Picking bones with strangers
by Nathan Davis; illustrations by Sam Tezak
I am sitting in a black folding chair that I’ve set up in Acacia Park on Tejon. I’m midway down the block, about five feet into the park from the sidewalk. I face the block of Tejon that features Jose Muldoon’s and Mountain Chalet. I’ve set up a small table littered with dominoes––bones, as they’re colloquially known––and a second folding chair facing me. Next to me is a piece of cardboard that features the invitation, “Play dominoes with me,” in black Sharpie.
I thought the phrasing “play dominoes with me” would come off as authoritative and confident. It doesn’t. The whole stand looks a little lonely and desperate. Nonetheless, the whole tableau is attention-grabbing.
I’ve been there not more than five minutes when a tall, bulky man walks into the park wearing cargo pants and a baggy gray T-shirt. He is accompanied by a small white dog—I’d guess a terrier or a bichon. The dog trots, determined; the man lumbers, dazed. He surveys the park, eyes resting on me for a few moments and then moving on. He isn’t paying attention to his dog, who slowly walks around him in a circle, taking a small shit every couple paces. Instead of making any intimations at cleaning up the sundial of shit surrounding him, the man lifts the dog, positions it squarely between his legs, pulls a handkerchief from his front pocket, leans over, and wipes the dog’s ass. He then confidently steps over the shit and continues walking his dog. In my head, I laugh. On my legal pad, I jot down a note.
I look back up and I see the man and his dog approaching me. He sits in the chair across from me. I ask if he’d like to play dominoes. He doesn’t seem to want to play dominoes. He also doesn’t seem to speak any English. Instead, he sits and looks at me for a few moments. We don’t have anything to say to one another, and even if we did, would have no way to convey it. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’m in the process of being observed. He is the spectator, I am the spectated. I watched him wipe his dog’s butt, it was clear that he was a jackass. But now, as he silently surveys me: my mussy hair, my desperate sign, my pile of dominoes. I feel the tables turning. The inferiority is infuriating.
Then he and his dog leave. I wonder if he has a legal pad.
That’s the whole point of the dominoes: that playing a game equalizes. It doesn’t allow for the spectator-spectated gap. It forces conversation immediately: someone has to explain the rules, the other asks clarifying questions. Moreover, games are inherently active; they must be played. It doesn’t matter who is more skilled and who is less; what matters is that games are an interaction, a give and take. Offering myself to play bones with whoever is willing—it’s my attempt to descend from the rarified world of the spectator. If I submit myself to interact with anyone, I’m offering the chance to be interacted with.
It takes two hours to get another bite. After plenty of foot traffic and smirks, a blue Toyota minivan pulls up and a stocky man emerges with a thick but wiry black beard that extends about a foot from his chin. He is accompanied by a dog. A border collie, I’m pretty sure. Immediately he takes notice of me, and after tossing a stick with his dog once or twice, he comes over and sits across from me. His name is Robert. He speaks English with a thick, backwoods drawl and would like to play bones. (The dog is Maggie, who speaks no English and doesn’t mind sitting as we play.) Caught up in my excitement over this minor victory, my first game, I lose badly.
Either way, Robert is an exceedingly nice guy. We start with pleasantries: I’m 18, he’s 45.
“Or I might be 46… let’s see…class of ’69… that’d make me what?”
I ask what he’s been up to in Colorado Springs. He takes a pause, wonders aloud, “Since I got in town?” He takes another second and gestures to his minivan, “Just pulled in now.” This turns out to be particularly impressive as he is from Chattanooga, Tenn., a 27-hour drive from Colorado Springs.
“You’re the first person I’ve met out here,” he tells me.
I tell him I’m glad to be his welcoming committee. We chat for a while, telling each other more about ourselves, cracking jokes here and there.
Robert used to hold work in Tennessee inspecting cranes.
“What was that like?”
Eventually, he took a blow to the head on the job and hasn’t been employed for three years. He’d met a few people in Cañon City last year who he might be able to stay with, but if that fell through, he had hollowed out the back of his van and set up a bed for him and Maggie to sleep on. We chat for 10 minutes or so. Topics include weather (“Fuckin’ humid in Tennessee…. Pollen and shit”), pot (“They’ve got shit weed down in Alabama”), and jail (neither of us are interested in going). We never get too deep into anything, but we manage to get along well and make one another laugh. Eventually, Maggie starts tugging at the leash. He says thanks for playing, and they head for the van. I wish them good luck.
After two hours of doing little but watch a man wipe a dog’s ass, my game with Robert sets off a domino effect of sorts. I go on to spend about nine hours at the park that weekend, a few hours each day from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. I play around 10 games and talk to scores of passers by.
I play with John Vincent, an emergency paramedic at the Pueblo County Jail. He wears a tight blue shirt and is built like a tank. He looks me in the eyes and laughs heartily at my jokes. His arms look like barrels. As he describes his work, I imagine his arms holding me down on a gurney while I go into anaphylactic shock after an overdose, or stitching up my side after a fight, or lifting me onto a stretcher as I fade in and out of consciousness. In an odd way, I feel comforted.
He asks me about myself and chuckles when I tell him I go to college.
“If they’re not drinkin’ beer they’re just playing fuckingvideo games,” he says of college students. “Pro’ly aren’t even drinkin’ beers these days,” he adds.
I assure him that we are.
We even get into a polite argument over his characterization of his patients as, “mostly junkies and gangbangers.” By the end of it, we’ve drawn two games and sat for a good 20 minutes. As he leaves, he tells me that I “don’t seem strung out,” and to check if he still has a Facebook because I’d be welcome to one of his barbecues.
I play with Nick and Elena, who had met one another at a coffee shop 20 minutes earlier. Both had gone out with no plans for the day, Nick struck up a conversation with Elena and now they were spending the day together. Both are in their mid-20s and they laugh at one another like old friends or an established couple. Elena is in school in Albany, N.Y., and Nick works at a piano shop downtown. After Nick wins, he builds a small tower of dominoes while I chat with Elena. After 10 minutes or so, they seem anxious to spend more time alone so I tell them to head on. They tell me the stand was cute and walk off together.
I play with Harold, a retired criminal informant. He tells me he was living with biker gangs, buying drugs from them, wearing a wire and feeding the information to the police. It was his dad’s job as well, so Harold started this line of work young, busting high school drug dealers at age 14. Since quitting the force, he’s become a Jehovah’s Witness and is now five years clean. (He tells me that many C.I.’s develop habits on the job. He was no exception). I tell him that I would be terrible at that job.
“Easy money,” he tells me, which I find hard to believe. He offers me the names of a few people that work on the police department who I could contact for a job, and I respectfully decline. He beats me at bones, stays to talk a little longer and then decides to move along.
By the time the rain clouds threaten on Sunday, I’m packing my stand into my big yellow cart, preparing to push it back to campus. I feel content—I had been so terrible at bones that I only won one game. It seems beside the point.
As I push my cart down Tejon, I think about all the people I met. The stories they shared with me and the ones that I shared with them. The equal footing we’d stood on, playing dominoes with one another. We were interacting, opening those parts of ourselves that most certainly would have stayed closed. It felt honest.
When I get back to my room I unpack my cart, pull out my bag and start leafing through my legal pad, looking for a sense of what tied the weekend together. As I leaf through the pages, I start to think about the whole thing differently. I’m confronted with the fact that I’d taken notes on everything: the weather, my opponents’ appearance and demeanor,and anything else that went on in the park. Maybe the purpose of the whole thing was to be a spectator, just in a more direct, interactive way. Sure, games had helped spark conversations, but they were conversations that, despite my participation in, I was also observing. The honest, genuine interactions I had were now ones I intended to write about, to catalogue.
As I sit and think about it from this angle, I feel conflicted. I feel a little idealistic and a little silly. More than anything, I feel like a bit of a jackass.