Hallelujah! Hamburger?


Jo Ann and I had motored to the sectional bridge tournament in Hagerstown with high hopes and, on my part, a subsonic rumble of trepidation. We were intent on bridging the gap between the 49.83 silver points she had amassed and the required threshold of 50.00 – a mere crack in the sidewalk on the way to Life Master, the seventh of sixteen beknighted designations within the layer cake strata of achievements charted by the ACBL.

In silence, I fretted, “What if we come away with bupkis? What then?” As if The Fates had conspired to scorn such pessimistic ideation, we finished out of the money on our first go. I don’t believe in predestination or spectral shenanigans, but it always seems to help if you can assign blame to untoward externalities and the fractious randomness of the universe.

The bottom line, though – and I knew it – was that fully grown adverse consequences often result from so-called “little things.” Such as missing a signal. Or an unforced error in providing the opponent with a ruff-and-a-sluff. Failure to spot that risk-free finesse for an overtrick. Not pulling trumps before testing a side-suit. Finessing too early, before pulling trumps, thereby opening the door to losing your losers or being cross-ruffed into the fathomless deep. Lions and Tigers and Bears – oh my!

Jo Ann bucked up my spirits, persuasively citing a clutch of ungovernable factors which had contributed to the torpedoing of our noontime session. She proposed a strategic shift to the five o’clock fast lane – to the considerably larger stratified unlimited game – where we would face more consistent opponents, armed with bidding tools either identical or very similar to our own.

With the better part of two hours at our disposal until the next session, we weighed the options. Conducting a postmortem on hands just played when there’s another round looming is always on my short list of activities which scramble the neural networks and tighten the thumbscrews of anxiety. Taking a leisurely stroll and talking about anything except bridge is almost always the most replenishing thing to do when competing in a tournament, whether it’s one day or a week or more. Stretch the legs. Fill the lungs. Clear the cobwebs. Refresh and reboot.

I opted for the latter, with an asterisk, “I spotted a Golden Arches a few blocks down Northern Avenue, on the left. How about a burger?”

Jo Ann eagerly concurred. She knows that hamburgers hold high station in the pantheon of my go-to comfort foods. I was raised with them. My mother, a gourmet chef in her own right, had no regard for the guardrails of what should and should not be breakfast fare. She indulged herself and the family with all manner of greet-the-day goodies, including but not limited to homemade lump backfin Maryland crabcakes, gazpacho soup with finely chopped veggies, and sirloin burgers topped with cheddar cheese and sautéed onions. Way to go, Mitzi!

Growing up in the Free State, I fell under the spell of the Little Tavern chain of half-diner, half-fast food restaurants. BUY ’EM BY THE BAG, the cottage-size outlets’ thematically invitational slogan, referred to their regular and jumbo burgers, priced (I hesitate to admit) at a nickel and a dime, respectively, way back when – and they were made to order.

The cook, a symphony conductor, would drop teaspoons of finely minced onion onto the griddle, deposit balls of ground round on top, and mash them down with a shiny metal spatula, his baton. The hiss-and-sizzle thus generated were music to the ears and amplifiers of one’s appetite. When the onions reached the cusp of caramelization, maestro would flip the patties and pause, hovering, until their flavorful jets of steam had abated to signal the perfect degree of doneness. With balletic grace and precision, he would lift and slide each battleship grey treat onto the bottom of a pre-sliced bun, a slightly sweet cube of a thing which dwarfed its charge. No matter. Next came one or two thin slices of dill pickle, a squirt of mustard, a squirt of ketchup, et voila!

Little Tavern burgers were unique, mouth-wateringly delicious, and highly affordable. Then came homegrown competition in the form of Ameche’s and Gino’s, burger-centric fast food establishments bearing the first names of their Baltimore Colts football hero owners, Alan Ameche and Gino Marchetti. The summer after high school, I earned a living on tips received as a carhop (no roller skates, but yes –a carhop) working the evening shift at Ameche’s Drive-In on Reisterstown Road. There, many a Powerhouse burger went down the hatch.

And then came the burgeoning goliath, McDonald’s. Today, there are almost thirty-nine thousand locations worldwide. In the fall of my junior year at Franklin & Marshall College, however, “only” one thousand. Over Three Million Served read the signage across the arches of the one situated on old Route 30, west of Lancaster. With the sense and sensibility of a novice who hasn’t a clue about the art or science of true romance, I chose that destination for a first date with the young woman whom I met one evening on Orange Street as she returned from a walk with her diminutive mixed-breed terrier, Frenchie. Jo Ann Seitz, student at Millersville State College, born and raised in Bucks Country and Pennsylvania Dutch through and through, would become my spouse one year and three months later.

“How about a burger?” I asked as we exited the American Legion hall after the noon session.

“Absolutely,” said she, leading the way to the car. “It could bring us good luck.”

Notwithstanding my disclaimer, above, vis-à-vis The Fates, I did cross my fingers, literally and figuratively, as we dined Chez Ronald’s – Jo Ann on a Quarter Pounder with fries, and I on four plain hamburgers, discarding their damp, greasy bottoms so as to fashion two double-burgers, each tucked between two convex, golden tops. Pure heaven. Open game, here we come!

Back in the action, a kind of calm settled over me after we emerged from the first three-board table having made two contracts and setting one. Where I had zagged in the noon session, I zigged in the five o’clock. I did not miss a suit preference signal, and I remembered to show count where it mattered. I paid attention to vulnerability. After a costly, thoroughly avoidable error on my part, I did not spiral down the rabbit hole and make things worse with recklessly overreaching play – a phenomenon which Jo Ann, borrowing a phrase from the world of professional poker, describes as my “going on full tilt.” One board, gone to board heaven was the mantra from which I drew strength and poise. Keep your head in the game, Gordon. Keep your head in the game.

Afterwards, as we awaited the results, we had a good feeling about the session – yet we did not voice it to one another, lest we jinx our chances. (Though I have dismissed the operational validity of such superstition in the past, I do make allowance for the possibility that we may inhabit a non-Euclidean universe – in which case, all bets are off and anything is possible.)

The familiar sound of a dot matrix printer churning out results echoed throughout the chamber. Then the tearing off of double-wide sheets. With a retinue of eagerly impatient players following in his wake, the director crossed the room to mount them on the wall. I could not bear to look, much less join the throng. Having extricated myself once from a dangerously surging mass startled by the sound of what sounded like gunfire in a London theatre lobby, I scrupulously avoid confined crowds in fluid movement and, when in the audience for film or play, always seek an aisle seat with clear line of sight to an exit.

Jo Ann bided her time until the knot had thinned, studied the chart, and returned unable to suppress a rapidly widening grin. “We did it! Point Six Eight silver. I’m a Life Master!”

“Hallelujah, Baby! We have to celebrate. This time, sky’s the limit.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Large fries, for one thing – and Big Macs instead of naked burgers. Yum!”

“You are one romantic devil.”

(To Be Continued)

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