September 29, 2005

Start: Clarksdale, Mississippi

End: Little Rock, Arkansas

Miles: 154 miles

Route taken: Route 61 north to Route 49 west over Mississippi River into Arkansas to Route 79 south to Route 165 west, exit at Little Rock.


        It was hard to leave Clarksdale. I always have trouble departing from a place that I seem to make a bond with.

        Certain cities do that to me; New York City, St. Simons Island, Georgia, San Francisco and now Clarksdale, Mississippi.

        There is something about these areas that get in your soul and remains, like you knew you were meant to be there. I have often tried to think of what that common thread among these cities is and the only one I came up with is that they are all individualistic in nature.

        Clarksdale certainly has that. I met more people who went against the norm and it was great to see. There was Joni, who moved here from Kansas City three years ago and fell in love with the area. So did Chaundra, who lives primarily in England, but came to Clarksdale and opened Miss Del’s General Store. The store is a unique mixture of everyday items and books and gifts, fresh jams, organic foods and spices.

        The most interesting character I met however was Pudding Hatchet.

        Pudding is 76 years old, lived in the same house his entire life and has never worked, making a living playing three-card monte.

        This is a game usually performed by street hustlers on big city corners, taking advantage of a hick fresh off the bus.

        There are three cards, two black ones and a red one. You are supposed to pick the red one after the dealer has moved them around. It is a variation on the pea in the shell game.

        Usually in three-card monte the game is rigged and you know Pudding has to have the edge because he is wearing a nice new panama-style hat, tropical silk shirt with brown slacks and shiny loafers.

        Every day for lunch and every evening when the music begins, Pudding is at Ground Zero Blues Club, sitting at his table. He brings his deck of cards with the torn box and a pair of magic dice.

        He is the unofficial greeter of the club. At lunch when people come in, he meets them with a smile and encourages them to come in and sit anywhere.

        At night, he always has a crowd around him. There is always a tourist who believes they can pick the red card.

        “A man bet me $3,000 two years ago,” Pudding said. “That’s the most money I’ve ever won.”

        Pudding averages between $800 to $1,000 a week and has made money at this game for nearly 60 years.

        “When I was 18 I didn’t want to work,” Pudding said. “I didn’t want to steal, didn’t want to deal drugs and I didn’t want to beg. But I knew I wanted money.”

        A younger teenager was dealing three-card monte one day and Pudding asked him to teach him. Two months later the two were in Fort Hood, Texas taking money off anyone foolish enough to play with them.

        “I knew I was going to do this the minute I saw him do it,” Pudding said. “I loved it and I got real good at it.”

        In those days, travel was necessary because there weren’t tourists coming into Clarksdale like in recent years, so Pudding would take business trips just like traveling salesmen, making some money and returning home to his wife and their nine children.

        “When I first met my wife in 1961 I told her what I was doing,” Pudding said. “She asked if I could make a living doing this. The next week I bought her a car. I told her, ‘I aint got no job, but I’ll take care of you.”

        Pudding also doesn’t have a formal education. Unable to read and write, but has gotten along just fine.

        “There was always enough people to make a living off of,” Pudding said. “There is always enough people coming by I could knock off.”

        Unlike other hustlers who run the con quickly, throwing cards around at warp speed, Pudding goes slow, always has. It is his style and a trademark he is known by.

        He also doesn’t use a red Queen, which a lot of throwers use. He instead opts for two 5 of clubs and a five of hearts.

        One trick he does is he takes the five of hearts, shows it to you lays it on the table and puts your hand over it. Then he takes the other two black fives and moves them around, showing them to you.

        When he stops he asks you where the five of hearts is and since he hasn’t touched it, it must be under your hand. Wrong. There is a five of clubs under your hand.

        There is a scene in Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls” where the lead character talks about hustlers.

        “My father once said to me, that one day a man would walk up to me with a deck of cards, upon which the seal has not been broken. This man will be willing to bet you that he can make the Jack of Diamonds jump out of the deck and spit cider in your ear. Now you do not take this bet, for this is a sucker bet, and as sure as you're standing here today, you will get an earful of cider.”

        Pudding, though, continues to wet the ears of people who come in, despite knowing the game is rigged.

        “It’s like a casino,” Pudding said. “They know they can’t win, but they keep going up there. I’m a little slower than I used to be, but I can still throw cards.”

        I left Pudding Hatchet and Clarksdale smiling. I had a new place to visit and a new hero to emulate.