Monday, April 13, 2009

Drop a Load!

There was usually something going on in the neighborhood...a stickball or punchball game, a carpet gun fight (see 10/10/08 post: "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" View) or maybe flipping baseball cards for hours on end. There was down time to be sure, but we had ways of filling that time. Playing cards on the stoop kept us busy for hours. We occasionally played the conventional games like Rummy, Poker, or if there were only two of us and we were desperate, we would deal out a hand of War.

Since most of us were of Italian descent however, the card game we played most frequently was borrowed from old men in grey cardigan sweaters, wearing beat-up fedoras and smoking smelly Di Nobili cigars. The game was called Brisk, and was played with a deck of 40 cards, the 8's, 9's and 10's having been removed. I learned later in life that the game is based on an Italian card game called "Briscola"
(Briscola - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) but we played by the street rules we had learned from watching the old men in the park.

We played four-handed Brisk, with two kids partnered against the other two. After trump had been established, three cards were dealt to each player. The object of the game was to take as many tricks as possible depending on how many trump cards you held. As I recall, a team needed to score 120 points to win. The cards that counted for points were the Ace (11); Trey or Three (10); King (4); Queen (3) and finally the Jack (2). It usually took two hands to make 120 points, and there was a definite strategy to the game.

Like Bridge where there are trump cards and the game is played with partners, it really helps to know what cards your partner is holding so you know how bold you can be with your play. The old men who played often together as partners had secret signals they used to communicate their hands to their partners. The Aces and Treys were known as "loads" because of their high point values of 11 and 10 respectively. It was not uncommon in a heated game for a player who held a strong trump card to be heard hollering to his partner: "Drop a load, drop a load." (That phrase has come to have a whole different meaning today.)

As kids we played Brisk mostly to kill time, but if you watched the old men play, it was no idle was WAR! They sat in front of neighborhood Italian social clubs on Fulton Street, or at tables in Callahan-Kelly park near the bocci courts, and what should have been an pleasant game of cards turned into a Sicilian vendetta. It took an hour of screaming and gesturing just to pick partners. While they argued over the rules of the game, you could run up to the deli for a baloney hero on crispy-hot Italian bread, washed down with an icy cold Mission pineapple soda from the red ice chest outside the store, sit down on the curb and finish your lunch, and by the time you got back to the card game, the old men might just be getting underway.

And then there were the spectators. These wonderful old men, kindly grandfathers with great old world dignity, would turn into a wolf pack and kibitz the card players unmercifully. If two partners played a hand poorly, they would hear howls of laughter and hoots of derision. Men would pound their hand-carved canes against the chain-link fence for added effect as they tore into their victims in five different Italian dialects. The teasing would become especially vicious if the spectators were passing around the jar of cherries soaking for months in some old Italian moonshiner's basement in a homemade liqueur called "Strega". Eating a couple of these cherry-bombs gave one a mega-dose of what used to be called "Dutch courage."

The funny thing is if an outsider were to witness the swearing and hand gestures that usually accompanied the old men's card games, they would be ready to call the police for fear that violence was about to be done. What they didn't understand was that no matter how many purple veins bulged during the game, that afterwards the combatants would adjourn to the picnic table under the grapevine in somebody's back yard, share a jug of homemade red wine and laugh at the same jokes told in animated Italian that they had heard many times before.

Non-Italians can never understand how these conflicting emotions could co-exist so easily in us . We are undoubtedly a passionate and volatile people, but we move quickly from anger to laughter to tears. Even the great Enrico Caruso, seen here playing energetically with his son, was a "Briscola" fan. Maybe Puccini or Verdi should have written an opera called: "Briscola al Fresca". I know a park where he could have cast the male lead.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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