... in the Food Court at Square One Mall
In addition to the myriad shoppers and bundles and baby carriages, the Square One Mall in Saugus has a couple of intriguing activities quietly taking place every day between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. In the second floor cafeteria, near the mall-long walkway, games of chess and cards are quietly conducted by a small group of retirees.
At one table, Philip Torf, former bindery worker who describes himself as a Retired Chess-Nut (get it?) sat across the table from Richard Chiasson, teacher at Bunker Hill Comunity College. Some of the blocks on their unbacked vinyl "board" were occupied by the ivory and ebony chesspieces carved in their individual fifteenth century battlefield shapes.
They continued playing chess while being interviewed. In answer to my question about the scarcity of players right now, they assured me that there were at least seven regular players included in both the chess board and the card games. The others, in addition to Phil and Richard, were Mario, Mark, Larry, Paul and Harry. More game players, including cards, were Bernie, Elmer, Frank and Dante. Also Mary, the only female in the group, was a most welcome participant.
One of my early inquiries, suspecting that reference checks might be out of the question, was, "How do new players get chosen?"
The answer: "People just walk up behind us, or sit down and watch. Then, when the timing is right, and the attendance allows, 'Wanna play?' is followed by 'Sure.' It's no big deal."
Phil told me that when his wife was alive, they had played chess and cards at the Saugus Senior Center on Mondays. She had his chess ring custom made with a small family diamond. Now he also wears a large coral ring on his other hand and small pins on his visored cap. Red suspenders complete the picture of this good-natured man.
At Saugus, Monday holidays presented spasmodic interruptions and as the Senior Center grew, alternate days presented a space problem. Paul Cargill and Phil relocated the games to Square One Mall. The latter added, "We've been playing two or three years at this place."
Phil's philosophy about the games went like this:
A few players work, I was told, but the answers to "where" or "at what" were vague. Most have retired to their homes in Malden, Revere, Saugus, Wakefield, Peabody, Lynn and Melrose. They only meet here in the mall. Each life remains private and the interaction between them is that of a group of men and one woman who are good at playing cards or chess and who enjoy humorously communicating for today only.
Richard cannot play during the school year. The enthusiasm of this teacher was impressive. "I love to teach," he announced. "I teach French, Spanish, Writing and Literature. I've been doing it for 20 years now and I think I do a good job." His self-confident humility (oxymoron) led me to believe he was right.
Phil threw out: "I excel at the ramblings of an old man. Richard and I enjoy mutual admiration.
All of the players were well-dressed in smooth casuals. They attracted attention with their good looks. Their personalities were "up-speed." Dante's hair, his tan, his build, all created a distinctive aura. He was only an observer. "I don't play chess," he announced. " I just bring the bag of cherries. I'm in Florida most of the time."
We interviewed and photographed Mary on the following Monday. Eddie had told me during the first interview, "Mary is kind. She plays me 'cause I'm the poorest player. Usually she beats me, but yesterday ... I want this on record ... I won a first-rate game!" Mary de LaValette is an environmentalist and has taken part in demonstrations, has applied for and received grants, and has made videos. She wants to assist "anyone interested in justice and fairness in animal rights." Her card announces that she is a Spokesperson for Wildlife Issues.
I found it surprising that there has never been a new player that they've collectively wished would walk away and never return.
My next question was directed to Richard. "How can you talk and play chess, too?
Richard: I'm a smart man. I'm also good looking.
Phil: I get raves about my talking. All I do is talk.
Me: Any special subjects? What do you talk about?
Phil: Ramblings of an old man.
Richard: He tells me how wonderful I am. Richard-the Lion Hearted.
Phil: You're a nice lady
Me: Thank you. My mother would appreciate hearing that.
Then I strolled over to another table where four casually-but-well-dressed men were playing whist. I never did determine if it was bid-whist. It was a quiet group. Some wanted me to feel at ease immediately by displaying their humor:
"Who was that lady I saw you with last night."
"That was no lady, that was my wife."
This was followed by:
Question: "How's your wife?"
Answer: "Better than nothin'."
Note:I've not mentioned names here in the hope of maintaining peaceful domesticity.
Salvatore, grandfather of Melissa, was an observer that first day. Beside him, Eddie showed great spirit as he minimized his physical discomfort. At the same table, Frank kidded in a gruff voice about people (meaning me) who interrupted card games. Bernie, arranging the cards in his hand, warned Frank good naturedly about his manners. The fourth player was Harry. Who was Harry?
When I went back to the first table to pick up my belongings, there was a pretty child sitting as an onlooker at that table with the chess players. Her name was Melissa. She was seven years old and politely answered my questions. She will be in the second grade when school opens in the fall. She is Mario's granddaughter. Her favorite job is setting up the chesspieces on the board at the start of every game. She is super-sweet and super-intelligent and the chances are good that she might be a remarkable chess player herself one day.
Photos by Ella Letterie
August 2, 2002