So, let me tell you about my next door neighbor, Ali Olsen.
She’s 86 years old and is a blessing to our cul-de-sac. She’s lived in that house forever and in the general region since – I don’t know – time out of mind.
Ali, she’s not in the best of health, so we don’t see her as much as we’d like. But man, the times we do see her, I get these whispers of a rock-and-roll life that she has led. I kept meaning to sit her down sometime and get the stories behind the whispers. Life always offers excuses, but a couple of weeks ago, I wandered into the garage for something, and Ali’s garage door was open. There stood Ali, out on the pavement, taking in the California sun.
“Sometimes, I just have to get out of the house, you know?”
In that moment, I finally got it right.
“Ali, I’ve been meaning to sit with you sometime and hear stories.”
I grabbed a couple of chairs and pulled them under the shade of the garage apron.
Ali can tell a story. Man. When she recounts it, her eyes leave you, because she’s left you.
She’s there – be it France or the west coast of Mexico. Her face looks exactly as it must have looked when the events were happening.
She led with Patrick, her husband who passed away about a year ago. She still misses him a ton, you can tell.
“Patrick and me, we were together for 30 years,” she said. “And we spent seven of them mostly on the boat. He called me one day, and said, ‘Get some clothes and fly down here to San Diego. We’re taking the boat south into Mexico.’ Well I thought it was going to be for a few days. But I get down there, and because of the insurance, there have to be two of us – he couldn’t be there by himself. I ended up buying more clothes in San Diego, and we were in Mexico for weeks.
“Sometimes I’d fly back here to see family, have peace and quiet. But I’d always fly back down, and we’d park the boat in the marina at a fancy hotel. I mean, we could never afford that hotel, but you could park your boat in a slip in the marina for a month for $500. And you had the privileges of the hotel guests.
“Most of the boaters, they dressed like boaters. Cut-off shorts and t-shirts. But not me, no. I’d always get dressed up, so when I walked around the hotel grounds, everybody thought I was one of those rich folks staying at the hotel. I’d get my coffee and sit by the pool.”
Poker at The Palace
I’m supposed to tell you about the poker…
So, look at the t-shirt in that picture. You know a lot of 86-year old women who wear Harley t-shirts? Yeah, me neither.
The Palace is a tiny little poker club in Hayward, just a few miles south down I-880. It’s been there for decades – all I know is that it existed when I first moved to the Bay Area in the early 80’s. I shoulda looked for Ali…
“My girlfriend and me, we’d go down to the Palace and play poker all night. One night, it was so crowded at the Palace, we couldn’t get in. So we went to the bar next door, which was called ‘Next Door.’ At some point, Bill [her husband at the time] called the Palace. And I wasn’t there.
“Anyway, I get home at about 4:00pm the next day [That’s not a typo. -Ed.] and as I walk in the house, the phone is ringing. I pick it up and it’s the Hayward police. They say they have a report that my husband is really upset, and does he have a gun? Well, yes, but I don’t think he has bullets for it. But they tell me they’re coming over anyway. And I hang up the phone.
“So that’s when I see Bill, and I say, ‘Before you blow my head off, can I tell you that I was at the bar next door to the Palace?’ Well, he calls that bar and says, ‘Is Ali Olsen there?’ ‘She just left.’ So fortunately, he didn’t blow my head off, and we explained it all to the cops who showed up.”
I meant to tell you about playing poker with Ali, didn’t I?
She’s got stories about playing lowball at the Palace and limit hold’em at the Oaks (my current home court) back in the day. And I mean really back in the day – lowball disappeared from California cardrooms when hold’em was legalized in the late 80’s. Ali’s got that same dreamy faraway look as when she talked about some man flying her to Paris for a week.
“Ali, when was the last time you played poker?”
“Oh it’s been quite a while.”
“How about we have a poker date?”
She just lit up.
So last Tuesday, I walked up to her door, and she was dressed to the nines and smelled like Red Door when I hugged her. We went to the Pelton Cafe for breakfast, and I got more stories. Like how she and her girlfriend would go to play-until-dawn home games in the East Bay.
Seat open for Ali…
And then we drove on up to the Oaks in Emeryville. I wasn’t sure if there was a limit hold’em game at the Palace, but I knew there was $6/12 at the Oaks, and I didn’t want to drop her into a no-limit game.
We walk into the Oaks and she says, “Well, I think this might be the same carpet from when I was here in the 80’s.” Just FYI.
The board person knows me. “Lee, you sure you don’t want the $2/3/5 game?”
“Thanks, April, but I’m playing $6/12 with my friend Ali.”
It took a while to get a seat, but I was quite content sitting on the green bench with my neighbor. We bemoaned the closing of the restaurant at the back of the club – I suspect Ali may have been in those booths of a wee hour or two, some decades ago.
Ultimately, we got called to start a new $6/12 game. The first pot we played, I wish I’d had my camera out. I recall putting in three bets with ATs, Ali just shrugging and putting her chips in along with the usual 2-3 other players. Pretty soon there’s a mountain of $2 chips in the middle. I get out at some point in the chaos, but Ali’s quietly calling every bet that happens. We get to the showdown, she turns up pocket aces, just like in the movies, and drags in a couple of racks worth of chips.
I could tell you how much she won or lost, but you and I both know that’s not the point. The point is that she had more fun than I’ve ever seen anybody have at a poker session. At times, I’d remember that I was looking after an 86-year-old great-great-grandmother in a public cardroom, and I’d ask if she was doing okay. Her eyes twinkled yes.
We stayed about 90 minutes then cashed out and headed home.
A few days later, she brought over a plastic container full of pork, beans, and rice she’d made at home. All those years in Mexico hadn’t gone to waste – it was delicious.
I need to call down to the Palace to see if they have a limit hold’em game. Ali and me, we could go for tacos down there. And there’s a story about the Italian men she used to hang out with at the Golden Gate horse track across the Bay in San Mateo – we never really got to the end of that one. Or the time she and Patrick spent on the boat in the southern Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I need another poker date with Ali Olsen.