On the night I arrived in St. Louis, the gentlemen in my house asked me if I would be interested in dealing. And could I count to twenty-one? 21 Kilos of Cocaine retails up to thirty grand per kilo in St. Louis. I only needed one to solve significant tuition issues. I still only need one. But while Blackjack may be as cocaine to some, it only pays me around fifteen an hour. I began my Master’s of Divinity with a lesson in it and have dealt sporadically for the past year. Borrow a tuxedo shirt and a clip-on bowtie, and you may discover that dealing (of any kind it seems) opens a window on subsets of humanity you never knew existed.
If you have been sweating over texts by Papias of Hierapolis since the early morning, it feels almost like a suspension of reality to enter into the scripted roles of the part-time job that allows you to eat. It is easy to learn Greek, Hebrew, and theology by day while dealing Blackjack or Hold ‘Em by night. But it may be startling to find that you are the same person in both scenarios, that the roles we fill do not confer identity. We always bring ourselves to them. My purpose is not to complain about how unfulfilling it is or lament the lost time (I need the money, and I’m grateful to get it), but simply to acknowledge how weird it can be to spend the day pursuing a graduate degree with its heavy reading and technical writing and then deal blackjack to, say, a sorority.
I have dealt for the Illinois Water Commissioners Board. The water boarders each had a massive paunch, a flannel shirt, a beard, and a hat. They roared; they drank. The more southern of them leaned in close to each other and whispered things like “Roll Tide.” They raffled off shotguns and beer barrels.
I have dealt for a group of engineering and astrophysics majors at St. Louis University. They could count and shuffle so much better than I could that I eventually paid them chips to do it when the pit bosses were absent.
I have dealt for the young professional donors to the Boys and Girls Club. Key sponsors included: Chanel, Tory Burch, Christian Louboutin, Prada, and Hugo Boss. Each time the middle-aged woman at my table busted, she smirked like she expected me to make it up to her after the gig. I believe it was here that I was asked if this was to be “Strip Blackjack.” Eventually the man to her right intervened, pointing out a certain discrepancy in age. I nearly embraced him as a brother, a father, and a savior of innocents, but the clip-on signifier of my professional office restrained me, and as I dealt I contemplated two discrepancies: the one between 15 and hour and 30k per kilo, and the other between memorizing verb paradigms and remembering what “double-down” means.
I have also dealt at the National Dalmatian Dog Show at the Purina Convention Center west of St. Louis. It was here that I dealt to an aged uncle with a wilting boutonniere and to both of his nieces. He was convinced he knew the game well enough for himself and his wards, but he failed. His nieces drank skinny margaritas from their purses; one failed to say “hit me” without going into convulsions. They wore dalmatian-patterned hair clips, dalmatian-patterned jackets, and, like the spawn of a Cruella DeVille they wore dalmatian heels that would have allowed even Tom Cruise to hug LeBron James’ midsection. I cleaned them out. I’ve never gotten dealer blackjack so many times (for the uninitiated this essentially means that they lost before they could even play).
Later, at the same table, a grizzled old woman growled godammit with the conviction of a nun each time she busted. She had bare arms and ordered bourbon and sprite with the same flourish of wrist she used for “hit me.” Her voice was in the kind of lower register that one expects from chain-smoking marine drill sergeants after a tour in Fallujah. None of my professors have this voice.
On the way out of the Dalmatian gig, I snagged a neat shot of bourbon from the bar and hastened to the escape vehicle. But I had left my jacket inside. Because of a mistaken communiqué, I found myself waiting on the sidewalk for something much much less than an Escalade ESV with all the chrome apparatus of a 30k/k situation. The bourbon was just beginning to take hold, and who should approach me but an old woman and a dalmatian pup.
“He’s beautiful,” I said. “Is he competing?”
She took four minutes to recite technicalities about class and age. And then:
“His breed is extinct. He comes of a pure, refined pedigree, and he comes from a stock of frozen sperm. His sire died at least 25 years ago.”
“Wow,” I said. “I have to go get in that car.”
Blackjack at a Dalmatian Speciality Show may be an extreme instance, but it is an instance that underscores a fragmentation most of us experience. A second job may seem auxiliary to our true purpose. It may shock us that we have to spend real time performing it, but it may be worth realizing that life defies our attempts to categorize and control. I seem to require a borrowed tux shirt a size too large with only one shirt-stay, bourbon, and a little retrospect to appreciate this.