Playing card mystery
September 8, 2011 4:00 PM   Subscribe

I find single playing cards on the street which I'm convinced are some kind of code, does anyone know more about this?

I often like to walk around the streets and collect random objects. One thing I've spotted fairly consistently is single playing cards. I've always assumed this is a code of some kind, because it seems to happen too regularly to be a coincidence.

For instance, a couple of days ago, I found a playing card placed right by a spot which I know is pretty good for skipping/ dumpster diving. I'd previously seen playing cards along this same alley as well, placed fairly deliberately at the bottom of two separate fences leading to the back of some shops.

Relatedly, I noticed that one of the characters in an episode of The Riches (a series about Irish travelers) seemed to be navigating using playing cards.
I've seen this previous thread on a similar issue, but most of the replies are suggesting cards being lost/ blown away, which isn't convincing from my experience.

Does anyone have any knowledge or resources about playing cards used as code, or more generally about the kinds of codes travelers (in a broad sense) have used to communicate with each other?
posted by ninjablob to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Could be someone doing a walk-by friendly troll of the area. Sometimes when I'm bored walking around my neighborhood, I'll collect all the rubber bands dropped by mail carriers and loop them around fence posts. Or I'll leave a trail of pennies. Or I'll kick all the loose pebbles into a straight line as I go along. Or something. (Usually I just pretend that some of the sidewalk slabs are made out of lava.) I do a lot of purposeless walking and try to find dumb little ways to entertain myself.

That would be my first guess for what's going on. Trying to reason out an underlying code behind it would trail pretty far behind.
posted by phunniemee at 4:25 PM on September 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have noticed the same thing, but have no explanation.
posted by theora55 at 4:44 PM on September 8, 2011

I sometimes find odd stuff seemingly deliberately placed. Like half a cigar placed just so next to a troll doll and some mardi gras beads. I always assumed it was like a voudun or wicca thing? Maybe that is what the cards are?
posted by ian1977 at 5:20 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anything visually distinctive will do for this purpose. High-gloss high-contrast playing cards happen to be visually distinctive.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:20 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where do you live? I can't recall ever finding a single playing card lying around in the Boston, Cambridge, Somerville area, and it's the sort of thing I'd notice.
posted by alms at 6:30 PM on September 8, 2011

Contrary to alms, I often find stray cards along the multiuse path near Davis Square in Somerville. I like to pretend they contain a hidden message, but I think they probably are just falling out of kids' backpacks.
posted by rosa at 6:35 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's highly unlikely that there is a code. (Some friends of mine believe that shoes hanging over telephone wires means that's where drug dealers live.... clearly it's just where kids hang out...)

But I would like to see data. Why not keep a google map and/or photographic record - if it really is that common and it is a code then recording what cards are where would certainly help you find out what it meant. That or it's the first step towards insanity... I still think it would be interesting even if it's completely meaningless.

PS - The best thing I've found in the streets recently is a child's schedule for minimalist avantgarde cinema programme.
posted by pmcp at 6:40 PM on September 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I like the idea of starting a project to record it. People would have to report in about found playing cards. Maybe on Twitter. Then you could map them.

I have also found a couple playing cards on the street - never thought much about why they were there, just took them as good omens. Kids do funny things. People sometimes mess with each other in a random artistic way, like phunniemee. THat, and cards are just one of those ubiquitous things. If you lose even a few cards from a deck, it's sort of useless, so you can understand how they start to wander away.
posted by Miko at 7:09 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh boy. So, you should Google "Found playing cards." You'll find things like Deck O'Junk, Found Playing Cards on Tumbler (already with map and the whole nine yards), some found cards on Flickr, and some more projects about found playing cards.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read in the book "Callings" that the author, Gregg Levoy, had this happen to him. He found, I believe, five queen of hearts playing cards over the years, in wildly varying, far away places.

I've found a couple of cards myself, and I found (and recently lost my collection of, dammit) a series of guitar picks in VERY random places, but my "thing" of finding is blue feathers. (Note that I live in a town where there's plenty of black and white ones to be found, but blue is bizarrely difficult.) I've found 600+ of the darned things when I used to never see any, since 2008 when I did this "manifest a blue feather" experiment thing. Whether you think that's just that I look better or that I hit a cosmic "more!" button somewhere, that's still pretty amazing stats to me.

I tend to think it's some kind of weird sign from the universe-- the feathers and picks have meaning to me. What do cards mean to you?

Or alternately it could be a drunken game of 52 Pick Up gone wrong. *shrug*
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:17 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

the feathers and picks have meaning to me. What do cards mean to you?

At some point, once you determine that they have a meaning, any further sightings become a confirmation bias. You become the person who "always" finds cards, or who "always" makes streetlights go out. One local organization has a collection of plastic Army guys, which they "always" find. I think the reality is that the world is full of our floating human detritus, and once we start ascribing meaning to the random items we come across, we tend to notice more and more items of that kind, and they continue to accrue meaning.

I had a thing about heart shaped rocks for a while. But they really aren't all that uncommon, and when I finally accepted that "OK, there are a buttload of heart shaped rocks in the world," I stopped seeing them as a personal message.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on September 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

In college, at some 'special' (as in in memorial of something or something) parties/bar-forays one of the guys would hand out cards from a deck. Some kind of dumb drinking game.

Most people threw theirs away where they remembered that they had this playing card in their pocket.
posted by porpoise at 7:36 PM on September 8, 2011

Are there a lot of motorcycles in your area? Any recent Poker Runs? That would lead to some scattered random cards.
posted by BlooPen at 8:11 PM on September 8, 2011

I don't know... It could be a code, but I think this is a case of "If you start looking for something you'll see it everywhere."

Currently, I'm haunted by the number 1137. pull over my car to make a phone call, the address is 1137, look at the clock it's 11:37.. or 2:11 and 37 seconds.

Playing cards are not an uncommon item. I would be surprised to find a single residence in the US that didn't have a deck laying around somewhere. Maybe a few cards were placed deliberately, but like phunniemee said, they can be deliberate but meaningless.
posted by j03 at 10:01 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

One possibility...

So...if you lose one card there is actually a good likelihood you lost the whole deck right? I mean, you aren't walking downtown and *just* the 7 of clubs slips out of your back pack right?

No itd be the whole deck. It spills out onto the sidewalk. Then what? Kicked by commuters. Swept up into the street by a store clerk. Driven over. Washed in the gutter. Blown in the wind. Someone might even idly pick 3 up just to futz with. Within 24 hours of someone dropping a deck of cards, there is some average that they would be spread out over a downtown area.

posted by ian1977 at 11:02 PM on September 8, 2011

It probably means that the person who left it there isn't playing with a full deck.
posted by motown missile at 12:10 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know, but I have been driven a bit crazy by this same phenomenon over the years. What ian1977 says is true-- odds are it isn't just one card being lost at a time. But ian1977 places his hypothetical fallen deck in a downtown area, where there is sufficient traffic to spread the things out fairly far and fast. I used to see these individual playing cards in a much smaller town, with very few pedestrians, and no reason that I would never find two in the same area at the same time. I never thought about a code-- it wouldn't be as practical to use cards as some other kind of marker, because they can so easily blow or be kicked away. But oh my, how I always wondered how they came to be lurking there singly and inexplicably to begin with! Maddening.

(BTW, Miko, I'm The One Who Always Finds 4-Leaf Clovers. Really a lot of always. Sometimes more than fifty in a day. And yeah, I save them, so I can prove it. Though I suppose I can't here. I solemnly swear that I am not a charlatan.

I think in some cases the Always Finds X thing may be due to a quirk in one's pattern recognition skills or something. I don't look for the things. I just see them when I'm walking.)
posted by Because at 6:21 AM on September 9, 2011

When I was living in the Northern Territory in Australia I would find random cards all over the place. I can to find out that the local women loved to play card games outside. These games would go for hours and involve the most amazingly mismatched and well used collection of playing cards I had ever seen. I never could figure out the rules to the game, but I it always looked such fun sitting out under trees talking and laughing and playing cards that I kept a few of the cards I found on the streets afterwards. I still have one I keep in my wallet for luck and randomly now refind the cards used as bookmarks in books I was reading during my time there.

Maybe it's a similar sort of thing? Some group of people playing cards outside moulting a few cards from their pack?
posted by wwax at 6:51 AM on September 9, 2011

(BTW, Miko, I'm The One Who Always Finds 4-Leaf Clovers. Really a lot of always. Sometimes more than fifty in a day. And yeah, I save them, so I can prove it.

And it's because four-leaf clovers are common enough - Wikipedia gives the estimate of 1 in 10,000 - and because you're looking at them. I also have a friend who finds them all the time, and he basically uses it to show and prove how common they are, and teach people how to find them. Finding 1 in 10,000 seems hard until you practice his trick of scanning and looking for the anomaly - similar to looking at this set of dots and noticing one that is green or red instead of black.

My point is that once you become The Guy Who Finds [whatever] you are far more predisposed to continue looking for those items, connecting them to your identity, and as you describe, "proving" or demonstrating to others that it's something that is connected to your identity. It's not due to a sudden proliferation of the numbers of those items in just your environment, simply your predilection for noticing them and your continued commitment to keeping on noticing them. Now that I've given up my heart shaped rocks I probably walk by dozens of them every time I go to the beach, because I just stopped caring about them and realized my ability to find them was constrained only by geology and mathematics, not by my special aura.

So you're a noticer, and now you're noticing cards. You have a finely tuned visual sense.

As for how they get around, someone pointed out that a deck of cards is present in probably a very, very high percentage of households. When I think about the households I've lived in and the situation of the cards, especially when kids are around, I think about a lot of things. I think about the decks of cards that lost their rubber band and ended up splayed out and scattered through a toy chest. I think about taking card decks on vacation and playing with mixed decks and double decks. I think about the decks with missing cards where one or two were dropped or blew away while playing outside or in the car. I think about building houses of cards and doing all the other things kids find to do with cards - sticking them in bicycle spokes, chucking them at a hat as a game, learning to shuffle, trying to learn and show off magic tricks that let you fool people, fortune telling, etc. Wayward youths use cards in drinking games like Asshole and Golf, and do games like Suck and Blow and sticking playing cards on their foreheads in Oh Hell. Then there's gambling games with cards, happens all the time, especially in cities and out on the street - even super simple ones like deck cutting. People use cards all the time; they are surprisingly ubiquitous objects, and they aren't always used in a complete deck to play a sedate game of cards at a table. In fact, I may venture to say that once kids and drinking games are factored in, the majority of cards are not in fact most often used to play games at tables. So with all this card-using, card-carrying, card-adapting activity going on, it doesn't seem strange that cards are a pretty common piece of found detritus.

I suspect cards are a little more notice-able because, culturally, they carry a lot of connotations for us. Their role in gaming is so determinative that the imagery of cards has a certain power - the Ace of Spades, the Jack of Diamonds, the Queen of Hearts, and many other cards have an association or two for most people. They are mathematically totally interesting, too. They appear at the crux of dramatic movies and books, and as codes and signals. So I can understand the instinct to think a random card must mean something, because when we encounter a mention or image of a card in pop culture it usually is intended to mean something. And they have enough variability and mathematical interest that you definitely could make a code out of them.

But finding them on the street or in the woods isn't all that unusual, as I think the Googling reveals well but as I can attest from my own card-finding in life, and imagining that they are a code seems very likely to be just that, imagination.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on September 9, 2011

Take the probability of running across a card in a Canadian city. In a similar sized and similarly dense city in mainland China, that probability is doubled. Or trebled. "OK that's like 50 cards and I've been out for less than an hour. What the heck??"

That sounds weird, I know. Hopefully someone backs me up here. It's true, dammit.
posted by sleslie at 11:38 AM on September 9, 2011

I'm not sure I understand the point? (Also, it might not really double, because the number of cards per capita depends on the role of playing cards in Chinese culture. And there are probably other cultural variables).
posted by Miko at 12:29 PM on September 9, 2011

I'm pretty sure there's a 'previously' about this somewhere on AskMe, too...
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:16 PM on September 9, 2011

D'oh. Yes. Sorry.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:16 PM on September 9, 2011

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