Poker pals gather daily under Port Orange bridge
PORT ORANGE — There might be better things they could be doing. Or worse things. They'll grant you that. But it passes the time and keeps them out of trouble.
So, if you happen to spot Mickey and Carlo and Jimmy and the two Bobs and Murphy (if that's really his name) and a handful of other old codgers (go ahead and call them that, they can take it) playing HiHo or LoHo or Queen to Follow or Maverick or 7-11 or any one of about 900 other variations of the game of poker at a certain picnic table, in a certain pavilion, under the Port Orange bridge, don't turn them in.
They're not exactly sure if their perennial no-frills, nickel-and-dime pastime — which commences every weekday at about 11 a.m. and continues until late afternoon rain or shine — is strictly legal, even though no one ever wins or loses very much, and they've been doing it for years.
They just don't want to end up like the Largo Eight.
Haven't heard of the Largo Eight?
"They were a bunch of old guys like us," says Louie Alberto, 69, who sits on a lawn chair, watching the action on a recent afternoon. Most days, he doesn't play.
"I oversee arguments," he says.
Anyway, the Largo Eight got raided by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office back in 1982 for playing penny ante poker in a mobile home park. And Louie thinks it would really stink if that were the fate of the Down Under Gang, which is what you can call Mickey and Carlo and Jimmy et al., if you've got to call them something.
Of course, you could call Mickey Crider, 87, the bionic man. He'd like that.
"I have artificial knees in both legs," says the senior member of the gang, who works out for half an hour every morning at the YMCA before coming to the game. "I've had three operations on my belly, one on my ear, one on my hand . . ." He could go on and on.
But it's his turn to deal.
Mickey, this day, is sitting between Bob Mis, 72, who drove a cab in Michigan before he retired, and Lane Williams.
Lane, 63, is a New Smyrna Beach native who had a really bad accident when he was 26. It affected his speech and dexterity, among other things. His is one of two walkers parked near the picnic bench. But you won't hear him complain.
"I'm lucky to be alive," he says.
He's also lucky at cards, according to the other guys, though he says the most he ever won was four bucks.
When the deal gets to him, he relies on Jimmy — whose motorcycle is parked not far from the walkers — to shuffle and do the honors.
Not that Jim Cozier, 61, — arguably the most cantankerous of the group — does it out of the goodness of his heart.
"Everybody here is a pain in the ass," he grumbles as he deals for Lane.
"Pain in the ass" is one of Jimmy's favorite phrases.
But even Jimmy has a soft spot for Hans.
Hans, a 9-year-old dachshund, is the official mascot of the Down Under Gang. Mostly he sleeps on a quilted jacket near the picnic bench.
The dog comes with Murphy — a pipe-smoking 72-year-old who wears a hearing aid.
Murphy's real name may be Clyde Crashcup, though it's hard to know for sure, since he and the other members of the gang take great delight in pulling a person's leg.
Murphy and Hans — who's "one of the few fish-eating dogs" in existence, according to his companion — typically spend their pre-game hours fishing in the Halifax River, as do several of the other regulars. Fishing excites Hans, says Murphy. Which may explain why the old dog takes a daily nonstop nap on the quilted jacket while the men play.
All the players are retired, and all but Jimmy are either widowers or divorced.
"I've been married six times," claims Carlo Modelli, 70, of Daytona Beach Shores, who speaks with an Italian accent and has been known to stretch the truth. For example, few believe him when he says he was a pimp before he retired.
It's no lie, though, that he, like the others, comes mostly for the company.
The game is "just a daily activity; it occupies the time," says Bob Cassista, 66, who's retired from the Navy.
Recently, one of the regulars died of cancer, he notes. His name was Hal and he kept playing almost until the end.
Which is what they all plan to do. As long as they don't get busted. And the odds are pretty good they won't.
What happened to the Largo Eight, "never happened again," says Detective Tim Goodman, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, in a telephone interview. At least not in Pinellas County.
More than 20 years later, the department and the city are still smarting over the negative national publicity that bust engendered.
Florida law, meanwhile, has a whole section (849.085) titled "Certain penny ante games not crimes." It defines penny ante as games in which winnings don't exceed $10 and there are no organizers who profit. Such games are legal in dwellings and certain other places, like college dorms and community centers.
The law, however, doesn't say anything about park benches under bridges.
Cmdr. Mike Sheridan, a spokesman for the Port Orange Police Department, says that if there were ever any complaints, "we'd have to ask the state attorney for an opinion."
But so far, there haven't been any "with regard to senior citizens playing penny ante poker" in Port Orange, he says.
The Down Under Gang would like to keep it that way.
"We're here today, gone today," quips Murphy. "And I hope I wake up tomorrow."
When he does, you'll know where to find him. Just don't turn him in.