“NO TRUMP” ON THE TRAIN

| August 22, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

 

File:Deck of cards used in the game piquet.jpgWhen I was in high school more than half a century ago, a classmate’s mother told us a terrible story, so cruel and seemingly impossible that it has stuck in my brain all these years.

It seems there was a quartet of gentlemen who travelled every day by commuter train from their homes in Connecticut to New York City where they worked in law firms and brokerage houses. They were prosperous individuals and lived in large houses surrounded by acres of trimmed lawn reached by winding, tree-arched driveways. Their neighborhoods and the places they frequented, the country clubs where they congregated and the schools where their children were educated, were all “restricted” which in 1950s parlance meant that  Blacks and  Jews were not allowed; even being Irish-Catholic was problematic. If all this sounds a bit strange and out of the question, remember that only a few years before that – in the 1920s – Jews were not allowed into  the profession of architecture. It was only in 1930 that a building in New York City was designed by a Jew and that was the Beresford apartment house on Central Park West.

In any case, these four men would board the 8:04 commuter train every morning in Greenwich, Connecticut, alighting at Grand Central Station in Manhattan well before 9AM. From there they taxied to Wall Street for  meetings or  the Yale Club for breakfast or  to whatever rendez-vous they might be  called  to as capitalist leaders in the financial center of the world.

As neighbors in Greenwich, these powerful men shared many things – the same clubs, the same schools; some gossips even had it that they shared their wives. It was, after all, in the 1950s that “key clubs” and swingers’ parties began in the suburbs. After a boozey barbecue on summer weekends, a dozen sets of car keys were tossed onto patio flagstones and the key you grabbed entitled you to go upstairs with the owner’s wife. All very respectable and sub-dued. These were, after all,  the Eisenhower years.

Professionally successful, more than comfortable financially and  at the top of the social totem pole, these gentlemen – we will call them Van Horn and Company – had one consuming passion: playing bridge together on the 8:04 as it rolled from the suburbs to the metropolis. Although they had lost count of exactly how long they had been a railroad  bridge foursome, they reckoned it was nearly twenty years that they had been at their game, bidding and no-trumping each other in the smoke-filled club car as it careened along Long Island Sound. They joked to their wives (three of them had re-married since the game had begun) and colleagues that when they started playing years back, they all had full heads of hair, but now only one still had his mop on top. The hour they shared on the morning train was more than special; they half -jokingly referred to it as their sacred time. No nagging wives, no whining children, an absence of office woes; just four friends and 52 cards.

Then one Monday morning everything changed. The stop before Greenwich was Westport, Connecticut. To be sure, passengers had always boarded at the Westport station, but the club car had been blessedly immune, seemingly off-limits to the hordes that quickly filled the seats in the other six carriages of the train.  But on August 13, 1959 when Van Horn and Company boarded  the train, a  lone woman was sitting in the window seat normally occupied by Mr. Van Horn.

Three seats were empty and several more places were vacant in other parts of the car, but there was NO place for the four of them to settle in and start their game. Standing over the woman, who had the bespectacled aspect of a librarian, these powerful men were speechless and non-plussed.  Authoritatively clearing his throat, Van Horn looked in the direction of the female passenger who remained oblivious to his presence, buried in her book. Soon the carriage filled and the powerful foursome were shooed by the conductor, like nothing so much as a covey of scattered quail, to random seats at different ends of the car.

Rage and indignation replaced silence and disappointment as  the four harrumphed separately to the conductor, “See here, my good man, that confounded woman, has taken OUR seats ! ” To which they were told, “Look, Mister, I’m new here and you don’t own the railroad. Just be glad you got a seat. We got people standing in the other cars! Anyway, she didn’t take your SEATS, she’s occupying ONE place. ”

For the rest of the week, the pattern continued. When Van Horn and company boarded the train at the Greenwich station, Miss Librarian, or Prune Face as they  had began unkindly calling her, was ensconced in the window seat. There were no other places with four seats available. When Van Horn bent over Miss Prune Face in an attempted gesture of chivalry, suggesting that she might like to move to the other side of the car to a single vacant seat by the lavatory door, she looked up in silence and shook her head.

Their game was over. What Van Horn and Company had really come to live for – fuck the job, the  dysfunctional kids and those nagging bitches who spent their pay checks and started drinking Long Island Tea at lunch – was bridge on the train. It brought back the camaraderie of  the First Infantry Division in France in the Winter of ’44; of the time they pulled an all-nighter scribbling out cheat sheets for their  history exam at Yale in the Spring of ’38; of the times in junior high school when they hot-boxed Camel cigarettes together in the toilet between classes. Something had to be done. But what?

Repeated approaches to Miss Prune Face were futile. She was a tough cookie and seemed to have taken a strong dislike to Van Horn and Company. She would not budge from her seat.

Van Horn began drinking heavily. His life fell into disarray. His three comrades  faired no better. There were divorces, blow-ups in the office almost led to a sacking and two of the “fearsome foursome”, as they had affectionately dubbed each other, began seeing psychiatrists.

But then, miracle-like, the clouds cleared. Van Horn’s wife  had never amounted to much. Mis-treated by her parents and brow-beaten by Van Horn since their honeymoon, she had flunked out of college and only nabbed Van Horn by telling him that she was pregnant and rich. Their wedding was hastily arranged and a child arrived six months after the ceremony. Secretly she knew  the child was not his, but it was the 1950s and her parents threatened to throw her out of the house and revoke her trust fund.

Every attempt to prove herself to her husband had failed.  He told her she was boring and for the past two years had been sleeping  in the guest bedroom. Now she began taking the 8:04 into the city. Sitting across from Miss Prune Face, she befriended the severe lady and learned  she worked for a charity in New York City that cared for the homeless and abused. The Blandsford Foundation, heavily endowed, was the darling of the Greenwich smart set and the pretext for the most dazzling charity ball of the debutante season. More to the point,  Tripsie Van Horn’s father was on the board of directors of Blandsford.

The following Monday when the 8:04 pulled into  Greenwich, the four-seater in the club car was invitingly vacant. Van Horn and Company were speechless with delight. Out of habit, even though they had not played a hand in months, they each carried a deck of cards in their brief cases. Before the train had pulled out of Greenwich, a vigorous round of bidding was in progress.

At the country club that weekend, Tripsie’s father could be seen shaking his head sadly to several greying colleagues. ” I never would have thought that Miss Speckleforth was the thieving type, but my daughter told me her purse was snatched and money taken by this very woman when she took the 8:04 last week. You never know who you can trust these days !  That girl had to go. Blandsford only hires quality folks ! ”

Van Horn and Company,  it seemed,  were back in the saddle, so to speak. Their game was better than ever. They speculated to each other that perhaps the break was good for them;  cobwebs had had the chance to clear. Contrary to what an old sex siren had said, maybe “too much of a good thing” is not wonderful.

Shortly after the resumption of the fearsome foursome’s game, Van Horn  divorced Tripsie and began dating the Danish au pair who had lived with them  for two years. When Tripsie pleaded, “Why, why !” , all Van Horn could say was, “‘ Those tits ! ”

But it is not only the good who die young.  After a three-Martini lunch at the 21 Club celebrating his 48th birthday, Van Horn collapsed, succumbing to a massive heart attack. Now Miss Speckleforth is unemployed, Tripsie has no husband and bridge on the 8:04 is  no more.

Be careful ! You may get what you ask for !

 

 

 

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