimmer of recognition. "The last time you saw me, I was probably setting up a movie projector before one of your classes? You might remember my mother." I said "She used to drive the van for Bethany House, Mrs. Porter." "Yeah" he said, "I kinda remember her, she used to take us to the baseball games when were little."
Just then F. walked up from behind him. "Oh my God." she said with a tiny smile on her face, "They let any old homeless person wander in here and hang out." "Yeah, they do." I said "I was just about to call security, on myself." We both laughed. She slid her hand into Derek's and leaned her head against his shoulder, "Sweetie" she said "Do you remember Joel?" "Nah" he said. "He looks vaguely familiar, but I don't quite remember him." She laughed "He the a skinny little asshole who use to live down on Bonifay Street, always thought he knew every damn thing . . . "
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)
I caught her out of the corner of my eye just as the video poker machine dealt me Trip Eights. I was only playing the machine for a few minutes to clear $75 in Bonus Slot Dollars the Revel Casino had granted me as part of a promotion. She was dressed in a white and purple blouse, with a lavender skirt that was clinging to her hips like a Titanic passenger to a lifeboat. She stopped to watch when I hit the "Deal" button and whistled softly when I hit another eight to make Quads and 125 credit payout. "You're lucky" she smiled. "You brought me that luck" I said, returning her smile and holding her gaze long enough to demonstrate that I wasn't intimidated by her beauty. She was a short medium brown skinned stunner with shoulder length hair and a thick Spanish accent that could only mean that she was from the Dominican Republic. And before I patted the empty seat next to me to suggest she sit down, I already knew that she had been gambling and had probably lost all her money. I asked her for her name . . .
Which immediately brought to mind a late Spring night night four years ago when I was playing a $5 Jacks or Better machine in the Taj Mahal Casino and this pretty Puerto Rican chick in her mid-thirties had sat down to play the machine next to me. She was hitting the buttons with an air of desperation I had never seen before and spitting out the word "Coño" like it was sunflower seeds when her draws missed. I said "Hi" and she said "Hi" and she had lost her last credits and was watching me play for a few minutes when I hit a straight flush, which was a 250 credit payout, at $5 a credit. Her eyes lit up like Harrahs Water Tower at night. We started talking and I decided to cash out and asked her if she wanted a drink. We soon found ourselves upstairs at the Starbucks, me sipping a Grandé Earl Grey and her a Peppermint Latte. She had gone broke playing the machines and didn't know how she was going to pay for gas and tolls to get back home, which was up north in Jersey City.
As the son of a heroin addict I have a strict rule about not dating women with any kind of addiction issues and I especially steer clear of women with gambling problems. I also have always had a thing about how my name is pronounced-always with one syllable, so it rhymes with "soul", never, ever with two, so it rhymes with "Noel." But, I'm not going to lie. The first time she parted her glossed lips with the two syllables of my name, I knew she could articulate it anyway she wished and I wasn't going to be correcting her. Her eyes were amber as a shot of rum pierced by sunlight and almost as intoxicating. One thing lead to another and we found ourselves up in my room in the Chairman Tower.
I was with this woman for ten minutes, before she put the warmth of her hands under my T-shirt and twirled my knobs until the volume of my sighs were maxed out. It was as if she had been up all night studying the book of me; in ten minutes time she had figured out things that my last girlfriend of eight years had never known. Sometimes, a person just has your number and she seemed to have mine on Speed Dial. As a kid, I had always lamented the softness of my hands, but there are times when that is advantageous. My 15 years of spinning records have left me with a manual dexterity and lightness of touch that is uncommon in men with such large and powerful hands and being such a believer in reciprocity, I wasn't going to be satisfied until I had made her moan in at least two languages.
Somewhere in there, I promised her money for gas and tolls and she promised me she wouldn't use the money to gamble. Some people will roll their eyes and say that what we made wasn't love- and maybe they're right. But we at least made music. The kind of music the wind makes on winter nights when the last leaf on the branch still trembles in its wake. She stayed for breakfast the next morning at the buffet in the Borgata and when she said "Thank you, Papi" and fetched and buttered my biscuits, I was thinking that I could get used to this. She had two kids and was separated from her husband, he had quit gambling and they had split when she wouldn't. She had a good job and liked to come to AC on the weekends to relax. Even though she had promised not to gamble with the $100 I had given her, I had seen her eyeing the machines as we walked through the casino and knew what the deal was.
She texted me later on to say thank you, and that on her way out she had gotten lucky and won all her money back. I saw her the next weekend and many after that, but only on the weekends. She'd text me when she hit town and we'd meet up, usually after she had dusted off whatever funds she had brought with her, although sometimes it was after she'd won. And there was something about the coconut scent her hair left in my pillows that kept her presence fresh. Months went by and we fell into a familiar groove, she practiced me like a child practices their multiplication tables and I studied her like the grammar of a complex language.
One night, when we were lying in the dark and our breathing had just returned back to its normal rate, she turned and asked if she could ask me a question? I said "Of course", and she told me that her husband wanted them to get back together, but this would of course mean that she would have to give up gambling, what did I think she should do? Now I got more issues than Readers Digest, but everybody knows that if you ask me a question, I tell you what I think. Straight, no chaser. For better or worse, it's how I am and have always been. There was a long pause, filled with the kind of silence one finds in jars that haven't been opened in years. A famous Pop song once said "If you love someone, set them free." I asked her if she'd ever had a winning year gambling and before she said no, she already knew where I stood.
She turned around and kissed me, long and slow, her tongue going through all the rooms of my mouth, almost as if searching all the closets and drawers, making certain it hadn't left anything behind. We kissed and then we held each other in the dark, the way a candle holds its wick, unwaveringly. Somewhere in there I fell asleep. Morning greeted me with the shock of sunlight and the first thing I noticed was that the bed next to me was empty. She always stayed for breakfast, so I assumed she was in the bathroom. I lay there silently, listening for the sound of the shower or the toilet, but there was nothing.
After a few minutes, I got up and knocked on the half open bathroom door. There was no answer, so I pushed it aside to find nothing, no one. Just the quiet 'O' of an empty roll of toilet paper. I looked up and there across the mirror, written in lipstick, was a single cursive word. Gracías. The 'I' dotted with a tiny heart. I stared into the center of the heart, but found only my own reflection. I decided not to call her until she called me first. I never heard from her again.
Back at the Revel, the Dominicana had said her name, but lost in thought, I had missed it. "Yocasta" she said, pronouncing the first consonant the way we say the letter "J" in English. "Yocasta?" I repeated. "My name begins with the same sound" I said. "What's your name?" she asked. I said "Joel." "Jo-el?" she said, the second syllable rolling off her lips almost as if it were the Dominican word for God.
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet, (and dusted with cinnamon.)
"Fuck!" I said to myself, softly. I had known what was going to happen, predicted it even, and yet still somehow found myself unprepared when it did. Mike Tyson once famously said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." The $200 raise I was facing sure felt like a left hook to my lips. I leaned back and re-considered the situation. Things were simple.
I had just bet $55 into a $90 pot after everyone had checked to me and was now facing a check-raise of $200 from the pre-flop raiser. Two other players who had called pre-flop between me and the raiser had folded and the two behind me didn't seem like they were calling the raise either. So it was basically going to be between me and him.
The pre-flop raiser (we'll call him C.) leaned forward in his black Yankees cap with the lime green bill, white 'NY' and matching Polo shirt that was stretched across his muscles like Saran Wrap and glared. At me, like it was personal. Which it was. And this is where things begin to get complicated. In poker, one is supposed to make decisions based on cards and odds and reads, but never, ever on emotions or tangential factors. And one should never, ever make a hand of poker, personal.
The simple part was that I had called on the Button in a 2/5 NL game with A2 of Diamonds after C. made a small raise to $15 from early position and two others had also called. After a Flop of A63 rainbow (with one Diamond), I held a pair of Aces with no Kicker to speak of. Now, I was facing a $200 raise from him. And either I was winning, or I wasn't. Plain and simple. In poker parlance, my opponent's range was polarized. In plain English, I was in a dark alley armed with a knife, but my assailant had a gun. The question was whether it was a toy gun, or a real one.
One side of my brain was saying "Fold, you idiot!" mainly because my hand wasn't that good and could only likely beat a bluff. But the other side was saying "Call this dude!" because my read was that he was in fact, bluffing. That he was just trying to push me off my hand. And whatever else happened I couldn't possibly let him outplay me.
I knew that C. was a very aggressive player and since he had raised, if he had hit anything at all he would have continued with another bet on the flop. Check-raising flops wasn't part of his style unless he had a really big hand like a set. But he was leaning forward, watching my every movement, and I could tell from his body position that under the table he was on the balls of his feet. All of which are the signs of a bluffer. Card sense said fold, but my gut said call, or maybe even raise.
The complex truth is that I knew C was going to raise me before the hand started, before he even sat at the table actually. Partly because his M.O. was to try to bully the table with bets and partly because we had history. History that involved a woman. A woman he was going to be kissing and calling "Sweetheart" later on that night and I wasn't. And I couldn't let him get the girl and the pot. Could I? None of which should have mattered, because I'm a grinder who plays the odds and gets it in good and it's as simple as that.
Except, when it isn't. And it wasn't, simple that is. C had been playing at a table behind me for most of the night, a night which saw me steadily losing until I was into the game for $1400. Which shouldn't have been a big problem, but my total bankroll was only about $2100 at that point. And no, I shouldn't have been playing 2/5, but there I was against the tenets of sound bankroll management. And once I got stuck, I felt like I had to try to play my way out. Because sometimes I'm stubborn like that. And besides, the odds weren't going to help me now, not in this dark alley of a poker hand.
C had beaten his other table game for about $500 and then got up and started checking out the other games; and I knew he was going to chose mine; and that he was going to try to outplay me the first time we got in a hand together. So, when he swaggered over and plopped down $500 on my table and went to cash out his winnings, there was no surprise, just a delicious sense of anticipation.
When he returned to the table his swagger was ridiculous, but yours would be too, if you had a new girlfriend as gorgeous as his. A woman I knew too well, but not the way I wanted. Which, once again, should have had no bearing at all on the poker hand. But of course did. Because at the end of the day, no matter how many thousands of hands of poker one plays to mathematical perfection, one is still human. And still has a heart, that sometimes beats bolder than at other times. Like now.
So, I had to call $200. But it was more than that, because calling would put $600 in the pot, leaving me with about $500 behind and two streets of action remaining. I had started the hand with slightly more than $800 and if I called here, I wasn't likely to fold, so it wasn't a $200 decision, it was an $800 decision. My whole night was riding on this wild horse of a hand.
Above me ESPN was showing highlights on SportsCenter and behind me a waitress was singing "Coffee, Soda, Juice." Inside me, there were two trains running. In opposite directions. At different speeds. One was a long train of freight cars filled with the black coal of self doubt. The other was an Express filled with passengers who were as certain of their destination as they were of which song was currently playing on their iPods. The issue was- of which train was I the conductor?
The song on my iPod was Rebecca Ferguson's "Nothing's Real, But Love." I've always been a fool for love, but was I a fool in poker too? The hand on my chips was pulsing to push them in. I couldn't breathe. I decided to call and then wait to see what he did on the next card. If he could bet into me, then I was most likely beat (or worse, he was a better player than I had originally given him credit for.) When I finally pushed the chips across the line, C. leaned back with a quizzical gaze. He didn't like the fact that I had called, that much was certain.
The Dealer peeled the Jack of Clubs, a card that changed nothing, unless he held a pair of Jacks (which I doubted) or he held four cards to a gutshot straight (which was still a longshot to hit.) He tapped the table with two fingers and trained his gaze in my direction. There comes a time in every man's life when he has to commit to something fully and I was committed to this hand, to this read, to this moment. "I'm All-In," I announced. C.'s hand came up across his face and pushed his cap from his head. He took a deep breath and then asked "How much?"
I didn't like the fact that he wanted to know the amount because that meant that he was at least considering calling the bet, and if he did I had likely made a bad read and was way behind. The players at a table next to us burst into laughter at something unknown to us, the lights seemed to begin to burn brighter, the sounds in the room grow dimmer. C. looked at his hand, then at me, then back at his hand. He counted out the amount to call, $467, then counted his remaining chips. At this point I was sure that I had him, but still didn't want him to call. If he called with a worse hand and somehow managed to win anyway, that could be even more devastating than losing to the best hand.
He put his hand flat on the table behind the chips he had stacked to call. He looked up to guage my reaction. And then slowly slid his hand forward towards the chips. I closed my eyes to prevent any reaction. I waited for the Dealer to announce that he had called. And waited, and waited. Now it seemed like I could hear every chip in the room being shuffled and re-shuffled.
Finally I opened my eyes, his hand had stopped just shy of his chips and he was staring me down. I closed my eyes again and relaxed all the muscles in my face. I focussed on the only four letter word that meant anything to me at that moment. FOLD. I took a quick peek. He looked again at his cards, then looked at me, then again at his hand, as if it might change, then he tapped his cards against the table. "Nice hand" he said, then tossed them in to the center, where the rest of the cards lay waiting like a drain in the middle of a sink. "Nice Hand" I said, exhaling like a smoker who just taken the longest drag ever from their last cigarette.
The truth is that no matter what, win or lose, that he was going home to her voluptuous lips and I was going upstairs to a used bar of soap and a long shower. But at least I would be soaping myself down with a grin the size of the Hoover Dam.
And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)