Granite tables with checkerboard tops line the sidewalk that surrounds Dupont Circle, where a gaggle of men sit & play pickup games of chess. It’s Sunday night, and my friend Jason & I have stopped to watch a competition when a guy in a “Chess University International: Dupont Circle” T-shirt approaches. He challenges Jason to a seven-minute game, winner gets $3.
I stand by, watching, while a nearby bum hollers a Barry Manilow tune – “My baby loves me, yes, she does…” – while he waits for a pickup game of his own. This is big-time stuff! An egg timer, a fancy little chess set. But more importantly, Chess Challenger is a pretty badass competitor. After about five minutes, Jason presses the timer button that concedes his loss. “I’ll make you a deal,” Chess Challenger tells him, & soon they’ve begun again – seven minutes on Jason’s timer, only five on the Challenger’s. But again: total domination.
“I’ll make you a deal,” the guy offers again, & they begin a final game – seven minutes on Jason’s timer & a measly one minute on the Chess Challenger’s. When the game starts, I’m astounded at how quickly the Challenger reacts, completing each move in no more than five seconds. With 20-something seconds still left on his timer, he’s beat Jason again. “I’ll make you anoth-” he starts, but Jason cuts him off & begrudgingly dredges $9 out of the depths his pocket: “I know when I’m beat.”
On the way home, a beef-jerky-eating MTF transvestite sits next to me on the train, complete with peeling purple nail polish & thick grey chin stubble. A beady-eyed man who resembles “Now & Then’s” Crazy Pete gets on my traincar & reads The Washington Post while wearing gardening gloves, as though he's trying not to contract any public transportation-borne diseases.
I might never get used to city life, but I sure do love the surprises.