Three Card Monte

I played the Three-Card-Monte game on the streets of New York.

Ambling down Fifth Avenue and 55th Street one fine, luscious spring day—in no hurry, just wandering, staring, listening to languages, and savoring the springtime smells of Central Park’s flowers mixed in with the scent from the hot dog vendor’s carts. I had taken a “sick-day” off after hours of overwork the past two weeks, to see a friend for lunch and have a sweet easy afternoon.

I stopped to watch the “game,” known as Three Card Monte, a slippery contest that one would think more likely played on some dark alley, but, in fact, 5th Avenue offered several spots for a con. One shabby little fold-up table was set close to the curb —ready for a fast escape from the cops.

I knew the drill—three cards moving fast in the hands of the person behind the table, all you had to do was follow the cards: 2 Kings, one Ace, and pick the Ace once he’d put the cards face down, usually the Ace of Hearts as we, the people, think that’s a lucky card. I knew Three-Card-Monte was the biggest trick in the world. How could anyone fall for it. They can’t be serious; didn’t t people know this was a trick? I laughed, oh yes, there’s always a sucker.

I got participation-close to the game. I had time today and I was in a curious mood. Who were these people in the crowd. I wanted to stop, have a look at their faces - their hopeful faces.

But mostly I watched the cards. I lackadaisically said to the man next to me, while keeping my eyes trained on the swiftness of the dealer’s hands, “Well, I do see where the Ace is. I mean I actually do see it, it’s that card,” I said subtly pointing at the card. “It’s so saw it too, didn’t you, right there.” I could hear the excitement rising in my voice.

“Yea, I think you’re right, I saw it,” he said.

The current player at the table slapped his money down on that very same card we were looking at. A yell of joy came up. He won. Three other suckers approached, two of them won. Well, I thought, maybe things have changed. Maybe the game’s more fair these days. The crowd came in closer. Their eagerness pushed me next to the table.

Suddenly a shooting thrill went through me, my head went empty. The warnings, the knowledge, the sentences I had just said: “Only fools play this game, there’s always a sucker” left my centered core. Every sane thought I’d had just five minutes before flew out of my rational mind. It was as if I had walked into another room, the room of hope, the room with the big sign on the wall: “This is your lucky day.” I didn’t even know my hand was reaching, fumbling inside my bag. A $5.00 bill found its way magically from my wallet to my hand. I heard the rise in my voice, “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go.” My eyes were steady on the three cards: “Yes, there it is, I know where the Ace is.” Down went my five on the card, “That’s it,” By now I was practically yelling at the group.

I was right, I won, I was hot; My $10.00 winnings were staring at me from the table. “Yes, I’m on, I’ll put the full ten down on the next bet, maybe double it to twenty,” I said again to the man to my right while I still stared at the cards.

“Yea,” came the enthusiasm from my neighbor: “You’ve got the eye, you’re hot, bet again, double down, put a twenty down.” The encouragement filled my beating heart; I muttered to myself and to my neighbor—my new friend, “I can outsmart these people. I’ve seen the game, I’m from New York, I’m street smart, I’ll bet twenty this time.”

The sudden rattling noise from the passing fire engines made us all stop. We looked up for just a moment. My lucky stars, The Three-Card-Monte Goddesses were with me, they spoke from their heavenly place, up beyond the tall buildings. Thank God, I heard them, unusual for me, a somewhat impulsive person not often allowing enlightened moments to truly grab hold and stop me. But the Goddesses demanded that I look straight at my insistent neighbor. “Look him in the face,” the Goddesses whispered. So I turned. His eyes were bloodshot; he had the shakes, my god, was he drooling?

“Go on, bet, put the twenty down,” he said as he pushed my hand.

My slow but startling recognition of this swaying drunk, my new friend, was stunning. I stood there, still hesitating, scrambling for clarity, but the Goddesses and I slowly made my fingers encircle the winnings. The $10 bill found my pocket. I didn’t leave. I wanted to stay. I stood back from the table and watched, breathing easier, more able to focus. I studied the crowd. My eyes went to what might be the shills in the group. They weren’t obvious, of course, but I sensed little black shadowy circles surrounding one or two as they corralled, coerced newcomers into the game. One of those I suspected was a suburban-looking housewife. She had on a decent suit, a conservative hair-do and carried a Macy’s shopping bag, the perfect ploy, I imagined, as who would ever think this shopper was up to no-good.

She came forward, shyly approaching the table. “I’ll play, I’ve got $20.00 right here, go on, play the cards, I’m ready.”

"Yes, little Missus, okay, now I’ll throw the three cards down, you pick the Ace. You know how to play the game?”

“Well, it’s my first time, but I think so, I’ve got it, go on,” she urged.

She put her $20.00 down on one of the three cards. “Bingo, yes, there it is, you picked the Ace. You win. Okay, out there, did you see the little Missus win, yup, the lady just got forty bucks, simple as that, easy as pie, wasn’t it, Little Missus?”

She gave a vigorous nod, said she needed to breathe, and turned to the crowd with a big smile, dropping the money into her Macy’s bag, which I now realized —with my new detective’s eye—was dirty and empty.

A person called out, hand in his pocket, “I’ll try it.” He was scared but positive. “I think I can,” he whispered, as he moved toward the table.
I watched the Suburban Missus slip herself to the back of the crowd, searching for a new one, a new sucker, right here on easy street—smack dab on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, directly in front of that nice Christian church.

© 2020 Joan Brooks Baker. All artwork on site by Joan Brooks Baker

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