Chapter 1: WILD, WILD WHIST
On the wall of the foyer in Myra J’s home in Atlanta hangs a mahogany-framed print of Annie Lee’s famous painting Six No, Uptow
n. The painting depicts four women playing cards around a kitchen table. One sister is kneeling on a chair with her right arm reaching toward the heavens, elbow bent, ready to slam onto the table the winning card that will make her opponents wither in shame. Although faceless in the painting, that ruthless woman symbolizes Myra J, comedian and cohost of the Tom Joyner Morning Show
, which is syndicated on more than 120 radio stations, reaching 6 million listeners daily.
Myra is a bid whist player’s bid whist player. She pities the fools who don’t play bid whist, and she won’t let them play any other card game in her house. And if you’re a bid whist player of the losing variety, she might just let you starve or even freeze. “I’ve given parties whereby we didn’t just play rise and ﬂy, we played rise and go stand out on the porch,” Myra recalls, her hazel eyes sparkling as she throws back her blond locks in a sly but hearty laugh. “You get one chance. You lose; you’re out of here. You couldn’t even come in the house.
“It would be so funny, ’cause the porch would be all crowded with everybody saying, ‘You almost through?’
“No! You don’t get no barbecue. You don’t get nothing to eat. You are not worthy of eating any food in my house, because you cannot play cards!”
While Myra is a bid whist player in the extreme–on the verge of needing a 12-step program–she’s not alone. And the ranks are growing. Some are lifelong players like Myra, who gambled for a quarter or fifty cents a game in high school and played all through college. Others are recent converts, who saw the error of their ways and have abandoned spades, tonk, and other diversions to play a real card game like bid whist.
Since bid whist is considered a “shit-talking game,” it stands to reason that bid whist players are a wild bunch. They’re loud enough to wake the dead and scare sleeping children. They’re ruthless enough to win by any means necessary. Even a mild-mannered journalist will strategically place a butcher knife near the card table as a playful warning to his partner about avoiding screwups and to his foes against cheating.
Melannie Cunningham of Takoma, Washington, recalls a spectator who was scared the ﬁrst time she watched a bid whist game. “If they don’t understand, they think we’re mad and about to ﬁght because we’re talking so much stuff.”
Bid whist players invite such behavior. After all, they’re addicts, and unpredictable behavior is a predictable part of any addiction. They welcome fellow players to join them on the edge and to cross the line. It’s expected. Bid whist is a friendly game but not a polite one. You’re supposed to talk trash, sell wolf tickets, play the dozens, blaze ’em, kill ’em, diss ’em. Get the point?
Myra J started crossing the line early. “We used to get in trouble in high school for gambling, playing bid whist,” she recalls. “It became so prevalent at our school that they actually opened up the cafeteria early to keep us off the steps. It was like, ‘Fine. Bring them in here; give them some donuts and some milk. Just don’t gamble.’ ” It was a good deal for Myra & Co., but it didn’t go exactly as educators had planned. “We just learned to pass the money under the table,” Myra admits.
Boldness has always been part of Myra’s game. Once she went to a bid whist party in Chicago that a friend was unable to attend. She didn’t know a soul. “Me and this guy sat down and played all night long. We never lost. People accused us of cheating.” In a house full of strangers, she continued to talk trash until the very end, when she announced: “I’m tired. I’m going home now. You’re not worthy.”
Fatigue, morning light, too many Bostons–that’s the kind of stuff that can ﬁnally bring a bid whist marathon to an end for people like Myra. But not even the urge to use the bathroom was enough to end a late-night game for one group of campers. It took a bear–or at least the threat of an approaching bear–to ﬁnally end the game. It turned out to be a false alarm, a dirty prank by another group of campers.
Former Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama is a die-hard player, too. “I max out at everything I do,” Hilliard says. “When I play cards, I max out.” When he was on the Hill, he and his partner repeatedly left a path of devastated opponents in their wake at tournaments during the Congressional Black Caucus weekend each fall. One of his staff members joked that “the only requirement around here is not to be his partner.”
Another marathon player, Dennis Clayton, learned to play bid whist as a rite of passage in Akron, Ohio. “It was a big social activity among the men, and we called it ‘beer whist,’ ” says Clayton, who has transplanted the tradition to New York. “That meant we played until the beer ran out or someone went out and got some more beer from the store.”
Spencer Christian, former meteorologist on Good Morning America, also grew up playing bid whist in rural Virginia. By high school he was cocky and thought he had mastered the game, but he got his comeuppance at Hampton Institute. “There was a ruthless, in-your-face, sell-wolf-tickets, and kick-your-butt aspect to bid whist I had not encountered before,” Christian told the syndicated bid whist columnist Angel Beck. “But after many humbling sessions of play, in the late-night hours, I reﬁned my game to the point where I, too, could strike mortal fear in the hearts of my opponents. In fact, I spent so many nights competing in the great dorm room contest of cards that I often feel I should have earned a varsity letter in the game.” Then as now, the game has been a “source of excitement, intrigue, and frustration,” he says.
Even popular culture has tried to capture some of this excitement, intrigue, and frustration, from plots incorporating bid whist on the radio soap opera It’s Your World
to one-liners spouted by stand-up comedians.
In Malcolm Lee’s debut film, The Best Man
, a prewedding, homeboy reunion takes place at a bid whist table. One reviewer was initially down on the movie and one of its main characters, Quentin, portrayed by Terrence Howard. “The trash that fell from his lips annoyed me until I realized that it was just much talk and bravado, covering up the deeper side of Q,” explains the film critic Rose “Bams” Cooper. “The bid whist scene is what turned it around for me.”
Patricia Smith managed to weave in a reference to bid whist in a column about President Clinton’s apology to survivors of the government’s infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment: “I hear all of you swear-scowling, gold-tooth giggling over games of bid whist and craps, your thin shaky voices laying waste to a blues lyric ’bout a matchbox too small to hold your clothes.”
Dozens of authors have done the same in their books. In Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
, the author Maya Angelou says that her Aunt Tee’s employers tried to sample a taste to spice up their mundane life. Her aunt worked as a live-in housekeeper for an elderly couple in Bel Air, California. On Saturdays she’d invite a chauffeur with whom she was “keeping company,” her best friend, and her husband over for an evening of fun. “Aunt Tee would cook a pot of pig’s feet, a pot of greens, fry chicken, make potato salad and bake a banana pudding,” Angelou wrote. “The four would eat and drink, play records and dance. As the evening wore on, they would settle down to a serious game of bid whist. Naturally, during this revelry, jokes were told, fingers snapped, feet were patted, and there was a great deal of laughter.”
One night the elderly couple cracked the door open and summoned Aunt Tee. “We hear you and your friends laughing every Saturday night, and we’d just like to watch you,” the woman told her. “We don’t want to bother you. We’ll be quiet and just watch.”
The pianist and University of Pennsylvania professor Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. reminisces about his family’s bid whist parties in his book Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. “And then the show would begin,” says Ramsey, pointing out that in his family, the word “party” was a verb and not a passive one. “Heeeey now! Hand-clapping, foot-patting, ﬁnger-snapping, neck-popping, shoulder-shrugging, hip-rolling, pah-tee-in! . . . A kitchen full of food and drink, rise-n-fly bid whist, poker, loud music, jivin’ and signifyin’, laughing, and dancing completed the agenda. Whenever this scene and its beloved cast of familiar characters shuttled through our front door, my chest would ﬁll with a breath-gripping anticipation. We knew we were going to have a ball.”
In West of Rehoboth, Alexs D. Pate details how twelve-year-old Edward Massey’s mother is totally caught up in her bid whist game with other mothers sitting on blankets at Lemon Hill Park in North Philly on the Fourth of July. Edward sits with his back against his mother’s reading a detective book, Poirot Investigates
, for which he’d get a dollar upon completion. His goal for the summer is to read three books a week. “As he sat reading, he felt the pressure of his mother’s body against him. When her time came to play a card, she would lean forward. He would try to anticipate her and hold his back stiff, awaiting her return. And even as he tunneled into the mysterious world of Paris high society, the banter of the women penetrated. It was rapid-fire, free-ranging, bouncing from neighborhood news to card-game boasts and taunts.”
The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize—winning author Toni Morrison gives a nod to bid whist in her book Jazz
. Tracy Price-Thompson follows suit in Black Coffee
, and so do Mary Monroe in God Don’t Like Ugly
and Paula Woods in Merry Christmas, Baby
. Bid whist is likely to show up in any number of books by the proliﬁc author Yolanda Joe, since she tries to play at least weekly in her native Chicago. The game also dominates an entire novel, Who Is the Joker in Bid Whist?
by Ellen Ashford, as well as the monologue Four Queens, No Trump
by Ted Lange, the actor who kept drinks filled on The Love Boat.
Bid whist can take center stage even in the face of death. Ever wonder what happened to the faraway relative who disappeared right after a wake or funeral? The one you wanted to catch up with over a plate of food back at the bereaved family’s home? Well, some of your cousins might have kidnapped the out-of-towner for a game of bid whist.
To take a breather after her sister’s funeral, a woman in Jacksonville, Florida, agreed to join some Northern relatives for a quick visit to a cousin’s lakefront home. There they discovered their missing kin engaged in a lively game of bid whist. The host had refused to let them leave–even to retrieve their luggage, offering them free rein in her overﬂowing closets and plying them with fresh ﬁsh and booze. She tried to keep the grief-stricken sister captive, too, along with her guests. But they declined. After all, they needed to get back to the house to receive well-wishers coming to call with condolences and casseroles. What would they think if they discovered that the surviving sister was missing in action over a card game of all things?
By contrast, Rose Dickson’s family dispensed with pretense when her father died in Steilacoom, Washington. They didn’t worry about keeping anything on the down low; they openly played bid whist right after her father’s funeral. They didn’t worry about him turning over in his grave, for bid whist was a family tradition. Since everyone was there, it just seemed like the natural thing to do!From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Rise and Fly by Greg Morrison and Yanick Rice Lamb. Copyright © 2005 by Greg Morrison and Yanick Rice Lamb. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.