The Penny Poker Bird

“Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called “Mom’s”, and never sleep with a woman who is in more trouble than you are.”

Nelson Algren

The Penny Poker Bird

In The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1950 masterpiece, we meet Frankie Machine; junkie, aspiring jazz drummer, card-cheat non-pareil.  He deals poker for the local gangsters and suckers them every time.  It is this book that won the first National Book Award ever given and established Algren as Chicago’s leading literary light.  It is a great, tragic, funny, and gritty novel that took place about a mile south of where I am typing this.  In Algren’s prose, all manner of hobo types wander through and in Hobo culture, poker is a holy tradition.  Many a hobo tale replays the coast-to-coast poker games conducted in boxcars moving across America.  Mundane hour, after hour, passing while men play for cigarettes, match-sticks and pennies.  A lot of hobo art sports the motifs of playing cards.

Much mythology of the American road involves card games. Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing poker.  The hand he was holding, (full house, aces over eights) is forever immortalized as a “Dead Man’s Hand”  The shooting of a card-cheat in Steve Earle’sDevil’s Right Hand,” happens when a friendly card game erupts into sudden violence.  Card games are loaded with underpinnings of resentment, hope, suspicion, camaraderie, and mistrust.

I play Hold’em once in a while with a bunch of guys who are all from different walks of life.  It is not a good game for me because it requires patience, which is not my long suit.  One of the regular players at this game is the Chicago alderman, Richard Mell; a legendary Chicago pol and the father-in-law of our former fuck-nuts governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Mell is an exquisite poker player.  his face never betrays what he’s holding and he is as endlessly patient as an alligator waiting on the edge of a swamp.  At the end of the night, he is always there.   I imagine 36 years as a Chicago alderman has taught him a thing or two about judicious gambling.  He is viewed by some as a villain, by others, a stalwart crusader for his ward, and still others, a symbol of white racism for his opposition to Harold Washington.  The truth is, he may be all of those things and none of them at the same time.  He is a bit of a political sphinx in that you can never really tell what he will be interested in.  He’s kept the press and his fellow politicians guessing for his tenure as alderman.  He is not interested in money; he was already rich when he became alderman.  He is also not as interested in power as one might think.  He has had many opportunities to seek higher office and hasn’t.  He is an enigmatic figure in Chicago politics in that he is not predictable in the least.  One year he will be the bête noire of liberals, the next, he will be championed by them.  He is the best natural poker payer I’ve ever watched.

Gambling is a big part of hobo culture.  Any chance at bettering one’s lot was welcomed.  A great number of hobos settled around Las Vegas, before the boom of casinos, because of the legal gambling and sawdust joints (or “grind” joints) that had low-stakes poker and blackjack. It is the eternal optimist’s tramp-dream to “break the house'”and retire.  Needless to say, this almost never happens.

Birds are the hobo symbol for talking on the phone.

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