Crazy? No, Just One Card Shy of a Full Deck | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Crazy? No, Just One Card Shy of a Full Deck

I had become what every New Yorker secretly longs to be, a harmless, amusing eccentric.

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The first cards in my collection came from a three-card monte man on 14th Street in Lower Manhattan. Queen of hearts, queen of spades and queen of clubs. "Follow the red, follow the black," he chanted. "Find the red, Fred, you make some bread, Fred — choose the black, Jack, can't give no money back!" A lookout cried, "Cop!" and the man hurriedly pocketed the cash, kicked over his cardboard boxes and ran off. He left behind the three cards. I palmed them into my pocket.

It was the beginning of my yearlong hunt for one full deck of found playing cards. I created the rules. I had to find the cards on the sidewalks or streets of the city of New York, any borough. I could take no more than three cards at a time.

I loved my game. I brought my cards home and began to glue them together in a fan-shaped mandala on the wall over my desk. At first my friends were amused at me, on my hands and knees on sidewalks and streets at all hours, picking up cards. I asked around and nobody knew anybody who'd ever collected a deck of cards from the streets of New York. I had become what every New Yorker secretly longs to be, a harmless, amusing eccentric. But then my friends began to be annoyed. They asked why I was doing this, exactly. At first, I scrambled for an answer, but the truth was I didn't know.

I was reading-matter-deprived on a recent flight, so I read every word in something called the SkyMall catalogue. Thing after thing was described in breathless cataloguese, with what exactly it did, what it was good for and why my life would be richer if I bought it. One of the devices on sale was an electronic doodad that, by satellite, could tell me where I was on the surface of the planet, within a hundred feet. Why, I wondered, did that make me feel eerily disconcerted? No more getting delightfully and creatively lost? No more wandering away from certainty?

Aha! That was the answer to my friends' questions. I want to spend at least part of my time doing things that don't necessarily make sense. Perhaps it's my way of rebelling against a world in which everything must be useful. I need in my life something mysterious that can't easily be explained.

Finally, after a full year, I had all but the three of clubs. I continued to find cards, plenty of them, but weeks passed and still no three of clubs. I became melancholy, desperate. I needed the three of clubs. The city was holding out on me; fate was toying with me.

Then one day I was back on 14th Street. The same three-card monte man was juking and jiving. "Follow the red, not the black...find the red, Fred, you make some bread, Fred." I stopped 20 feet away from him and yelled "Cop!" He kicked over the boxes and ran.

The three cards fell to the sidewalk, facedown. I walked to where they lay. Spades you lose, hearts you lose, but my man, my man, you got to choose. On my hands and knees, I turned over the cards.

Everyone ignored me, just another guy kneeling on a New York sidewalk, crying and kissing, for his own sweet reasons, the three of clubs.

By Roy Sorrels

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