Friday, July 30, 2010

Pass the Pepper, Please

From Vining, IA, USA
Here's a piece I wrote up in my diary this past Tuesday after hanging out with my wife's granddad who's 83. He's not been in the best of health for a while and I wanted to have some quality time with him before we head back to Virginia (we've been in Iowa the past week). We went to his favorite hangout, played cards and drank coffee for a few hours. It was amazing. Read on after the break for my impressions...

On Tuesday I woke up at 6:30am, slowly gathered things into my bag and dressed myself, and made the short drive over to Grandpa Bud’s & Grandma Marlene’s. Bud and I got in the car shortly after 7 and drove a bit further east on Hwy 30, took a county highway north a few miles to the town of Vining, Iowa (census data unavailable, may this suffice: it’s a really small town...a village, really). At the end of Main St. stands the Vining Grocery & Tavern. Climbing the steps up to the sidewalk, then another step up to the old wood and glass door with a rickety knob and a sticky jamb, Grandpa and I stepped inside.

This place is - as my father-in-law succinctly put it - a “hole in the wall.” I say that lovingly, as I love places like this in small towns. The walls are painted a baby blue, with the ceiling a dark stained wood, tongue-in-groove. The one set of shelves on the left wall stand empty of any grocery-like items, but do house stacked decks of playing cards. A sign marking sardines at $1 a can hangs on the shelf. No sardines in sight. The stuffed head of a buck deer is mounted on the shelves, watching the proceedings. Hanging beneath his glassy gaze is a carved wooden sign that reads: “Focus.” Next to both hangs a simple wooden crucifix. A plain, smooth concrete floor holds a few folding tables with surrounding chairs. This is where we’ll be playing cards soon.

One man sits at the end of the one rectangular table, reading the daily paper which talks about a dam breaking in Delhi in eastern Iowa. He barely looks up as we enter. Very brief introductions are made and the man shows no interest in the newcomer accompanying Grandpa Bud. This disinterest in the newcomer is near universal to the next 10 men who come through the door to play cards. Grandpa’s voice is pretty faint and forced so he offers little detail, which is totally fine with me, really. I keep quiet and observe, sitting next to Grandpa, sipping coffee, flipping restlessly through the paper. Bo Pelini is reportedly excited about being in the Big 12 this year, despite his team’s upcoming transition to the competing Big 10 (16? 14?).

Each man that enters, myself included, gets a little styrofoam cup full of coffee. Most of them appear to be farmers. Dark denim (a mix of jeans and overalls) and plaid. Seed caps on many, including Grandpa Bud, himself a retired farmer. Many of the men who walk in this morning report that the power is out at their farms. I assume they all live fairly close to Vining and close to each other. The power outage comes up in conversation throughout the rest of the morning, mostly as toss-off statements (“Oh, I suppose I’ll have to fire up the generator today...”) related to their inevitable transition from card-playing (a daily activity, by the way) to their day’s work...again, mostly farming.

As we wait I look around the back and right wall of the grocery/tavern. A 25 year-old Bud Light sign lists the beer selection with respective prices. The low bar that extends down the right wall of the building holds a decent candy selection, apparently the only “groceries” available here. We brought doughnuts to share, and when one person asks what happens when they run out, the answer offered is: “Go into town and get some more.” I hear: “We’re not ‘in town’ and this isn’t a ‘grocery store.’”

With a critical mass of men present, the games begin. I’m at the long rectangular table with Grandpa Bud and two other men. The man across from me, Gene, is related to Grandpa’s wife. He’s a cousin to her. Gene looks like almost every other Iowa farmer in his 60’s I’ve ever seen in my life (as do the rest of these guys), but he has a smile on his face almost the entire time. I like Gene almost immediately. The table we’re at is for the poker players.

Let me back up a bit. The night before, Grandma Marlene explained the ritual practices of this small group of daily card players, down to finite details such as when treats such as doughnuts are to be distributed (after the poker game is over, before poker players then join the pepper players (see sub.)). What she described was played out before my eyes almost like clockwork. One table for poker players (where Grandpa and I sat) and one table for players of a game I’d never heard of (not unusual, I’m not a card player) called “Pepper.” I started with the poker players and knew enough to get through the game. Two wins and you’re out, and the last player to go out “wins” by paying for the coffee (today: $2.75). This doesn’t seem quite resolved in my mind, so there may be details I missed.

This feeling of strong disorientation I liken to the first few times I attended a Catholic Mass, me a simple little Dunker boy. Here in the Vining Grocery & Tavern, I was witnessing a well-worn and time-tested pattern of language and practice. Part of the experience of the language was not only its technical nature, but also its dialect. Most of these men are of Czechoslovakian descent and their families have stayed geographically close-by (to Vining). Grandpa Bud’s wife, for instance, spoke Czech at home until she had to learn English in public school. This was still in the 20th century, mind you! The insider term for this group of people is “Bohemie,” apparently a derivative of “Bohemian,” which I’m assuming is descriptive of the particular area of Europe these guys’ ancestors came from. The hills near Vining, bordering the Iowa River valley, are affectionately referred to as the “Bohemie Alps.” Anyway, there’s a distinct drawl in the voices of these men that I never heard growing up just an hour away, closer to Des Moines and much more ethnically mixed (in the European sense, anyway).

(Grandpa Bud is German. His family - parents and grandparents - spoke German around him a lot, though he grew up learning English. He grins when we talk about the Bohemies he hangs out with. Whether or not the term “Bohemie” is offensive to anyone is totally beyond me. It’s been used exclusively around me by my wife’s family (Grandpa Bud is actually my wife’s grandfather), and this is really the first time I’ve ever floated the term to another discourse community. You can tell me if I’m a racist jerk if you want.)

I was bewildered through all of it, the language and the practice. The ritual.  I only barely picked up the game of pepper once we started playing. I won’t even begin to try and describe the particulars of the game of pepper because even after two games of it I’m still lost. My first game, I was assisted by “Shovel,” a man in dark blue denim overalls and a green farmer’s hat (probably John Deere). Shovel has arctic blue eyes set off all the more by his dark red face and snow-white beard. He looked like Santa Claus, really, except thinner (but not skinny; a good well-rounded stalkiness common to farmers I’ve known). I can’t remember Shovel’s real name and I’m assuming his nickname has something to do with playing pepper.

Shovel was a decent teacher of pepper, although I have to say here that I’ve never been under the tutelage of a truly great teacher of card games. In fact, if I ever do come across a good card teacher, I’ll probably keel over and die because I don’t think they exist. I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’m just horrible at cards in general and probably unteachable, but Shovel did a good enough job to guide me along and make me dangerous for the second game, before which he left to start his day’s work. In that game, my partner, Richard, seemed to use the fact of the newcomer to great advantage. He essentially cheated by using my inability to confidently make a bid (don’t ask) by asking me to feed him particular cards to play in his hand. So I would consistently pass and he would consistently be fed one of my cards. We won the second game in what had to be record time. The other two guys at the table, including Grandpa Bud, played along and didn’t seem too annoyed by the fact that I had no clue what I was doing and Richard was milking it for all it was worth ($2.75...for the coffee).

After our second game concluded, Richard and Gary left, leaving Grandpa and I to watch the second table of pepper, still underway. It was only then that I began to see how the game of pepper is supposed to be played, although I’m still mostly clueless. It was by watching these guys play with speed and confidence, subtlety and shrewdness (they’re cutthroat players, obviously not wanting to let go of their $2.75), that I began to understand how I’d just been used by Richard to his great advantage (it was actually to my advantage, too, since we were partners). Later, at lunch in town, Grandpa made sure I knew I had been played. I shrugged helplessly and he grinned.

Just before 10am, Grandpa and I rolled out of Vining and took the gravel roads home, following a field sprayer on his way to a job, eating the substantial dust the vehicle kicked up. I thanked Grandpa numerous times for letting me tag along. His health has been deteriorating for years. Now in his early 80’s I figured there aren’t too many more opportunities like this. One of my grandpas died when I was 13, before I could really get to know him very well. My other grandpa wasn’t around much for most of my life, then developed alzheimer’s and will never be able to relate with me until he passes away. So I really like Grandpa Bud and love experiences like our little trip to Vining to drink coffee, eat doughnuts, and play cards. It was also a good practical expression of all sorts of social and philosophical things that are fun for me to think about...but hopefully not too much.

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