Cortez' Six and the Edgar Allen Poe Junior High School Cardsharps

"No running, jumping, skipping, sports equipment, hopscotch, tree-climbing, gum-chewing, or pointy, pointy arts-and-crafts."

The swing sets had been removed for our own safety, as had the jungle gym. This left the school playground flat and empty. A desolate black macadam sea.

Such was the start of lawsuit fever in the 80s. And rather than run the risk of being sued by an angry parent when little Suzie sprained her knee in a tragic hopscotch accident, the school determined they had two choices:

They could wrap us all in giant bags of foam packing peanuts...

Or they could just remove everything on the playground that might cause injury.

Or temptation.

Or, you know... fun.

As a result, after lunch, many a kid decided that going out onto the playground wasn't really worth the effort. With all the play taken from it, there was only ground. And bullies had a habit of making you TASTE ground when they didn't have anything else to do. Like out on a Jersey blacktop wasteland.

Then one day one of my lunch pals, Felix "the Cat" Cortez-- the kind of kid who was practically a jaded divorcee by age 12-- plunked the deck of cards onto the cafeteria table with a narrow gaze.

"Gin rummy," he proclaimed. "Play for points. Highest points at the end of the school year-- which will be me-- is the winner. Everybody else? A giant loser." He smirked at the kids around him. "Which we already knew. So who's in?"

Well, every one of us knew gin rummy sure beat lunch followed by a knuckle sandwich.

"Me," said Pete Cobb, a sci-fi/fantasy nut who knew how to wield insults like Excalibur. I once bought an insult book just to keep up with him.

"I'm in," said Manuel "Manny" Esteban, a talented young singer with a baby-face, who never quite got over the fact he wasn't selected as the most recent member of Menudo.

"I am gonna cream you buttwipes," announced Jan McNeely, who knew more colorful curses than a Jersey cabdriver, and who'd dyed her blond hair black in some grand statement she no longer remembered anymore.

The group turned to my friend Josette.

"Well... " began Josette hesitantly. I know she was weighing what her CCD teacher would have to say about this, and whether gin rummy was just one more step on the road to Hell. But the peer pressure was simply too much. "...Okay."

"Thorson?" queried The Cat, raising an eyebrow over the table at me.

"Never played it," I said, "but I'm in, too."

The Cat cackled. "Never played it? Girl, you are gonna be dead in the water."

"We'll see, Felix, we'll see," I said, trying to sound sure of myself.

"Rules of the game," began The Cat. "Seven card. Four of a kind or same-suit runs. Jokers, my friends, are wild. Cut the cards to see who goes first. High card has it."

We made the cut and Manny came up aces.

And this was the beginning of Cortez' Six, the greatest gin rummy tournament that Edgar Allen Poe Junior High School had ever seen.

Day after day we would choke down our peanut butter sandwiches, gorge our bananas and slurp down our Capri Suns, only to stash away our lunchboxes and clear time and space for the next deal.

Josette kept track of points meticulously in her Trapper Keeper notebook. She had the best handwriting of our group, and anyway, we all knew we couldn't trust anyone else with the tally.

Months went by this way. Initially, The Cat was well in the lead, but as time went on, the rest of us began to close in.

Pete Webb dealt name-calling with every hand...

Jan McNeely cursed with some crushing losses...

Manny was nearly ejected from the game many times for his annoying humming. Which, in retrospect, was probably a tell...

And even I grew more and more confident in the game by the day, eventually wiping the smug smile off the Cat's face as the tally grew neck-in-neck.

Winter turned to spring, and as the trees budded on the school playground, we remained immune to their greenery.... Unmoved by the gentle breezes. Just a few weeks more and the tourney would be over. Just a few weeks more and we'd separate the men from the boys...

Er, the women from the girls...

Er, the loser kids from the, um, non-loser kids.

And then, somewhere in the middle of a hand, a shadow fell over our table. We looked up to see Mr. Selleck, the wiry hatchet-faced vice principal in his perpetual brown tweed suit.

"What are you doing?" he asked, peering down on we six with the cards fanned in our hands. I half-expected The Cat to laugh and answer dominoes, but his expression was very grave.

"Gin rummy," Jan McNeely spoke up.

"Well, you can't do that. It's gambling!"

My heart was pounding in my chest. Would we be expelled for this? Or get detention? I just couldn't understand why this was a problem now, so close to the end of the year, because Mr. Selleck had to have walked past us a thousand times during the course of a hundred other rounds.

"We're only playing for points," I explained, and held aloft Josette's notebook as evidence.

But Mr. Selleck was already scooping up the cards from the table and grabbing the remaining ones from our hands. "No, I'm sorry, it doesn't matter. This is gambling and... and, well... that's simply not allowed in school." He seemed to be winging it with this little speech. "I have to take these. I'm sorry."

"It was only points!" Manny exclaimed.

Mr. Selleck's pointy mustached face went a bit red and he wouldn't look us in the eye. "Look, I'm sorry. Just go out onto the playground."

On the playground. Great...

We grabbed our lunch boxes and bookbags and slumped from the cafeteria, out onto the playground. But by the time the bell to class had rung, we'd already developed our own theory for the breakup of Cortez' Six.

"Papercuts," laughed Felix. "We could have mortally wounded ourselves from papercuts from those cards."

"And-- gasp-- sue the school!" Josette agreed.

"Did you know 15% of visits to the school nurse involve paper cuts that won't stop bleeding?" I suggested. "Oh, it's true!"

"My cousin almost lost his effing arm that way," Jan confided with a grin.

Yes, we determined-- somewhere in the vice principal's office there would soon be a dangerous deck of cards secreted away in a folder, a drawer, or a wall safe.

And maybe Cortez' Six never did get to determine who was real cardsharp among our ranks...

But we sure as heck had fun those remaining weeks plotting the heist of that Bicycle deck of 52.

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Da Old Man said...

Something about NJ and playing cards in school. When I was in St. Rocko's High, our lunch break consisted of a floating poker game. Perhaps your Mr. Selleck had lost his Chevelle in one of our high stakes games back when he was in school?

Unknown said...

Da Old Man- That is distinctly possible, and would explain much about his half-ashamed reaction to taking our cards...

Well, that or the fact he KNEW we were all honors students with nothing else to do at lunch, due to school policy.

But you never know. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I think he hadn't remembered to bring his deck in for his own lunchtime game in the staffroom.

B said...

Finally I got some use outta knowing who Menudo are!

This sounds exactly like the sort of stuff we used to do, cept one person would burn all the cards after losing on the first day.

Unknown said...

Jay- Well, that puts an entirely new spin on the situation, doesn't it? HIGHLY possible, too, this theory of yours. Hmmm... now I have to reevaluate much of my school memories... :)

B- Menudo was fairly integral to Manny's role in our group. And we, of course, all made fun of him (as good friends do).

I think the cards didn't get burned because they were Felix's cards, but HE was the worst sore-loser of us all.

Greg said...

Another bit of spun gold from your school days! Nicely played!

Unknown said...

Greg- Hey, thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

They let us hang out in the band room or the library if we had extra time in the lunch or study hall periods. But I never did have "recess". I walked home for lunch until 7th grade, then we were all in with the high schoolers.

Learned to gamble at church camp, gin at the library, learned poker at a high school friend's house. All so verry wholesome...

The LA Times has an op-ed piece today about the merits of genuine play:

Unknown said...

Rhet- Ah... the study hall thing came more in 9-12 grade for us. Our elementary school merged with the 7th and 8th grades right before I became a 7th grader. Recess would have been a separate thing from the post-lunch wandering on the playground.

Funny how many of us here ended up playing cards! :)

Anonymous said...

When I was in school, I carried a screwdriver in my purse. I have no idea why, until I started hiding out in the restroom during lunch. Then I discovered that a screwdriver could remove the doors from the toilet stalls.

Unknown said...

Dana- You were like your own personal girl-version of MacGyver, weren't ya?

I'd think that screwdriver would come similarly useful for the occasional locker door removal, as well. :)

Meg said...

During lunch and recess some schools allow the kids to watch TV. I'd rather have them gambling.

Unknown said...

Meg- Absolutely! I mean, just think, we were using hand-eye coordination, math skills, strategy, er, finger dexterity with shuffling...

Oh, yes, we were LEARNING. :)

Chat Blanc said...

Too funny! I can't believe they wouldn't let you play cards! At my school they encouraged us to continue playing on cement, gravel and steel. Perhaps a part of the brain injury effects I enjoy today. ;)

Unknown said...

Chat Blanc- Well, they DID let us play cards, (or at least they didn't NOT let us play cards) right up until the end of school. I have NO idea why it became an issue after a whole school year of playing. Maybe somebody complained. Maybe Mr. Selleck was just having a bad day. I just don't know.

You're doing very well with that brain injury, by the way, Sandy. I think things like that only enhance humor writing. It gives the extra edge. :)