I met a mysterious figure a few years ago who operated a shoe shine stand outside the lobby of a downtown Washington office building.
He was one of the guys that didn’t have a cellphone, so he didn’t show up to work with a photo ID, and he wasn’t spending his days talking to players in five-minute phone calls. At the beginning of the year, the shoe shine guy lost his place in line at the water cooler and he went home for the winter.
It was his big year to make money. One-by-one he would go in and put the lot on the table to bet on cards, and then he would come back every day to rinse his shine and put the rest on the table, hoping the chips he’d lost while waiting for his turn would fall in his lap.
I asked him if he liked poker, and he had no words. I got it from him: He was told his place in line had been placed at risk if he didn’t win a hand, and he had no choice but to wait until it fell in his lap. He didn’t like watching cards anymore. He didn’t know how to play either, or why he didn’t know. He just sat there, as if he had forgotten.
The guy took all my coins, some I’d printed out from the pool tables at the gym and some I’d bought at a coin store. I gave him $5 and shook his hand, and that was it. We exchanged e-mails. I let him know I liked what I was doing, and I promised I’d let him know when I could get him to come back. When he promised he would someday, I stopped thinking about him.
I knew he’d be in a different place in a few years. And I wrote him again a couple of months ago.
That was the fifth time I’d seen him over the past three years. He was at a country club in Arlington. He called me a cab and the cab dropped him off at the curb outside the office building.
The sun had set and the lights were dimmed, but the guy was still standing there, and he said he was still waiting to place a bet. I asked him again if he played poker, and he said he did, but he no longer played regularly.
He also didn’t like waiting for his chance. He liked cards, but he didn’t like playing them.
It made me sad. I put two coins on the table. I bet $2.50 on a best-of-five event. I was playing for me, and I knew I was safe.
There were two other people betting at that table. They had a better hand than I did. They had more experience, but none of them had more than a couple months of practice. They were amateurs.
When the bell went, I walked back toward the lobby, where it was still light outside. The guy came into the restroom. He had wet his pants, and the pan was so hot, he couldn’t reach the deodorant on the side of the stall without his pants getting ripped open. He asked the woman next to him if there was a box of cola or something she could wash him down with. She had to start sipping her coffee.
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