If he said a few words before he pulled out the velvet-covered piece of cardboard with the three green pop bottle caps on it, I didn’t hear them.
The conversation was behind me, among the inward facing seats on the hated Red Line nausea cars. A man in a thick tan jacket and stocking cap with a hint of a tattoo peeking out from his sleeve pulled out the board with the pop bottle caps and promised $50 to whoever could spot where the ball was.
He popped the ball, a wadded crumble of gum wrapper by appearance’s sake, underneath one of the caps. Then he started to move them around. Watch this man. This is where it gets good.
“You see where it went?” he asked as he moved the bottle caps around, flipping and whirring and occasionally popping a cap over to show the ball’s current spot. “You see where it went? Find it, get fifty. Find it, get fifty. You see where it went?”
“Jesus saw where it went,” said a disapproving woman sitting next to him.
The woman wore horizontally striped sweatpants and a powder-blue sweatshirt with a glittering costume cross hanging from her neck.
She kept her hand wrapped in front of her, protecting her plastic bag and the light-blue hardback she held. The glittering costume cross around her neck was accompanied by large golden hoop earrings and pitch-black extensions clipped awkwardly into gray hair.
Watch this woman. She’s going to pop up again.
The man continued his game, finally turning to a man in the captive CTA crowd.
“Do you know where the ball is?”
His mark pointed directly to the proper bottle cap.
Smiling, the man with the board held out a $50 bill. As the second man reached for it, he pulled it back.
“You got fifty? I don’t play for nothing.”
The mark said he didn’t.
“Got fifty, get fifty,” the smiling man with the board said, returning the $50 to his pocket.
If you don’t have money to cover the bet, you can’t win the $50. That’s how it goes.
“My man! My man!” an overexcited standing passenger called, clapping his hands as he did so.
The man with the board started a new round, shuffling and shifting the bottle caps. He turned to another rider. This one pointed right to the proper bottle cap but he had $50 on him. Smiling, the man with the board handed over the money.
A woman picked the next bottle cap she had $50 as well, so she got $50.
A few more games. A few more people picking winners but not having the fifty to get fifty. Chicago rolled by the windows as the smiling man shuffled the green pop bottle caps on the red velvet board.
“You see where it went? You see where it went? Here? This one? You got the money? No? Ha ha, man don’t joke when he broke. Man don’t joke when he broke.”
“My man! My man!” the standing passenger called, clapping each time.
The train pulled into the Belmont station.
“Well, I’m going to transfer to the Brown Line,” the man with the board told his audience.
He got up and left, as did about half the train. The man and the woman who won $50 were among the crowd, as was the clapping man who called “My man! My man!”
The train rumbled south.
“They in it together,” the woman with the powder-blue sweatshirt and the glittering costume cross said quietly. “All of them.”
A few in the crowd perked up at this and turned to the woman.
“Him and her and him,” she said, pointing at the spots where the man with the board and his two winners had been sitting. “They came in together and sat down. I know how this goes. He was paying them with they money.”
We all knew it had been a scam; that’s why we didn’t bet. No one plays a shell game on a train out of a love of bottle caps.
“They think we dumb,” a young man said, shaking his head.
“Don’t play anyone else’s game,” the woman said, shaking her head. “If you don’t know, don’t play anyone else’s game.”