Thursday, April 23, 2009
By Richard E. Noble
Everyone in Lawrence is born knowing how to play the card game 45’s. I figure that must be the case because I can remember learning everything else but not 45’s.
Johnny Bolton taught me how to smoke and inhale. Frankie Spires and his mom and dad across the way on Chelmsford St. taught me how to play canasta, gin rummy, and hearts. Bobby Scott taught me how to shoot marbles. The Moffet brothers taught me how to play scalars – a game played by tossing baseball cards up against a wall or somebody’s stoop. My Uncle Ray taught me how to ride a bicycle. The St. John brothers taught me how to steel things from Woolworth Five and Dime on Essex St. I won’t name the individual who introduced me to my first bottle of Black Horse Ale or the Narragansett GIQ but I know who he was. And a girl named Barbara taught me … well, I don’t think I’ll go there just now. But I can’t remember anybody teaching me how to play 45’s. I think that I always knew how. It was just there in the genes.
Anyone I ever met in my travels Hobo-ing America or otherwise who confessed to knowing how to play 45’s came from Merrimac Valley – most often Lawrence.
Forty-fives was more than a card game though. It was in the skill or craft category. There were numerous rules to the game but more important were the unwritten rules. The unwritten rules all related to what one should have played instead of what one, in his or her ignorance, did end up playing.
One of the problems with this book of unwritten rules is that everyone had a different book of unwritten rules. Playing 45’s partners was very popular. But invariably husbands and wives never seemed to have the same book of unwritten rules.
Common phrases heard around the 45’s card table were: Honey, it is just common sense; Everybody knows that, sugarplum; Why baby, why?; Can I have a new partner next game? Exchanging mates in a game of 45’s partners was the closest anybody came to wife swapping in Lawrence, Massachusetts in my time.
When men played partners, the phrases changed in intensity and style but the intent was the same.
In mulling this game over in my mind today, I think the golden rule of the game was: It doesn’t matter how you play the game as long as you argue like hell after each hand and abuse your partner until she leaves the table crying or he challenges you to step outside and settle this like a man.
On the corner somebody always had a deck of cards and we played this game hour, after hour, after hour.
Me, Jack Sheehy, Frank Duchnowski and a few other close buddies loved this game so much that even as drinking age adults we often opted out of a night on the nightclub circuit to go to the Immaculate Conception Church cellar or the cafeteria at St Rita’s School for a Card Party (that’s Caahhd Paahhdy). There was a small fee to get into the Party. The proceeds went to the missions, the church furnace fund or directly to the Pope in Rome. He had a furnace fund also.
The entrance fee didn’t really matter to us guys because we were there to win and advance the reputation of the younger generation and of the Howard Associates (Howard Ass for short). It did not matter how old or feeble the folks were at St. Rita’s cafeteria if they sat at one of our tables, they had best be ready to lose.
What I remember most about the St. Rita’s and Immaculate Conception 45’s card parties was that no matter how sweet, friendly or pious looking these old people were, no matter the holy artifacts pinned to their clothing or hanging around their necks, they all cheated. Everyone cheated. Every game ended up 145 to 115. These were the highest possible winning and losing scores.
I don’t really remember how they figured out at the end of the night who got the prizes. I think they drew names out of a hat. But I do remember that me and my buddies often won.
The first place prize was either a 10 lb Krakus brand, Polish canned ham or a gift certificate for a fresh 20 lb turkey from the Park St. Food Bank (formally Adolph’s Variety) or Catalano’s Market on Common St. Second and third prizes were an entire boxful of donated canned goods – 2 cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli, 4 cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, a large box of LUX soap powder, a box of Ritz Crackers and four 1000 sheet rolls of Scott toilet paper.
They often picked me and my buddies out as the winners for two reasons. Letting us win sucked us young blood in for next Monday night’s card party and we always re-donated the prizes. That, of course, meant that next week’s prizes were ready to roll and the Pope got the money for the steam heat at the Vatican without even paying a vigorish.
Sure, they all may have cheated but they were good Catholics nevertheless.
Richard E. Noble was raised in Lawrence, Mass and is now a freelance writer. He has published five books. Two of them have Lawrence as their setting, A Summer with Charlie and Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother. A Little Something is a book of poetry - parts of it inspired by life in Lawrence. Hobo-ing America is a workingman’s tour of the U.S.A. The Eastpointer is selected pieces from his award winning column about life in a sleepy fishing village in the Florida Panhandle.