San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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November 15, 2002


Pasquale sat across from me; eyes shifting from his hand to the table, and back again. I couldn’t help wondering what he was holding, trying to anticipate his next throw. I was down a few points, scrambling to catch up, and I needed what was on the table, that is, if he didn’t pick up first. I had to prevent him from making a sweep, or else I was doomed. In the meantime, the seven of gold, or settebello, lay quietly between us, beckoning. It was the first game of scopa Pasquale and I played together. He’d been showing me an old deck of Neapolitan cards that he and his father used to play with, when he suddenly began dealing.

Scopa (which means broom in English) is an Italian card game. Played by two to four persons, the goal is to score four points per hand until a player reaches eleven, which counts as a win. The four points are divided down to the following: collecting the most cards, getting six or more of the gold cards, holding the seven of gold, or settebello, and making a sweep, or scopa. Sweeping means that you pick up the remaining cards on the table.

sicilian playing cards

It was when I first visited Sicily, as a child, that I discovered the game. A cousin of mine pulled the red box out of the drawer and shook the cards into his palm. As he laid them on the table, I watched, mesmerized. The spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds I was used to were nowhere to be seen, replaced by engraved illustrations of horsemen, kings, pages, swords, and cups. The cards were smaller and thicker, too, and had this strange symbol printed on the back called the trinacria. It reminded me of the logo of this Sicilian bakery back home. Giuseppe explained that they were Sicilian playing cards, and that all the playing cards were the same, except that their illustrations varied from region to region. What he said was true, because folks in the village could tell which region you were from by the cards you played with.

My cousin gave me his deck, which brought back to San Diego. I played whenever I got a chance. On visits to family friends and other immigrants in the old neighborhood, there was always a game going on. I played with some of the old timers. Sometimes, we’d bet, playing for pennies or even better, a dollar! They usually let me win.

I think they enjoyed that I was so interested in such a big part of the old culture. Most of the old folks feared that the younger generation would forget their roots. I didn’t fall into that category. I couldn’t. We spoke in Sicilian dialect at home, in the neighborhood, when we played and in public when we didn’t want others to understand what we were saying. I even studied the cards for hours. The illustrations made me feel as if I was transported back a few centuries. I thought about what I’d seen in Palermo, of the stories I heard of Sicilian royalty and the simpler times and hardships my folks experienced.

This year, while I was packing stuff to move, I found that I’d had three decks of cards in floating around. I stuck one of them in my coat pocket, forgetting it there for a few weeks, when I ran into my friend Frank, who’s also Sicilian. He was bartending on a slow night at the Live Wire. I had ordered a beer and reached into my pocket for some cash, when I felt the box sitting next to my wallet. Like my cousin so many years ago, I opened the box and shook the cards into my palm. Frank gave me a knowing grin and nodded. We played a round, all the while trading taunts and insults.

Since then, I’ve kept a deck on me. I’ve also taught a few friends to play, whom I meet with on the weekends for a few rounds. They seem to have tapped into the energy of it. New relationships and memories are being built around it. I enjoy that, and the fact that other folks seem to have taken an interest in it. The other day, at my neighborhood cafe, this guy referred to me as ‘that guy with the funny-looking cards’. Hmmm. With Pasquale, the cards were even funnier looking. Very cool illustrations. We finished our round over an espresso.

He got the damn settebello.

Posted by sfilippone at 09:59 PM | Comments (3)