For more than two years, I have been seeing another woman. Her name is Tina. I'm thirty; she's in her eighties. We meet once or twice a week in Manhattan for strenuous assignations that last anywhere from three to four hours. Our evenings together are heated affairs, marathons of passion, deceit, nuance, aggression, joy, sorrow, laughter, shame, and -- above all else -- snacks. We're very serious. We meet at the bridge club: Tina is my partner.
I am a young player in what has become -- despite a few high-profile examples to the contrary (see the guys from Radiohead) -- an older person's card game. I began as a clueless bridge neophyte and learned to play when I decided I wanted to write a book about it: a first-person look at a former national pastime that has been eclipsed by poker, but still thrives (to the tune of 25 million U.S. players) in some highly unusual pockets, kept alive by small town social games, million-dollar Las Vegas tournaments, and billionaire hobbyists. (Into the last category fall the world's two richest men, Warren Buffett -- who calculates he spends 10 percent of his productive time playing bridge -- and Bill Gates, who together share a bridge coach and play online under the pseudonyms "T-Bone" and "Chalengr," respectively.)
In the U.S., the average age of a bridge player is estimated at fifty-one, but bridge is hardly just a mannered game for the mature. The competitive hotheads I met at bridge clubs exhibited the antisocial aggression of rugby players. Learning to play was intimidating, terrifying, and addictive. Indeed, bridge makes the game of my generation -- poker -- look like child's play.
In bridge, four players compete in two teams of two. For each team, the goal is to bid on and then win a certain number of "tricks." During the bidding, which happens before the card play begins, partners employ sophisticated systems that function as very specific code. Through a combination of bids ("one spade," "three hearts," etc.), they exchange detailed information about their hands -- what they have, what they don't have, their high cards, their longest suit, and so on -- all the while trying to bid the "correct" number of tricks they think they can win, given a certain trump suit (or lack thereof). The more intricate the system, the greater the precision, but even the most complex methods are overwhelmed by staggering odds when trying to discuss the 635,013,559,600 possible hands a player might be dealt. Still partners work to refine their private language, all before a single card is played. It's perhaps telling that while computers can now actually teach us humans to play better chess, they still absolutely stink at bridge.
The key to bridge is the partnership. Enter Tina, a quiet elderly woman with a neat coif of gray hair. When I met her at my first bridge class, I pretty much pigeonholed her as the sweet grandmotherly type. Then, weeks later, I overheard the table behind me discussing her short new haircut. A perky young schoolteacher said to her -- in a pleasant but ultimately patronizing voice -- "Tina, I love your new 'do!" It was a throwaway comment, just pleasantries before class, to which Tina responded with a deadpan, "I look like Caesar." Conversation over.
After that, I began trying to play more with Tina, getting to class early to snag a seat at her table. Whereas many of our classmates were loud and bossy, she was polite and unassuming, though her wry asides continued. We struck up a friendship.
As a rule, Tina seemed reluctant to talk about herself, but in time I learned she was a voracious reader and a dedicated newshound, always up on the latest book review or political coup. She was constantly watching foreign films -- she belonged to both the Spanish society and the French society -- but she wasn't a snob about it. When I asked her about an Argentine movie she went to, the most I could get out of her was, "It had the funniest little dog." The Saturdays she didn't come to the club, she was usually seeing some off-off Broadway show in the East Village. Tina was a political gal. She listened to something called "Peace and Justice Community Radio," because she found mainstream public radio "too moderate." The first time I sat down at the table with a can of Coke, she sighed. After a few weeks she could no longer take it, and she politely asked if I was aware of the evils the Coca-Cola Company perpetrated in Latin America. She was full of dark humor. When one of our instructors promised we would figure bridge out "given twenty-two years or so," Tina told our table, "My time is near. I better get a move on."
And so Tina and I began a bridge-club dance of seduction, a clumsy process akin to middle school dating. Unlike me, Tina was also going to a midday class. It was a wildly popular session, one where it was best to bring a partner. I thought Tina might be fishing for someone to accompany her, maybe even me, but I wasn't sure. In seventh grade, I once gathered up the courage to ask a girl to "go with me" -- the choice phrase at the time for "be my girlfriend" -- and she devastated me with the uncomprehending reply, "Where?" I figured when I got married such moments were behind me. Eventually, Tina and I needed our teacher to step in and make the suggestion. I got Tina's number and called her on the eve of our first date. The answering machine picked up, but when I began leaving a message, pandemonium erupted. Tina got on the line to tell me to hold on -- she didn't know how to turn off the machine. She tried to make it stop, but it began beeping loudly and she didn't want to do anything because she desperately needed to save a message that was on there. She punctuated her explanation with frantic sounds of helplessness ("Ooh, ooh!"), but eventually the tape ran its course. She apologized for screening her calls, offering the cryptic explanation, "I'm trying to avoid these people." Weeks later, after a few more similar episodes, I would find out "these people" were financial advisors calling about an old account of hers. She just wanted them to go away.
When I think of that story -- the elderly technophobe being something of a cliché -- I have to remind myself that while Tina might look little and sweet, she's one tough New York broad. She doesn't bat an eye at walking across town; one night her leg was sore from having hoofed it a mile and a half from First to Tenth Avenue. ("I like to walk," she shrugged.) Every night she takes her keys out of her purse and puts them in her pocket in case her bag is snatched. She is full of such tricks, carrying a wallet but keeping her cash in old envelopes. When I met her, she was eighty-three years old, though she didn't like to advertise that fact because, as she said the first time I asked, "I don't like to tell people. If I tell you, you won't want to do stuff with me."
Like me, Tina was a beginner at bridge, and while I didn't learn much about cards from her or her friends at the club, as I got to know them, I realized that as a freelance writer-slash-shut-in, I had more than I'd anticipated in common with ladies who lunch and play bridge. We kept the same solitary schedules; we were socially starved; and we came to the club looking for a little companionship and a better lunch than we'd have at home. I think my wife was glad I'd found some new friends, spared as she then was from my habitual midday calls to her office, when I'd describe in detail how I had made a really great sandwich. It was working out well for everyone.
Bridge is in part an extended exercise in empathy -- and as we improved, I came to know more about Tina. A player must grasp his partner's style, her philosophy, her outlook on life: how optimistic is she? Does she prefer to play it safe or go for the long shot? Is she excitable, overconfident, vindictive? How does she react to setbacks -- does she become a mouse or a lion? I found myself spending afternoons and nights at the club trying to understand Tina better. This was no easy task; she was a very private person. But in time I began to tease out her story.
Tina was born in a North Italian neighborhood in Greenwich Village in 1923. Her parents had emigrated from Italy through Canada, gaining entry into the U.S. when a stranger in line in front of them lent them a $50 gold piece to prove to the border officials that they were not indigent. When Tina was six, her family moved to a farm in Somerset County, New Jersey. Her parents ran a boarding house and a working farm. As a girl, she was shy; she loved the sound of the cicadas because it meant summer was ending, and she would no longer have to wait on the boarders. She went to Wilson College, a women's college in Pennsylvania. Afterwards she returned to New York City and attended a secretarial school in Times Square. With two friends, she took an apartment in the Village in 1946, which she describes as a wonderful time. ("The war was over -- we were hopeful.") Trained to be a French secretary, she worked for the French mission to the U.N., after which she held a number of unrelated jobs before taking a position as a secretary to the president of a large drug company on Park Avenue.
She was married and divorced, and though neither she nor her husband wanted kids, Tina thinks she would have been a good mother. An only child, she says she "lost the decade of the 1960s" taking care of her parents when they both became ill. Tina left the Village and moved into the midtown apartment she still lives in today because it was only seven minutes from work -- at a light jog -- and that meant she could literally run home on her lunch break to check on her mother.
In 1982, Tina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The doctors said it would kill her, and they "took out everything that wasn't nailed down." After doing her own research in the drug company's library, she put a stop to what she felt was overly aggressive treatment, saying she knew when enough was enough. Twenty-five years later, Tina remains circumspect about her health. Only after a while did she tell me she has tremors in her right hand, which get worse when she's agitated or nervous. Her physical therapist says the best thing is for her to have a drink, which she says "only means I end up an alcoholic with two shaky hands." Many days it is hard for her to grip large objects.
Tina is a hardnosed freethinker, a left-leaning liberal. She is concerned about politics in a way that used to be called "socially responsible." She remains cynical but hopeful. She says, "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," but worries about the environment and her own energy consumption because, she tells me, "It's all for you guys." Given her political and cultural involvement, I find it ironic that she says to me again and again, "You're the one who's in the world. I'm not."
Tina is so self-effacing that she never really believed me when I told her she would be in my bridge book. She has no family left. At one point she told me, "You're the only person in the world who knows this much about me." Indeed, through our time playing together, I have come to learn things about Tina. I know when her hands are bothering her and she could use help clearing her lunch plate. I know what she thinks of Iraq and multinational companies. I know a little of what it must have been like to grow up on a Prohibition farm. I know she takes her vitamins at lunch, dislikes ice in her seltzer, doesn't celebrate her birthday, and objects to receiving presents. She has a soft spot for Spanish soap operas, but she won't watch TV during the day because she says, "It's like drinking before five." She doesn't like to eat ice cream alone, but when she orders a pineapple sundae at a diner she grins like a kid. When a card doesn't fall her way, she says, "Caramba."
And certainly Tina knows things about me: How I can't shut up when I'm excited, how to tell if I've had a late night, how I'm competitive even when I claim not to be. Good things, bad things -- I'm sure she could give you some stories. But after all the early mornings, lazy afternoons, and long nights at the table, I can say I've learned a little about communication, cooperation, and trust -- the simplest of lessons -- while also gaining a good fun-loving friend.
Little did Tina know when we met that only slightly more than a year after our first lesson I would convince her to leave New York and the relative safety of the club and travel to Chicago to play with me -- as underdog Team Tina -- at the national bridge championships. She is so young of heart that sometimes I forget what a big deal this was: an eighty-three-year-old woman going off on a trip across time zones to play in a national tournament of a game she was just learning with a partner who, for all she knew, might keep a freezer full of human heads. Then, as now, Tina was such a sport. All she would say is that she thought the whole thing was "goofy." Only once did she remind me, "Old ladies don't do this."
Before we left, I used to joke to friends about the trip, calling it Easy Rider meets Driving Miss Daisy -- though, at that point, it was hardly clear who, exactly, was driving whom. It remains that way to this day.