It’s 7 pm or so after I check into the Hampton Inn in Battle Creek, Michigan. When I drove in earlier, I was knocked out to see about 30 vintage cars in the parking lot, Fords, Chryslers, all primo condition, detailed, etc. A big sign in the lobby advertises this weekend as the National Street Rod convention.
After getting settled, I decide to run out and make some very bad food choices at the closest place with a drive-thru. As I emerge from the front door, a 50ish guy with a baseball cap comes right over at me. “Hey, are you the guy who bought the Packard?” He’s closing in, got his hand stretched out, so I have to shake it before I say, “Uh, no.”
He hooks one arm around my back and keeps shaking as he says: “Oh, shit, sorry. But you gotta see this, my pal just sold his ’44 Packard for 18 grand…I thought you were the guy…you look just like him.”
Now, this is all happening at light speed, so he’s got me away from my car and headed toward the back corner of the hotel parking lot. It’s daylight, he’s not especially threatening, and I am street tough like Allen Iverson, so after I unloose myself from his grip I keep walking along with him.
Two guys are waiting by a purple roadster of some kind. My baseball cap friend points at a fat guy with a beard and says, “My buddy here sold his ’44 Packard to some guy for 18 grand…show him the money.”
The beard pulls out a wad of cash about the size of a box of Pop-Tarts and shows me enough hundreds to make me think it might be true.
Then the third guy, a young guy pulls out a stack of 20s. “Hey,” he says to me, “This guy was going to show me a game. Watch if you want.”
So, the four of us are all there in a sort of tableau, alongside I-94, half behind the Hampton Inn. Beard, young guy, baseball cap, and me.
Beard suddenly reaches behind a bush and pulls out the top of a cardboard box. He lays it on the hood of the roadster and pulls out three playing cards, all bent in half, lengthwise.
This is three card monte, obviously. If you live in any decent sized city, you can find these guys on the occasional street corner. Three card monte isn’t really a card game at all, but a sort of scam. The American version is based on a similar game called Bonneteau. The dealer shows you three cards, two of one color, one of the other. Usually it’s a couple of matching face cards, say the queens of clubs and spades, and an opposite ace, like the ace of hearts or diamonds. The trick is, the dealer shows you the object card, the one that’s different, then shuffles or tosses them around on a flat surface, face down. When he stops, you pick out the ace and if you’re right you get $20. If not, you pay him.
So this all dawns on me suddenly. I’ve been roped in and the real show is about to start. The young guy has a $20 out. He’s waving it. He’s excited. He’s ready to win. He’s not afraid. The beard shows us all a red ace and two black queens. He starts moving the cards around slowly. It’s easy to keep up. He throws the card that we all know is the red ace to the far right, comically away from the others.
“THAT ONE,” the young guy says, and wouldn’t you know it, the beard turns over the red ace.
“See that,” baseball cap says, slapping me on the back, leaning against me hard enough to make me think he’s feeling for my wallet, or he’s just looking for some companionship on this nice September night.
The beard pays the kid $20 with a reluctant, aw shit kinda look that is admirable.
“Let’s go again,” beard says. “I’m going to get you.”
Then, the kid turns to me. “Hey, you wanna get it on this? You got $20?”
And we all wait. It’s one of those great slow-mo moments when you achieve a rare kind of clarity.
The three of them all look at me. The beard with his stack of cash. My new best friend with the baseball cap. And the young kid, the phony player who’s going to let me share in his great good fortune. I want to thank them all for involving me in the scam. I don’t want to fess up and let them know I’m not some rube. I’d like the scene to go on a little longer.
In my head I run through some of the available scenarios:
“What,” I could say. “Does it look like I have STUPID printed on my head?” Then they beat me with tire irons and take my wallet.
“You mean it, guys? I can really get it on this?” Then I lose $100 and there goes dinner.
So, I flatten my hands out, start backing away and utter the failsafe: “Uh, guys, my wife would kill me.”
Then I went to Arby’s and got myself enough roast beef for a high school football team. When I got back, my three buddies were leaning up against the roadster, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons and watching the sun go down.