Sunday Scrabble and eavesdropping: Some notes

May 4, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 4, 2016

At least two Sundays a month, you can find me at Saladelia Cafe at 4201 University Drive in Durham sometime around 2 p.m. for a weekly Scrabble get-together. I played two games last Sunday against a pair of new opponents — C— and her husband S—, I’ll call them. They’re college instructors (of what subject or subjects I do not know) who frequently visit the Triangle.

When I arrived, S— was playing one of the other Saladelia regulars, so C— and I took their board and began a game in the next room. I was able to set up a play early on that let me put down Z, a 10-point tile, on a triple-letter-score spot to make ZEE/ZA/ER for 65 points — the equivalent of a bingo — which put me ahead, 117-26, in turn 4. C— got her points in the next turn, however, when she GELATIN/THEN for 67 points of her own, which cut her deficit to a manageable 132-93.

Unfortunately for C—, my tiles went pretty well. After she played NOG for only four points with her 10th move, I had a rack of AEIRSST. I converted that to ARTSIES/NOGS using a triple-word-score spot on the right-most column, giving me 79 points and a very healthy 279-131 lead.

But C— is pretty crafty, so the game remained competitive. She played MOoDY for 49 points in turn 11 and SPY/QUAY for 41 points in turn 12. (The S occupied the triple-word-score spot in the board’s lower-left-hand corner.)

I entered the 13th turn with AELNOR?. That makes LOANERs, but there was no spot on the board for that word, and I couldn’t figure out any of the other bingos that combination could form. (For the record: AiLERON, ALEuRON, ALiENOR, ALmONER, cORNEAL, LAdRONE and RELOANs.) I decided to play off LO for 5 points in hopes of drawing tiles that would allow me to capitalize on the S in SPY.

That’s exactly what happened: I drew ER, giving me AEENRR?. I played lEARNERS in turn 14, putting the blank on a triple-word-score space in the left-most column. That netted me 74 points and gave me an impregnable 393-242 advantage. I continued on to a 488-289 victory.

(Incidentally, AILERON, ALEURON, ALIENOR, ALMONER and LADRONE all take an S, so I could have had my bingo one turn earlier if my word knowledge were better than it is.)

My game against S— was a bit harder. Playing first, S— put down SITE 23 in the fifth turn, cutting his deficit to 68-65. But I had an extremely versatile rack, CEISU??, and I played CrUIsES for 62 points, vaulting me to a 130-65 lead.

S— was hampered by a self-confessed inability to make bingos; indeed, his highest-scoring play was 27 points, and he only made three moves that earned him more than 19 points.

I didn’t have the greatest racks — in turn 7, my tiles were GKMPQRW; I threw them all back — but I was able to keep making yeoman-like plays. Over the eighth through 10th turns, my words were OHO 32, REV 24 and OF 26 — all respectable, especially against a foe who was playing small ball.

I entered turn 12 with a 241-153 lead, which S— whittled down to 241-170 with BRA 17. However, My rack was AEEKRST, and I was able to play RETAKES 80 for my second bingo. In the 13th turn, I put out HUB 37. I finished with a 428-228 win, thanks in no small part to C— getting stuck with a horrific rack when I made my out play. His AGNWQ was worth 17 points; doubling that gave me 34.

My victory margin could have been bigger. At one point, when S— attempted to play AIRS for 12 points, I told him to save the S because it might come in handy later. He took back the sinuous letter and settled for AIR 9 (although he never found a big score with the S).

But my winning margin also could have been smaller. I’m not sure how long S— had the Q, but the U in CrUIsES was open and available to use until fairly late in the game. Unfortunately for S—, he didn’t realize that QUA is a valid word.

I’m writing about these games not because they were particularly illuminating but because, well, sometimes you overhear interesting stuff at Saladelia. Often, the cafe has graduate students (mostly from Duke, I presume) who are studying. Frequently, families or older couples will dine there after church. A few weeks ago, two women whom I took to be well-to-do sisters in their 20s were talking about money and family vacations and whether one of them might be slacking off or taking advantage of their mother.

This past Sunday, C— and S—’s board was set up next to an older couple who were, in fact, not a couple. She was perhaps 50, perhaps older. Her hair was white, and her face was quite striking; in her younger days, she was surely a stunner, and at the present time she looked pretty good. He was in that same general age range but quite heavyset and, I think, balding. The man walked with difficulty and used a cane.

They both seemed to be life coaches of some sort, and they were talking about collaborating on a project, or maybe on a few projects. That actually took a while for me to figure out — the couple’s initial getting-to-know-you chatter made me think that they were on a first date.

The man — I didn’t catch either of their names — was quite loquacious and had a natural charm. He went into his life story in some detail, to the point where I remember thinking that it was uncomfortable for them to be having their conversation right next to the table where I was sitting. Indeed, at one point in the second game, while I was struggling with a horrific rack, I said to S—, “I don’t like my situation,” and he chuckled, possibly sensing that I was referring to our neighbors’ discussion as well as the game itself.

I don’t remember much of the man’s story, but I do recall a few things that made me feel like cringing. The first involved his first wife; he talked about falling in love with a young lady, I think at a music festival, when he was 19 and she (I believe unbeknownst to him) was 16.

Later, somehow, he and his (first? second?) wife ended up owning a luxury resort and she accepted a proposal to sell the property without consulting him; when he went to a lawyer, he discovered that she had the legal right to sell without his consent because of the way the business had been established. They (unless this concerned a different spouse?) had a tempestuous separation that saw her running off to Mexico with a woman and then getting into some kind of trouble and calling the man and begging him to (a) help her out and (b) take her back.

Eventually, the talk shifted to the project on which the pair were going to work. And then, as the get-together was approaching an end, the man shifted it back to the personal.

To be specific, he made a polite pass at the woman. He had a sort of exploratory query, saying something like, “If I could see you socially…?” I didn’t hear her answer; I assume that she shook her head no. He gently asked, “So you’re seeing someone?”; apparently she nodded.

All in all, it was a perfectly civil interaction; I’m not sure if there’s any reason for me to have been embarrassed for her for being subjected to the pass, or for him for making it and being unsuccessful, or for me for witnessing the thing. But still, it felt odd.

Their meeting ended on a perfectly amicable note; they were going to be in touch on whatever project they were doing. When they stood up to go, he asked if he could hug her, and she said yes. I think he also said something about how he was grateful that she’d come into his life.

But actually, the woman said one thing near the end of the conversation that struck me as poignant — and this is the whole reason that I wanted to write about their encounter.

The two of them were talking about love and broken affairs, and the woman counseled the man against guarding his heart. (Not that he necessarily needed that recommendation.)

She said, “That’s my advice, is fall as many times as you can, just don’t let it destroy you.”

I found that inspiring. And so I’ll close on that note!

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