If you find yourself rushing into the Belfast Co-op cafe early on any weekday morning, and you’re not wearing your optimism goggles, you may be unimpressed by what you see taking place in one corner.

You’re probably running late, spying a small group lounging at a corner table, playing cribbage and looking for all the world like they’ve got nowhere to go and, worse, no specific time to be there.

Numbering at most six, maybe seven, these professionals and students, retirees and soldiers, nurses and artists squeeze in at least an hour of casual, recreational gaming each morning.

Each day at 7 a.m., Adrianne Verkade, a student at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center, steps out of her door, walks past curio shops, restaurants and law offices, making her way to the Co-op.

Once inside the market, she and some of the revolving cast of the cribbage crew perpetuate an ongoing tradition. For at least three years now, despite her schedule of school and work, Verkade has been part of this multifarious group of amiable combatants.

In furious contest, brows furrowed, they bend and sway over a pegged board and a deck of cards. They can be heard counting, “That’s 15 for 2, 15 for 4, and three makes seven.”

They’re playing cribbage.

Cribbage: a gaming favorite since its invention in the early 1600s in jolly old England by Sir John Suckling, poet, gambler and, foremost, gamester.

Cribbage: immortalized by Dickens in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” with the exploits of Richard Swiveller and his self-named “Marchioness.”

Cribbage: the only game played for money in English pubs. But the Belfast bunch doesn’t play for money – they play just because they can.

The games are fiercely casual, each player pounced to spring into repose at any lay of the cards. These players are preternaturally noncompetitive. They bare their teeth in smiles and trade light-hearted trash talk. They take their game seriously, but only as far as fun will allow.

Mandatory daily attendance? Discretionary. And nobody is gearing up for the tournament – they don’t have one. One was suggested, once, but enthusiasm was rootless, and the motion died there. This is not like the chess clubs or gaming halls in ethnic areas of Brooklyn or old Mother Russia.

You can’t smoke, the only din is not the rumbling murmur of grudge matches between wizened masters and hotshot challengers, but from health food shoppers and deli patrons. There is only one board, one deck of cards. There is, however, lots of coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. It’s 7:30 a.m. and all the players are still waking up. But that’s why the group is here: a nice way to get the day rolling.

Scott Giroux, 36, has played out these morning matches in the Co-op for about a year. Giroux co-owns a contracting company, building and renovating homes in the Midcoast. He also runs a small farming operation at his home. The day of the jobsite denizen (like that of the farmer) typically starts early and runs long. It’s often a point of pride among the tradesmen, competing to see who gets up the earliest and gets the most done before lunch. It’s the Maine way, you might say: lobstering, farming, construction, working the corner store; these are all early-to-bed, early-to-rise vocations. Yet somehow, Giroux has softened this work-a-day world with a healthy dose of easy recreation on a daily basis and still maintains a foothold in society.

Giroux finds his day is better if it starts with a round or two of Suckling’s gift at the Co-op.

“I’m up at 5:30 farming, so [playing cribbage] is just a nice break in between jobs”, said Giroux. “I don’t have to work so hard that I’m miserable.”

Another regular, Matt Bixby, is with the 133rd Engineer Battalion in Iraq. He shipped out six months ago and none of the others know when he’ll return. But even amidst the dangers and demands of military engagement, Bixby appears to be carrying on in the spirit of the a.m. games while overseas, finding the joy in the small things rather than give in to the grind.

According to crib-mate Giroux, “he’s doing really well. He’s made friends with a lot of the children where he is. He’s surrounded by kids in every picture he sends home.”

These pioneers of a new way are playing a larger game indeed. They’re challenging the whole of the western work ethic. And why not? It’s an old ethic that needs an oil change anyway.

“Most people don’t stop to smell the smell the roses. Yeah, I think most people’s worlds move too fast. Not my world. I’m happier and I think it’s a lot more productive.”

According to Verkade, the group didn’t always play cribbage. Previous to the remodeling of the Co-op’s cafe, the game of choice was Scrabble. That ended when the kit was lost in the renovation shuffle. But really, the name of the game is of little importance here. What is important to this group is the fun, relaxed approach, the casual nature of the meetings, and the intimacy of the informal gatherings.

“We like it small,” Verkade says. “I think it would change things if a lot of people started showing up.”

Once, an observer (whose name has long been forgotten), made grumblings of snobbery and accused the group of being cliquish and exclusive.
“Well, we don’t discourage anyone from playing,” said Verkade. “But we only have the one board.”

Giroux added newcomers are especially welcome, but “the regulars get the good seats. The nice thing about it is that it’s so casual, I don’t even know people’s last names. Maybe – Jim Bird?” (another regular), “but is that even his name? I mean, I know he carves birds…”

The group has suffered a minor kind of strife in the past. One story goes that a regular threatened to quit after suspected cheating. He abstained for a week, but was softened by congenial ribbing and relented. The suspected skullduggery was chalked up to a bleary-morning miscount. “That kind of thing goes on all the time,” said Giroux. “But it’s only in jest.”

Watching this group of cribbage cronies for longer than it takes to pour a cup of coffee at the Co-Op and run out the door to work, it’s possible to see a different way to start the day.

This lot is not harried by morning lunacy, but are freed from the bonds of the rat-race scheduling, freed to enjoy the simple pleasures that can make this life worth living.

It seems to beat the routines some have created: Race around at the crack of dawn, scramble to drink a cup of way-too-hot coffee, get the kids out of bed and out the door, locate a delinquent left shoe, take the dog out, eat something/anything, drive drive_drive, drop that off, pick those up, hit every red light, forget the one thing that was really important, step in gum on the sidewalk and still arrive late.

These folks have stumbled on the notion that they can have their cake and take their sweet time eating it.

There’s an old saw: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” Maybe the nation will see Maine leading, and likewise follow suit.