All the Black Folks I Knew Growing Up Were Hustlers,
or The Card Players
LaTasha S. James
Everyone was “‘bout a dollar.” Especially my Aunt Lois who coined the phrase. For as long as I can remember, my fam was always hustling--legally and illegally. In addition to working day jobs, night jobs, weekend jobs, seasonal jobs, and in between, they also had a side hustle to bring in extra coins. My Gram played bingo and worked as a companion aide for white families on the richest, whitest streets in Richmond: Monument Avenue and Cary Street Road. My parents had five jobs between them and also played bingo. Back in the 70s and 80s, my Uncle Earn worked at Tyson, but shot dice and robbed homes. My Aunt Ernie worked as a medical receptionist at MCV, but wrote bad checks and finessed old white men out of their social security income. And then there was my Aunt Lo, who played bingo, the Virginia Lottery, scratch offs, sold books of food stamps and hosted monthly card games in her Gilpin Court housing project.
On this particular Saturday night, the game had been going for nine hours and counting, when Sammy sashayed in with a small black boombox blasting Mad Skillz “Move Ya Body.”
“Hush that shit Sammy fo’ you wake up my kids!” Aunt Lo said, spitting out crushed ice pellets in between each word.
“It’s almost summuh anyway...school almost out...”
“Last time I checked 105 West Hill had my name on the lease and I said turn that shit down. Give a fuck about seasons. TahTah, bring Sammy a plate!”
I pushed myself from the cold cinder block wall and walked past the card table to get to the kitchen. Every room was bound by those white walls with staggered rectangular grooves, similar to the visiting room of the city jail. Pam, Shirlene, Gladys, Tomeekah, Laverne, and two Phyllis’ were playing a hand, while Sammy and six other players waited their turns. The Rent-a-Center table was uneven and made of particleboard, which peeled at the corners. A used blue pack of Bicycle playing cards was lodged under the one leg to keep the table from swaying. Roach Motels were placed on the counter and beside the trash can. The concrete floors smelled of old mop water. The stench of chicken grease emanated from a pot on the stove.
From the card table, I overheard Aunt Lo say: “You know TahTah just got a job at a yogurt shop over in Carytown.”
“Ain't she cute wit her ‘lil skort on showing them legs,” Pam said. “She mannerable too. Need to have her hang out with my Micah. Talk some sense into him.”
“Where he at?” Aunt Lo asked.
“With them boys chyyy...God knows where.”
Before I piled the fried chicken and mac and cheese onto a styrofoam plate, I closed my eyes and put my head out of the kitchen window to breathe in the night air and to give my lungs a break. I was finally able to smell my strawberry ChapStick and the Isoplus Oil Sheen I sprayed in my hair that morning. For the entirety of the night, the plumes of cigarette smoke snatched my breath, strangled my throat and plunged into my nostrils. The breeze made my permed hair unwrap and fall into my face. I opened my eyes and pulled my head back into the apartment, when I saw a man pissing near the clothesline where my little cousin’s airbrushed Sonic the Hedgehog t-shirt flapped in the wind. He did not turn away when he saw me. “Nasty ass! Auntieeeee!” Aunt Lo ran into the kitchen. “Earl get yo nasty ass away from my backyard fo’ we fuck you up!” Earl put his dick away and vanished into the night.
There were a lot of firsts at card games: mother’s feeling their babies kick in their abdomen, friends becoming friends again, and a 15-year-old girl having her innocence taken without her permission by a guy pissing outside of a window.
“You ok TahTah,” Aunt Lo asked me, putting an arm around my shoulders and holding a red plastic cup with her CVS-bought groovy grape lipstick imprinted on the brim. Aunt Lo was easily one of my favorite aunties. She couldn’t smoke without drinking a beer. She couldn't have a soda without crushed or cubed ice. Her limp, gel-slicked ponytail was always accompanied by a bang. And the only song I ever heard her sing was Betty Wright’s “Tonight is the Night,” while rocking her thick hips from side to side. When I nodded that I was ok, she led us back to the card table. I handed Sammy his plate.
Pam was still pissed at Sammy sashaying in and asked: “What his country ass doing here?”
“Anywaaaaay, I’m here same reason you is. Ain’t ‘bout to miss no money. I’m ‘bout a dollar.”
“Rules changed. Gotta have at least $200 to play a hand. Show us yo’ $200 nigga,” Gladys chimed, adjusting her plastic jheri curl cap, which she wore to protect her finger waves from absorbing the cigarette smoke.
They were pissed at Sammy for two reasons. One: The last time he hosted a card game at his place, they all got robbed at gunpoint and the robber took everyone’s money except Sammy’, so they knew it was a set up. “I ain’t been that scared since the Briley Brothers,” Laverne had said. Two: Sammy would sit down and play with only $10 and win all night. Some would bring their entire paychecks, or sell percocets and use the proceeds to fund their card gambling habit. Some would lose $3,000 in one night. The fact that Sammy only sacrificed $10 was an insult to them. And that night, winning was on the line. Aunt Lo needed money to get my cousin’s back-to-school clothes out of lay-a-way, Pam needed to win her light bill money back, and Gladys needed to get her car fixed to commute to her new job over the Southside.
“I don’t care ‘bout dat shit ya’ll talking. Just know I’m watching to see if any of ya’ll setting da’ deck or cheating on cuts. ‘Cause if you is, I’mma get you told. Just know dat,” Aunt Lo said.
Before Aunt Lo could get anybody told, Pam’s daughter Mecca ran into the house.
“Maaaaaa, Micah been shot!”
“Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout girl?!”
“Come on Ma, he been shot! He was robbed shooting dice down on Fairmount!”
Pam jumped up and grabbed her purse. Aunt Lo jumped up too and yelled, “TahTah watch yo’ cousins!” Everyone else at the table scrambled out of the front door behind Pam. Sammy and the other card players lying in wait, went over to the table. Before they started a new game of deuces, Sammy collected money from the other players and handed me five $20 bills.
“Ween gone need nothing else out the kitchen tonight Tasha. Gone see if the kids still sleep.”
As I walked out of the kitchen and up to my cousin’s bedrooms, the card players turned back to the table, and resumed the game.
LaTasha S. James: “I am a storyteller who grew up in a shotgun house in a segregated section on Richmond, Virginia’s Northside. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with degrees in literature and print journalism, I wrote feature stories for the Black-owned and now defunct Richmond Voice Newspaper. I am a Sundress Academy for the Arts Fellow, twice-selected for the Hurston/Wright Writers Week and Weekend Workshops at Howard University, a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Resident, and a twice-selected Roots. Wounds. Words Fellow. Currently, I'm crafting a creative nonfiction collection of personal essays titled White Mushrooms in the Grass, reflecting on my experiences growing up and living in the former Capital of the Confederacy.”