Friday, March 24, 2006

Get Outta the House Already!

I JUST RETURNED FROM a walk. "Thanks, James, what blog should I read next," you're now thinking. Stay with me. This actually represents a break in my routine, usually as durable as lazy steel.

Upon returning home each Friday, I typically drive just over the town line to my bank to get my allowance for the next week. I was inspired to change my mode of transit to this errand by a couple of factors. First, an accident in the intersection at the head of my street reminded me just how ridiculously busy it gets on weekends and during the evening rush. A one-way street feeds into a stressed, yet short, artery of traffic, taxed further by a flux of motorists patronizing the Trader Joe's across the street from my apartment. Add to this a train crossing just beyond the intersection, and you're good for at least one fender-bender a month. It takes a silly amount of time to merge into the auto scrum that forms around 6:30 at night, so I have been in the mode of finding an alternative lately.

I got a second kick in the pants today from an observation in the paper (the Times or the Journal, can't remember which) about how New Yorkers, being resilient in the face of crisis, are dedicated walkers. Not in terms of exercise, but just to get from place to place in their neighborhoods — or beyond, as borne out by their literally pedestrian reaction to the recent MTA strike. The point of the article was to show how gyrations in gasoline prices didn't affect many New Yorkers as much as it might suburbanites or residents of cities with less efficient mass transit. The kick came when I realized that gas, which had been beaten down to nearly $2 per gallon earlier this year, had now reached $2.34 at the cheap station near me.

Because I take the train into New York, I pay indirectly for gasoline, as a percentage of my fare. My car's tank takes a while to hit zero. But this doesn't mean I like filling it when gas prices edge up for no good reason, as I believe they have done in recent weeks. This put a rebellious hair up my ass, which led to my walk. When I hit my apartment, after threading through the maze of traffic along the two streets I need to cross between this building and the depot, I decided not to screw around with the car or to waste gas, and, after changing shirts, headed right back out again.

I have taken sinfully few walks around my town. The most frequent reason I do so is when I need something from the main commercial strip, which is only a block away. But I have miles of peaceful streets I could navigate as an alternative to sharing the wee morning hours with other folks torturing themselves on the elliptical trainers. I have two nice hills I could use to get the same effect, without the distraction of ditzes on cellphones (who the fuck are they talking to at 6:00 in the a.m.?!) or some of the crappier music choices the club has (Jennifer Lopez makes the baby Jesus cry).

So in the interest of conserving gas, staving off eco-doom via megastorms and 120º summers, and not threading the needle with my car amid 5,000 weekend-starved commuters, I hit the bricks. By coincidence, the train barriers came down just as I approached that intersection, granting me a leisurely stroll across an otherwise hectic crossing, and I was off.

By car, the trip to the bank takes maybe 3 minutes, minus any wait for the two intervening lights. At a walking pace, many details emerged that I would otherwise miss.

New office/residential space — Previously the site of an Irish bar, this now has two renovated apartments upstairs and two businesses, a real estate office and a bank, on the street level. I was not particularly sad to see the bar go, as I could hear their crappy music from my apartment (which faces the street I was walking along) with the windows open.

New Hertz rental office — After a long-term tenant left in 2005, the Schroeder for Governor campaign moved in. Patriotic bunting and signage covered the windows. In passing via car, I could see a conference table, probably also rented, in the center of the office. Part of me wanted to walk in, ask them who played poker in the office, and get a game going on the table. Rooking starry-eyed political volunteers out of their cash has appeal to me, especially when the beer can be charged to a deep-pocketed Republican campaign. Alas, New Jersey voters were no more enthusiastic about this Schroeder than German ones were about theirs, and the space went on the market after the primaries. A lone plant, abandoned and yellowing, sat near the entrance for a while, as though waiting to welcome its master back and receive a long-overdue watering. Soon it disappeared, and Hertz began to stamp their brand all over the space.

My barber — Actually a hair salon, but I can't really associate the ABC-simple buzz and cut I always get with the styling and coloring and other follicular architecture I place under the label of salon. When the Supercuts I patronized on Route 17 became overrun with operators barely skilled either in hair care or English, I decamped for this 'round-the-corner option. Also, the staff is female and hot. Yes, I do have my shallow spots. Masticate me.

Cinematic floral design business — Next is a pair of buildings that house an operation that supplies floral and arboreal designs for events and film shoots. One of the two buildings, a massive garage, is filled with backlot-type items used on sets. I have only had a couple of peeks into this outfit, but sometimes it seems like the entire staff is filling one of their trucks with flowered archways or faux dead trees destined for a wedding or one of the 9,283 Law and Order shoots transpiring at any given moment in the city.

Fritz Dietl ice rink — I can't skate for shit. Ice, roller, or blade, it's all a fast track between a hard surface and my ass. This denied my parents one option for dropping me off somewhere during the summer to get me out of their hair for an hour or two. The rink has been a Bergen County staple since 1958, when Austrian skating legend Fritz Dietl opened the rink. He either ran it or was an instructor there until shortly before his death in 2003 at 91. If you want to live long, it helps to be passionate about what you do. In passing the rink at a walking pace, I noticed for the first time that they had one of those combo Galaga/Ms. Pac-Man game consoles. I was tempted to stop in and play, but I considered how many quarters I had sacrificed at an establishment just up the street (see below), so I kept going.

Old arcade building — After passing an appliance store and a less-picturesque stretch of plumbing supply and carpeting stores, you hit a free-standing building with no current tenant but with an unmistakable link to its past. In the very early 80s, an ex-cop and entrepreneur decided to get into the business of operating a video game arcade. Dubbing the operation the Game Center, he painted bright yellow Pac-Men on the awnings outside, installed bike racks, and filled the joint with all the hottest games. For someone who usually had to rely on his parents' annual trips to the Jersey Shore to find large arcades, this was the equivalent of Marion Barry having a crack dealer rent his spare room. The owner had the good sense to retain older classics like Donkey Kong, Berzerk, and Venture (a primitive D&D-type adventure game) even as he debuted recent hits like Dragon's Lair and more trendy items like the Journey video game (it sucked). Eventually, increased homework and the purchase of a Commodore 64 reduced my visits, and the increase in consumer-affordable processing power that shifted the game-design talent and money to home gaming dried up the coin-op market. The business folded in the late 80s, replaced by a lawncare shop and a kitchen-design studio, both of which also failed. A new tenant seems to be coming in, and the latest sign is half off, revealing the original GAME CENTER sign. No subsequent tenant has removed the Pac-Men, however, and I hope they never do.

Last gas before bridge — Normally, you'd expect to see a sign like this in Englewood Cliffs, on the last few hundred yards of Route 4 as you approach the George Washington Bridge. Proving that even gas-station managers can have a sense of humor, this banner appears at the bottom of the main sign for the indie-cheapo Petro Two station at the border of my town. The bridge in question starts immediately after the gas station, spans a small stream, and ends after about two car lengths. Buy now while you have the chance!

Kentucky Fried Chicken — If you make a fast, hard right after the bridge — you did buy gas, didn't you? — you will enter the lot of the most recent contender in the Pascack Valley fast food market, KFC. This site was previously the site of a house and a small business, both of which sustained massive flood damage in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd turned the stream into a destructive torrent. The structures were condemned, the lot razed, and the plot inert until a few months ago, when activity surged. In record speed, a brand-new KFC had arisen, presumably on a reinforced foundation with floodguards along the stream bank. This is a direct thumb in the eye of chicken competitors Wendy's and Chicken Delight, both just up the road a couple of blocks. I haven't seen the KFC that crowded, and it's not the biggest fast-food place I've ever seen (there is a Wendy's beneath the streets of Rockefeller Center near my Midtown office that is, by comparison, a busy mess hall at Parris Island). It also lacks a drive-thru, due to the constricted plot of land and the nature of the next property up. But I'm sure it gets its fair share of daytime visitors. I believe this includes my mother. (Ma, the idea is to reduce arterial plaque. Oy.)

The bank — Because my bank has a drive-thru, it would have been impossible for the KFC also to have built one. You think my street gets accidents? Imagine the inadvertent interaction of a stream of distracted bank customers already jabbering over cellphones about their next destination and a river of starved KFC patrons making the jump to hyperspace with a couple of buckets of breading and grease in the back of the land boat. (This might have proved lucrative for the gas station's garage!) In this case, however, all I needed was the ATM, which dutifully belched forth some cash. I found the walk to the bank quite refreshing, and I thanked myself for dispensing with the iPod and letting my thoughts and eyes travel along the landscape and its usually blurred details.

For the trip back, I actually crossed to the other side of the street, which is occupied largely by a shopping plaza anchored by a Kmart. Here, I bought much-needed garbage bags, and was thanked by the worn-out cashier for having just one item. I had watched the previous customer pile a massive heap of many small items, divided into two separate orders, so I guess I was something of a relief.

There is a secret way back to my apartment building from the Kmart plaza. The other anchor store here used to be a Grand Union, which served the residents of my own complex and also those of the retirement home directly behind my house. Because a lot of these folks don't drive, they provided a path and a gate between their property and the Kmart plaza, which is how I sneaked back to my humble abode. As I passed behind the retirement home, which also happens to be where I vote (so I've got no excuse to miss it!), I spied the rec room, which featured rows of residents riveted on Kevin Spacey vamping as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea.

All told, I believe the round trip to the bank was a span of about 20 minutes. Barring beastly weather or harsh allergens in the air, I could see this becoming a habit. I spent some vital time outside, away from recycled air. By contrast, this air was cool, wet, slightly tinged with ozone from the light rain that preceded my return from the city. No insects yet — too close to the killing cold of winter — and few birds. And of course, it provided some exercise while sparing me some gas cash. Not that bad a way to begin a weekend.

Monday, March 20, 2006

So Much for That Theory (Sopranos Spoilers)

I TRIED. I STILL claim a partial victory, though, in that the writers and producers of The Sopranos are banking on the audience following the plot through an unconvential detour. Some folks have expressed anything from mild discontent to outright loathing for the dream sequences in the show, but these donks also tend to whine when any show has a body count of less than three, so fuck 'em.

I noticed that in the dream, Gandolfini used his "real" voice. If you have access to the Season 1 episodes, play the pilot, then any of the later ones. His accent is distinctly different. He doesn't do a lot of interviews and almost no talk shows, so you don't hear Gandolfini speaking as himself as often as you hear the gruffer, filthier, Jersey-ized Tony Soprano voice.

The reference to selling patio furniture was interesting. He made some sort of dig at himself in the first or second season, how he might've turned out differently if he hadn't been born to a Mafioso and perhaps would have had a job selling patio furniture. It also resembled the life-not-taken glimpse we had in the second season when Livia Soprano browbeats Johnny Boy into not moving the family to Reno to start a business with his friend, who — as Tony observes to Livia in the retirement home — has become a huge and legit success.

For the Babylon 5 veterans out there: Anyone else reminded of the episode "The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari?"

Dramas set in hospitals bug me, as I've mentioned in the past. I really am never up for extended visits, even televisually, to the ICU. To change the subject on this point, it seems as though I will visit a hospital soon. The vascular surgeon has convinced my mother to go ahead with the carotid artery surgery we thought was deferred or unnecessary. He said he had consulted with department heads at his hospital, and implored her to reconsider, because he feels that blockage or not, the tortuous structure of the vessel is more of a hazard than we thought and might contribute to another plaque. More than anything, this indecision gave her a major anxiety attack, and I could hear her discord when she called me about this late last week.

This means more tests, more doctor visits, and more mornings where my mother is feeling too afraid to go to either and has to cancel and double up on the Xanax. Here I was, relaxing in the thought that we might have dodged a bullet on this one and posting about it here, and now she has resigned herself to going in for the work some time in April. In an ideal world, the doctor is only calling her back because he is interested in saving a life. I would hope he isn't putting her through this sort of back-and-forth turmoil for a fast buck.

So hopefully, we will see fewer and fewer scenes in The Sopranos featuring family members standing at Tony's bedside while devices carry on their grim work of breathing and filtering and draining for the dreaming patriarch. Otherwise they can stay on my parents' TiVo until late summer.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

David Chase Channeling Quentin Tarantino (Sopranos Spoilers)

I AM POSTING THE above warning for those folks who have the season opener of The Sopranos taped, reserved for future HBO grazing, or the like. Granted it's been a week, and most of the folks who read this blog live in and around the environs where the film (the mighty Felix and I lived within a long walk's distance to the real Bada Bing, in fact). I ruined a plot point when, after sliding through last Monday free and clear of spoilers in anticipation of yoinking the ep off of my parents' TiVo, I opened the New York Daily News to have it staring up at me from page 3. So consider yourself warned.

It has been observed on the newsgroup, and possibly elsewhere, that the debut episode of Season 6 might not be the first chronological chapter. This may in fact have been an ep from the middle or near the end of the season, and the remainder of 6, and the stunted mini-season now planned as the end of the series, might see the resolution of the shooting. What we see from now until the "catch-up" episode may be retrospective fill-in.

Evidence to support this:
  • Characters mention it having been at least a year since the events of last season
  • Janice's baby is said to be more than a year old
  • Considering the use of The Godfather as an ongoing master text, Tony's being shot mid-plot reminds me of Vito Corleone's bullet-induced incapacitation, and the use of an extended flashback (or even an interlaced past–present scene technique) calls to mind the way the second film was arranged.
  • Although other characters have gotten less screen time due to shootings (Christopher) or real-life needs of the actor (when Tony Sirico had minor surgery, his scenes as Paulie were quickies shot from simple sets — this was the stretch when he was in jail), they know Tony Soprano is too much of a draw to keep him off camera or in a coma. He is, to echo the words of a newsgroup denizen, "too good an earner."
Above and beyond this speculation, I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to hear the words of my favorite Beat, William S. Burroughs, used as a voiceover in the ep. I owe that beautiful junky a full post on his own, but to hear his familiar croak over the opening montage gave me hope that David Chase and Co. won't dumb the series down to the lowest common denominator. This series has seen Tony gain wisdom from dreams and fever-hallucinations . . . not something I'd expect from the shit they shovel over the traditional networks. Maybe the brains behind The Sopranos will be bold enough to try something like a chronological cut-up in the Tarantino mode, and remind me why this is one of the very few TV series I bother to follow anymore.

We shall be smarter tonight, I suppose.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

My Father, the Arsonist

THE SCENE: LAST THURSDAY, at my parents' house, for Taco Night. The conversation turned, as if urged on by the hot 'n' spicy meat and salsa, to the recent series of wildfires on Staten Island. My mother observed that the authorities believe them to be of mischievous origin.

My father then offered, "Me and my friends used to set fire to the dry grass in [insert wetland section of 1940s Bronx whose name I forget]."

My mother looked stunned. "You never told me this!"

"Sure I did. We called it, 'Burn the Swamp.'"

I began laughing. My father is such a straight arrow, it is difficult to imagine his taking part in even the most innocent youthful mayhem . . . to say nothing of torching a couple of acres of dead reeds.

"You're an arsonist!" hollered my mother.

"There was nothing there," said my dad.

"No, not after you got done with it!" I said.

"I can't believe I'm married to an arsonist," sighed my mom.

"This coming from a tax cheat," I reminder her. (Decades ago — well outside the statute of limitations, IRS — my mother claimed on her taxes that she "lost" her "fishing equipment" on a "fishing trip," and also deducted some "dental work" done by one "Dr. Goldcapp.")

All I can say is, I am well behind schedule on my youthful felonies. Even if I started now, I'd hardly call them "youthful." My dad probably would have caught worse from his parents than the cops of the day. If I even looked funny at a pile of leaves while carrying a Zippo, I'd have ATF officers dropping onto my lawn from black helicopters, get knocked on my ass with the microwave weapons they're using on riots now, and wake up 5 weeks later in a dungeon that makes Abu Ghraib look like the Wonka works. Complete with menacing midgets.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Gale-Force Sigh of Relief

I RECEIVED A WELCOME and surprising phone call at work today from my mother. "Good news," she said. "No. Surgery. Needed."

As I described in a couple of previous posts, my mother was heading toward surgery for a diagnosed partial blockage and congenital contortion of her right carotid artery. This was to come at the end of the month. She had already endured a couple of panicked moments before going for preparatory appointments with specialists, including one with a retinologist this week. Although she knew she had to have it done if it was this badly blocked and throwing clots, she was none too eager about it.

And neither was I. I was reading up on the subject, and although I have little to no background to understand the problem and its remedy, what I could comprehend scared me. This was, incidentally, psychic revenge in my mom's favor. I have given her grief over her habit of watching medical dramas and surgery shows on cable. To my thinking, I am eventually going to go to a hospital for something — why get a preview and endure all manner of stress? Aside from volunteering or for a flu shot, I'd just as soon steer way clear of all major medical institutions. However, I quickly became a hypocrite, because I looked through Gray's Anatomy for information on the carotid artery, and tormented myself by wondering if she had to have work on the seemingly more accessible external carotid or the seemingly buried internal one. And asking my mother which one the doctor might have mentioned only had to potential to alarm her further. But at least she would have had the satisfaction of seeing me confess to what I used to accuse.

Then she visited a neurologist yesterday for a scan of the vessel, which — as the provider of half the brain's blood — fell into his purview. At least she felt better about going to this appointment than the one she rescheduled at the retinologist, because much to everyone's surprise, the scan revealed no blockage at all. The artery is still showing up as being unusually curvy, but there is no reduction in blood flow whatsoever to indicate an occlusion.

Upon being told this, my mother began crying. All the tension and fear she was bottling up flooded out in tears of relief. The doctor tried to comfort her, saying she didn't need to cry due to good news. But she did, really. And better this anxiety should flow away this way, neutralized in salty water, than in the form of a panic attack or worse.

The neurologist's opinion is that the clot in her eye — whatever its source — could have been prevented by a regimen of aspirin. Mom was put on a daily aspirin recently, so it is our hope that this, along with a statin, will reduce the odds of any further plaque dislodging. She has gotten a couple of nosebleeds recently, to which she was subject to begin with and which now seem to be more frequent. Frankly, I think I can speak for her in saying that even a weekly nosebleed is preferable to the prospect of general anesthesia and having a carotid filleted. So she is going to contact the cardiologist and regretfully inform him that, despite his wonderful staff and his excellent bedside manner, she will opt out of surgery.

Naturally, I expressed my extreme relief and congratulated her for this wonderful turn of fortune. I did silently wonder just what in fact was going on in that sneaky little artery, but I was too relieved to have her back out from under the knife to venture any of these misgivings. It would have been one thing for me, a 36-year-old, to say "fuck it" and have them dig in. I am younger and more resilient than my mother, and if I had sufficient evidence to support a 70% blockage at my age, then hell yes I'm having the damn think opened, reamed, sewn up, and sealed with a kiss. My mother cannot afford to be so cavalier.

While I had her on the phone, I finally told her about Nick's passing. I said I was still going to my scheduled checkup in May, not only because of her experience, but because . . . and I told her the whole story. I said I didn't tell her at the time, even while I was upset and could have used another ear to bend with this, because the last thing she needed was to hear about a 43-year-old stricken down so suddenly. Indeed, she was deeply appreciative that I held back, and duly stunned at the details.

So that's how things stand. A cardiac scan a week ago showed normal flow through her coronary arteries, so who the hell knows where the fucking plaque came from in the first place. Maybe there is something somewhere. Maybe drugs and aspirin will control or even safely reduce it, and she will live until 90 and go down swinging against the Grim Reaper with a More Menthol in one hand and an upraised middle finger on the other. All I know at this point is that she will spend a very relaxed weekend for the first time since February, one that she, as a retiree from both the workforce and the role of active kid-wrangler, has most certainly earned.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Phone Slave for a Day, WFMU-Style

MY IMMUNE SYSTEM HAS granted me some writing time. Whether due to changing up my gym routine, not getting enough sleep, or being cheek by jowl with pathogen-bearing volunteers in the phone room at the 2006 WFMU Marathon, I picked up some sort of low-grade cold. I woke up feeling battered — not feverish, but run down. Going to work, what with the trains and the idiots at the job who never take a sick day, would only expose me to something worse. So I bailed. I will reassess tomorrow, but I suspect one day at home might be just the tonic.

A cold is a small price to pay for assisting the greatest radio station on the air. Though the annual Record Fair draws in some operating capital, it is through the two-week Marathon that WFMU earns the bulk of the money it uses to stay on the air and pay its skeleton staff. WFMU accepts no governmental or corporate grant money, airs no commercials, and runs no ads on its website or its fantastic blog. WFMU is one of the few remaining independent, listener-supported stations on the American radio dial. In this age of acquisition and consolidation, when scores of frequencies have been sold to Clear Channel, Christian broadcasters, and right-wing hate factories, WFMU is a wan, glimmering reminder of the potential radio had way back in the Twenties and Thirties to be an enriching and educating force even as it entertained.

What other radio station is going to allow its listeners to come down, get on the phone bank, and take calls from fellow fanatics pledging money to keep such a wonderful institution on the air? How many stations can boast that most of their on-air talent got their start as listeners to the station, then as volunteers, and finally as fill-in, late-night DJs, sending their music collections and personalities emanating across the slumbering expanses of New Jersey and New York City? These, dear readers, are the DJs you hear on the station today. Passionate, maybe even obsessive, but always well informed about their music and the people who made it. When you listen, you hear actual people, not soulless playlists and the cheap stink of payola.

Yesterday, I was privileged to work the phones for a full day. WFMU's building is in the suddenly fashionable Paulus Hook district of Jersey City, hard by Exchange Place and the looming, Isengard-like bulk of the Goldman Sachs tower. This used to be the backyard of the old Colgate factory, with its distinctive giant clock facing lower Manhattan, and backed by old shipping and industry buildings. Most of these are now either gone or resurgent as condo complexes. WFMU, originally based in East Orange near the now-dead Upsala College, moved down to Jersey City in August 1998, in the midst of a great wave of residential and commercial construction. It was a time of revolution for WFMU as well, for this was when it was taking its first baby steps into Internet broadcasting, a prescient move that would expand the reach of this humble 1400-watt station across the globe. (I remember the first time I wrote a pledge card for someone in Sacramento, and then for a Scandinavian listener, and feeling amazed and awed.)

The move my company made to Chelsea has vastly simplified my weekday access to the WFMU building. Previously, I would have to drive down, or buy a round-trip train ticket and then a light-rail pass to navigate from the Hoboken terminal to Montgomery Street. Now, armed with a monthly train ticket, I can just hop on the train and use the pass for free light-rail travel. (Of course, the light rail has to cooperate; for the morning trip, we were delayed while they cleared out a broken-down train. Still works better than the Springfield monorail. Or the Vegas one.) It felt nice to get into Hoboken, and then make a right toward the light-rail station instead of the left down to the PATH tubes leading to work. (Ironically, at the time I thought it felt like a sick day, seeing the outside world during daytime on a weekday while watching folks go to work or school. Funny, so does today!)

Being at WFMU during Marathon time, or in the weeks just before or after, is like arriving at headquarters for a third-party political group or an underground newspaper. Volunteers stuffing envelopes, packing prizes, cooking food for the troops, or answering phones. In the broadcast room, a DJ and his co-host keep the money flowing by playing favorites from the DJ's show, offering giveaways for pledges, spinning tracks from the DJ premium (most DJs offer a mix CD of the sort of music he or she plays, or even the live acts that have performed on his or her show, for a certain pledge level), and thanking those folks who have called or emailed with their financial support. And through it all, you will see a station staff member checking in, bringing in new volunteers at the end of a shift, monitoring the ever-growing pledge total, or putting out some fire. (Again, in what capacity can you ever imagine meeting the manager of your big-city Top 40 station, to say nothing of getting him or her to reply to your email?) Everyone's in it together, pulling this wonderful radio station over a mountain of financial need, like the steamship in Fitzcarraldo.

At this point, there are only a few days left before the end of the Marathon, at which point individual DJ solicitation gives way to the Hoof & Mouth Sinphonia. In an orgiastic and booze-soaked release of two weeks' worth of financial stress, musically capable and vocally incapable DJs serenade the final hours of the Marathon on Sunday night by taking turns in front of the mike and singing a favorite or ironic song. If all goes well, the fundraising goal will be met sometime in its midst, and it will become a real celebration. Past Hoof & Mouth hits are being posted on the aforementioned WFMU blog. Not unlike the Oscars or the Super Bowl, it makes for a long Sunday night of entertainment, though unlike the Super Bowl, every bet you put down on this one is a winner, and unlike the Oscars, the room doesn't have to be specially reinforced to hold 2,000 raging egos.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Regular Poker Game: Genesis

I PLAY IN A weekly no-limit hold'em game. We play a cash version of the tournament games you've no doubt seen or read about on TV or the Internet. We have a pool of about 20 players, some more regular than others, some considerably better than the rest. This is the game for which I often manage the chips and cash box, as described in this post. Although the game is currently held most often at a house in Maywood, last week it was run at the place of its birth, my apartment.

In February 2004, I posted an ad on to solicit players for a dealer's choice poker game. This is the same site where I had found that no-limit hold'em game in Manhattan. It was difficult to attend that game, because I would have to run back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to grab the last bus to my part of Bergen County. Plus the stakes were higher than my comfort level, to say nothing of my skill level. In the ad, I asked for folks who were interested in games in addition to hold'em — basically, the sorts of games we played at Rick's — and at the 5¢ to 10¢ initial betting level. This would leave me with some money for such trifles as food and rent. This initially limited my results, because the vast majority of existing games looking for players, and players in turn seeking games, either had higher betting limits or were strictly casino hold'em or seven-card stud.

I also posted the information on the Northern New Jersey poker group on, and this is how I got my first player, who happened to be the group's founder. Pete was a mid-40s guy in the computer-security business, divorced, living on the other side of Bergen County. He had started the group to get back into poker, and he preferred the sort of dealer's choice games I had inquired about to casino poker, which he found intimidating. For a month, however, we got very few replies to our ads.

This was the first time I had done any "selling" since my Boy Scout days, when I sold fundraising chocolate to my classmates and friends. Whenever I got a reply to the ad, I would send info on the game, and I asked the respondent to solicit his friends for interest. I assured folks that they could indeed deal hold'em in addition to the crazy wildcard games, but often they tell me to contact them when we switched to hold'em only, or they simply broke off contact. I urged Pete to inquire of his coworkers and former poker contacts to see if they wanted to join a new game, but that proved fruitless, because none of them ever called him back. I also cold-emailed a bunch of people on the games-wanted section of

Think about what I was doing for a moment. As with the New York games, I was looking on the Internet for folks with whom I could wager money. But this time, I was potentially going to invite them into my house, or at least tell them where I live. Four to six total strangers, plus Pete — about whom I knew very little, even after meeting him on neutral ground and corresponding via phone and email. This combined the perils of online dating with the emotions of gambling, coupled with possible drinking. I recall being aware of this, but I wasn't restrained by it, which by nature of its being shockingly out of character still amazes me today. I really wanted this game to get going.

Eventually, it did — on March 30, 2004 — barely. Pete made it over. One guy committed to coming the first night but never showed. Another guy came up from North Bergen, and fortunately brought a friend, who replaced the bailout. Another guy, Harry, lived in Dumont, but got completely lost on his way here, and I had to guide him in via cellphone. So for my auspicious debut as poker-night host, I had a total of five players, at a table that could hold seven. Fortunately everyone was up for poker and ready to play, so we enjoyed a few hours of odd combinations of poker, guts, and a few of the games I played with Rick's crew (e.g., Chase the Ace and Black Mariah). I could tell that Harry, a college student and a good player, was really more interested in playing hold'em, which he called whenever the deal went to him. It set me thinking whether I would have to suck it up and learn this game as well.

Because our pool of players was small, we didn't have another game until late April, and then only at two-week intervals. Spring was flowing like a healing balm over the land, and in its wake came softball season and Major League Baseball. I was still urging the few guys we had to bring their friends into the game, and sending notes to new folks on It had the feel of sending mash notes to girls I had a crush on, just folding them up and jamming them through the air vents of their lockers. (Not that I ever did this in real life. I was a lonely lad. But enough about my schooltime traumas.) Pete was not having any success getting his old poker pals back into the game, so we frequently had to move the game one week because we only had four players, which outside the final table of a no-limit hold'em tournament is borderline unplayable. Even when we did meet, we had a couple of single-appearance players who either got cleaned out or just didn't find the game to our liking.

Worse, now Pete, my co-host, began to get flaky about the game. He declined the requests of some guys to attend because he felt suspicious about them. This was based on the fact that they seemed to know each other, which he observed when he sat in on one of their games. I found this ridiculous — they were obviously just friends, not colluding cheaters — but I didn't raise a stink. Then aspects of Pete's work and personal life cost us a couple of games. He had to work late one time, and then, on the very evening we had a game set, he called last minute and with a sheepish tone to report that his car window had gotten stuck down, and as a result, he couldn't park it anywhere except his garage or his mechanic's shop. Our game seemed cursed.

I took a break from the game in July for the eminently practical reason of spending a week in Las Vegas, where finding a poker game required one merely to throw a dollar chip more than four feet. I did think about my game and how to build it up. I enjoyed the small-stakes games we were playing, but I had also been reading about hold'em and stud, so I might be able to host nights devoted entirely to one or both of them. Pete was suspicious of hold'em, however, not being able to get his mind around the concept — which was odd, considering some of the exotic dealer's choice games he called. Harry and a couple of the other players had asked specifically if we might ever do a hold'em night, but I had had to cite Pete as the reason we still left it up to dealer's choice, and encouraged those who asked to call hold'em whenever the deal got around to them. I couldn't tell them flat-out no, because I had so few regular players to begin with, but I could see how Pete's insistence was an obstruction to growing the game and its pool of players. I was still getting polite rejections from folks I emailed from the list for dealer's choice.

Fortunately, I was about to get a new surge of players, including two who would figure in the next phase of my game's evolution — some might say its destiny — as a hold'em night. More to come in the next few days. . . .