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The other day on paseo Huerfanos, a (mostly) pedestrian walkway that stretches from San Martín (of the water-scooping-from-the-fountain fame) up to Cerro Santa Lucia towards the east, I saw a crowd huddled around something, so I had to go investigate.

Huerfanos is the backbone of pedestrian downtown, a wide street lined with stores with piped in music and people mopping the sidewalks every morning. At night the cartoneros take it over, breaking down boxes and selling their recycling to the raw goods people, each one with a scale with a giant sign saying “don’t step here!” On Huerfanos there are two movie theaters (there used to be three), several Dominós (the hotdog shop, not the pizza place), a Dunkin Donuts and a number of arcades where you can dip into the belly of a building and come out with a new purse or having had your lighter refilled or a new watch battery installed or some new perfume. You can also accidentally exit the arcade through a different door than the one you went in and end up on a different street and blink in confusion as hoards of people stream past, thinking, this is not my beautiful street (or maybe that’s just me, and yes that was a Talking Heads reference, because I’m that old).

Huerfanos has many stages. Morning, with the mopping, midday with the snack-seekers, later on the lollers at lunchtime and the eaters of oversized icecream from Bravissimo, one of only about two foods it is socially acceptable to walk down the street eating in Chile, the other being fruit, and the third, yogurt being mainly drunk. In the late afternoon vendors come out and sell bootleg CDs, sunglasses, cigarettes, hair-ties, scarves, etc. You know these sellers are illegal because only those with disabilities are legally permitted to sell on the street, and they set up shop along Agustinas, selling insoles and antennas and whatnot.

Among these illegal, cloth-on-the-ground sellers is where I found the crowd. And when I went over to investigate, I saw a man playing Pedrito paga doble, or three-card-monte there on the street. This is a game in which three cards (or in this case, disks) are passed from hand to hand to hand again on the ground, and the customer has to pick out which one is the queen, or in this case, which one had the Colo Colo (one of two very important soccer teams here in Chile) insignia on it. There’s an element of sleight of hand to the game, of confusion, of growing distracted, and of course the palo blanco.

The palo blanco is the shill, the one who pretends to be a customer just like you and me, but really is in on the game. He may alternately win, giving you the idea that you can win, or lose, inspiring you to play so you can show him how it’s done. The whole notion of the game is based on trying to get something for nothing, and thereby a) have more money to spend and b) feel like you’re better than someone, whether it be the dealer the palo blanco or the other shnooks getting taken for their hard-earned lukas (bucks). The stakes were high, with Prats (Arturo Prat, on the face of the 10,000 peso bill) flying. Ten thousand pesos is five cheapie downtown lunches, or more than 25 bus fares. Not small change.

And just like I don’t buy cigarrettes on the street (don’t smoke), nor sell cardboard (though I am collecting cans to one day trade in for the kilo-of-aluminum price, which last time I saw it was like 300 pesos (50 cents), and do you have any idea how many cans are in a kilo?), I also didn’t play Pedrito paga doble. But I did have a good snicker about it with some business men who were talking about it and I mentioned that I thought I knew who the palo blanco was. And they looked at me and said, “Do they play that in… your country, too?” And I said, “en mi país?” (in my country?) “en mi país, hay de todo” (In my country there’s anything you could imagine.)

So what have you seen recently?