First published in Baltimore Jewish Times
Tuesday night in Pikesville. In a big, brick house in a new development off Reisterstown Road, four women sit around a kitchen table, passing small plastic tiles, and speaking briefly in what outsiders would swear was code.
“I have to change my hand. The tile I need just went out.”
It’s the regular mahjongg game for Harriet Charkatz and her friends. For nineteen years, they’ve met every Tuesday night to toss tiles. Their game is not unique. In fact, as long-term games go, nineteen years is about average.
If the longevity isn’t impressive enough, consider the lengths to which players go to avoid missing a week. With a dedication usually seen only in soap opera addicts, they’ll brave bad weather, ignore labor pains, and leave spouses in hospitals rather than stand up their friends.
Mah jongg is the game of choice for most long-term players. The gambling game originated in China and was imported to the United States in the 1800s by Chinese railroad workers. Similar to gin rummy, mah jongg is played with tiles instead of cards. Four players use tiles representing different suits and symbols to build hands. A fifth player sits out each hand, either just watching or wagering who she thinks will make a winning hand first. Tiles are discarded and collected as players gather those they need. The rules require players to state what they are discarding, which creates the mysterious and puzzling conversation.
“Four dot” is a tile showing four colored circles; “two bam” shows two bamboo stalks’ :west” is a tile from the suit representing the four winds, and “crack” tiles have broken, wavy, or cracked-looking lines on them.
Poker, pitch, and other card games are distant seconds in popularity, though their players are no less enthusiastic. Apparently, there are no long-lived bridge games. Given the intensity with which most bridge players approach the game, that’s probably not surprising. For while long-term gamers are serious about never missing a week, they universally approach their night out anticipating companionship more than competition.
“We’re talking about something that is more than just as game,” says Bill Hopkins, Ph.D. of Psychological Health Associates in Ellicott City. “People who don’t have a real active social life might be interested in joining a group in order to feel more connected and to have some place to escape and find support. Over time, there is a real strong affiliation and cohesion. People start to think of themselves as part of the group. They develop a group culture and a sense of belonging.”
Most of the games started for the reasons Dr. Hopkins suggests. “We were a group of young mothers looking for a night out,” says Carol Lombardo, a member of another game, one that’s only 15 years old. Other women echo her, saying it was the ache to associate with someone other than squalling toddlers that led them to find an afternoon or evening off. As the children started school, that need diminished, but by then, the players’ lives had entwined.
“We’ve been through pregnancies, brits, bar and bat mitzvahs, high school, first jobs, cars, divorce, marriage. We joke we’ll go to Levindale together,” Harriet Charkatz says. She starts a fresh bag of popcorn in the microwave. Someone hands her a ramekin scraped clean of dip. She gets another from the refrigerator.
The mood around her table is the comfortable casualness that comes from long association with people you know as well as family. Rita Meier arrives from a parent/teacher association meeting still wearing her name tag, and she is teased about not knowing who she is. Sheila Goldberg punctuates her play with random words and phrases of what may or may not be Yiddish. Her marital cousin, Ilene Goldberg claims it is not.
Shelly Bluefeld, the fifth player who sits out the hand, stands behind Ilene as she sorts her tiles and tries to decide what hand to play. Ilene consults a card which lists all the possible winning combinations.
“I am either going to play that hand… or that,” she says, shifting the pieces on the Scrabble-type rack used to hold each player’s tiles.
“What’s that?” Shelly asks as she looks at the new pattern of tiles.
“Do I have to draw you a picture?” Ilene tries to point out the appropriate hand on the card without the other players noticing.
Many games started as afternoons for housebound mothers, but with so many women working, daytime games are out of vogue and are no longer the province of idle housewives. Only one member of Harriet Charkatz’ group does not work outside the home. Harriet is a realtor, and the other regulars include an X-ray technician, medical secretary, and mortgage loan officer.
“We’re typical of women in the 40s,” says Carol Lombardo of her group, which boasts the owner of a travel agency, administrator of a physician’s practice, a banking trust officer, city school evaluator, and graduate student. “We’re not happy to stay at home any more.”
Changes over the years can cause games to disband. Illnesses strike, players move, family demand outweigh social desires.
“I think the worst time for us playing was when three of our husbands were CPAs and it was tax season. It was hard to schedule games then,” says Shelly Bluefeld during a break in play while Harriet answers the phone. “Then, for a while, three of us were working in real estate, and the phone was ringing all the time. Somebody had to schedule a meeting or make a call about a mortgage, or set up a closing. It was phone calls all night,” she adds in a tone suggesting that nothing short of a medical emergency should interfere with the game.
Sometimes, even that’s not enough to tear the women from their regular game. Lois Madow is part of a mah jongg game that’s continued for 34 years. She almost delivered her son at the table. “I was playing doubled over with labor pains for most of the night,” she says, “but I wasn’t leaving my game. It was that simple. I had him an hour or so after we finished playing for the night.”
Madow’s as hard on the rest of the family as she is on herself. She left her husband recuperating from an operation to get to her game. “I told him if he wanted an operation when he knew that was my mah jongg night, that was his problem.”
Her attitude is common among other long-term players in other games. Estelle Newman deals poker on Tuesday nights, as she has weekly for the past 45 years, in the oldest-reported game of any sort in Baltimore. She also postponed going to the hospital to deliver her child until the morning after her weekly game.
Business takes a back seat, too. “I’m a bridal consultant,” Newman says. “I’ve done over nine thousand weddings, but I’ve never made an appointment on a Tuesday night. I mean, what’s more important, a wedding or my poker night?” Only when Yom Kippur falls on a Tuesday is the schedule changed, and even then, the game is postpones, not cancelled. “We moved it to Thursday instead, just for the one week,” she explains.
” How long have we been together?” Sheila Goldberg asks.
“It started at a girlfriend’s wedding,” Harriet says. “The two of us,” she motions towards Shelly, “were at a wedding and someone asked if we wanted to learn mah jongg, and we said sure. There were a couple of changes over the first couple of years, but I think the five of us have played together since August, 1970.”
While few groups boast all of the original members, most claim at least half the players who were on hand the first night, be it 15 or 30 years later – or more. Occasionally, the group still meets at the same house, or at least the house where the first hostess now lives.
According to Dr. Hopkins, groups which see little turnover in membership sometimes become exclusive to the point of viewing newcomers or visitors as interlopers. “A very strong group is not looking for outsiders, and isn’t keen on the idea of ‘drop by and play.'”
“That’s not necessarily negative. “Part of that exclusivity is because as time goes on, people talk about more than just the game. The group develops ties to support them in life’s rough moments.”
“It’s therapy once a week that’s very cheap,” says Myra Silverstein. “We put $5 a week into the kitty and get three and a half hours of entertainment.”
Silverstein started playing as a newlywed, just arrived from Toronto. Twenty-five years later, all that’s left of her accent is the occasional ‘aboot’ instead of ‘about.’
“We were living at the Town and Country Apartments off St. Luke’s Lane, just like everybody else,” she recalls “I did not know a soul.” She eagerly accepted the invitation to learn mah jongg, and her loneliness faded as she met women who became more than just weekly acquaintances.
“It’s not all kibbitzing and laughs,” she says, explaining her dedication to her game. “”We’ve bottled each other” babies and gone to bar mitzvahs and graduations. A lot of problems came to the table. You bare your soul. And you know that whatever we discuss in the kitchen does not leave that kitchen or that game. There’s a lot of trust there.”
Sometimes, there’s also heartache. Silverstein’s group lost a member to cancer in May. “The first night we were supposed to play after she died, we all just sat at the table and stared at each other. There was an empty chair.” After a lot of discussion, the women decided against finding a permanent replacement. “It forced us to face our own mortality, and none of us wanted to think we were replaceable.” They now play with a weekly substitute, but for her, some of the fun is lost forever. “Some weeks are very tough on me,” she says.
But if women look for sympathetic, adult communication as a reason for staying with a game, men who play are apparently seeking an escape from maturity. They don’t talk about sharing the ups and downs of life, but about the pranks they play, or their delight in celebrating a regular stag night.
Dr. Jerome Buxbaum’s Tuesday night pitch game is a weekly free-for-all with few rules, most of which are mentioned in order to be broken. His group, which started among high school friends in 1955, welcomes substitutes and drop-ins. “If we get nine players, then we split into three teams of three players each. Each team wears a different colors yarmulke, so we can tell the teams apart.” The regulars enjoy staging elaborate practical jokes, like the time they hired a male stripped to visit the wife of one of the members. She was hospitalized at the time, recovering from a kidney transplant.
Not as flamboyant is Neil Noble’s hearts and pinochle game. Despite consciousness-raising and social upheaval, his night out hasn’t changed in 21 years.
“Most of us go out to dinner before, and whoever’s house is doomed serves chips and dips and drinks – all the usual garbage – one we get there. Then we play, and there’s usually some kind of, well, a ‘training film’ running on the VCR.” Noble sounds a little apologetic about enjoying an evening in a way that would drive Betty Friedan into fits of frustration. His night out, no less than the women’s spent kibbitzing over the tiles about husband and kids, fulfills his need to belong.
Back at Harriet Charkatz’ table, the players are sorting tiles for a new round. The conversation shifts to the previous weekend, when they went out en masse with their spouses.
“Did you check out Rita’s earrings? She wore some mean earrings on Saturday night?”
“They looked like hubcaps,” Says Ilene Goldberg.
“Hubcaps? They looked like Mexican hats.”
“I thought they looked nice,” responds Rita Meier.
Sheila Goldberg, stacking tiles, shakes her head. “They don’t let you die in this game. They talk about you while you’re still alive.”
The groups are almost evenly divided between those that socialize outside the games and those that don’t. Among those that do socialize, some groups invite spouses, and some prefer they stay away. While socializing may include spouses, only a few games are co-ed. Sylvia Cohen and Betty Katz belong to one of those. At least once a month, they and their husbands meet with several other couples to play various card games. It’s a custom they’ve kept going 43 years.
“We started when the men came back from the war,” Explains Sylvia. “I mean World War II. We were sorority sisters, and we dated the same men.” The men invariably play poker, while the women try different games from time to time. Right now, it’s Rummy-Q.
Their idea of getting together involves much more than going to dinner. “We put up $50 each time we play, and put all our winnings into a kitty. Then we go on vacations together. We went to the Panama Canal, and this year, we’re going to Alaska.”
“I want to see something real quick.” Rita sorts through the discarded tiles, looking back and forth from the tiles on her rack, to the pile of discards, to the card showing winning hands.
“Sure, Rita,” we have all night,” Shelly says.
“I want to go on that mah jongg cruise,” Ilene says while they wait. She mentions it several times during the evening. The others nod assent, if they respond at all. Ilene’s obviously thought about the cruise a lot.
A lot of people must have the same idea, because there are several mah jongg cruises offered. Floating bridge tournaments are nothing new, and their popularity inspired cruise lines to try to attract people with other interests. Sitmar Cruises plans to host a floating mah jongg tournament in December. Two hundred players will compete while the ship calls at St. Thomas and other Caribbean ports. There are no cash awards, and most prizes are things life gift certificates at the ship’s duty-free store. The grand prize is another Sitmar Cruise. But the line says reservations are filling nicely, thank you, and they are pleased with the promotion.
Many mah jongg players take their tiles with them on vacation, just in case they find fellow players basking in the sun at some resort. Sometimes, their enthusiasm has unexpected results.
Consider the case of Freda Garelick. She’s played mah jongg almost daily for 37 years in any number of short-, medium-, and long-term games. It paid off when she went on vacation in Puerto Rico. “I became friendly with the social director of one of the hotels. She put me on as a mah jongg instructor. I was teaching people from Argentina, the Islands, South America, people who couldn’t even speak English. But I’d have a class of six or eight people sitting around the pool, learning mah jongg.”
“Mah jongg.” Rita places her tiles on her rack. The others groan. They were all close to finishing their hands.
“Who won?” Sheila asks. It was her turn to sit our. Pleased with the result, she unzips her change purse. Having predicted Rita’s victory, the others must pay her as well as Rita.
“We’ll all get arrested for gambling,” Sheila says.
“For a dollar?” Sheila asks. “I wanted to play for twenty dollars, but they won’t let me.”
“Sure,” Ilene says. “They don’t carry plastic.”
None of the groups gambles seriously,. If there is betting at all, it’s for nickles and dimes, and as often as not, everything goes into a kitty with participants sharing the benefits. What’s in the kitty dictates what the players do with it. Lois Madow and her friends use the kitty to finance a week at a health spa every June. “It’s wonderful,” she says, sounding more like a woman spending a week with Tom Selleck than someone who spends a week vacationing with female friends. “They have massages, and they put us on diets. We lose about a pound a day. Then we go to Atlantic City. We go down the boardwalk holding each other’s hands so we can’t run off and eat everything we see.”
“We go out to eat,” Rita Meier says. Most groups do likewise. For whatever reason, Tio Pepe’s is the universal favorite. Chinese restaurants run second.
“So where are we meeting next week>” Sheila asks while they put away the mah jongg set and stack the empty snack bowls in the sink. It’s just past midnight.
“My house,” Ilene says.
“oh, good. You’ve got a pretty place.”
Outside, the air is rich with the scent of spices from the McCormick’s warehouse near Reisterstown Road. Everybody choruses “good night” and “drive carefully” as they slam car doors.
“See you later,” someone calls.