As we enter Year 3 of the pandemic, it only gets harder to hold onto the few good vibes we’ve managed to wring out of this moment in history.
Even those quaint, early quarantine trends — baking bread, playing board games, cheering essential workers — have mostly fallen by the wayside.
Turns out, we may not have all been in this together — or maybe we all just underestimated how long “this” would last.
So, when I heard about a group of men spread out across a few states who haven’t let the coronavirus stop them from continuing a decades-long tradition by playing dominoes twice a week, nearly every week on Zoom since March 2020, I knew that I had to meet them.
Virtually, of course.
“So, whoever has double six, please announce yourself,” asked the host, Angel Roman.
“All right, I got the double six this time,” Donald Rivas responded.
“That’s twice today, man,” Jose Rivera-Benitez said, a twinge of envy in his voice.
“You the man,” cheered Izzy Juarbe.
“I tell you, I’m a roll,” said Rivas.
Roman, 65, is the group’s commissioner — it’s a title the guys joke they let him have, and the one who came up with the idea for the virtual game. He’s in New York City.
Former Philadelphia City Councilmember Angel Ortiz, 80, is in Northern Liberties.
Juarbe, 70, is in Virginia, just outside of D.C.
Rivera-Benitez, 66, is in New Jersey.
And Rivas, also 66, is on Long Island.
There were five players on the call the day I dipped into their regular Thursday afternoon game. A sixth, Luis Roman, an insurance wholesale broker and no relation to Angel, usually joins the group’s Monday game.
The connection between the mostly Puerto Rican men (Rivas is half-Colombian) runs deep — both by blood and by zip code.
Ortiz and Rivera-Benitez are cousins. Angel Roman is married to Juarbe’s sister. More than a few attended the now-closed Seward Park High School in New York’s Lower East Side, and some even went to the same colleges and law schools. In the Before Times, there were long-running annual traditions of weekend domino trips to Stokes State Forest in New Jersey or the Poconos.
“The one thing we have in common is that we’re all New Yorkers, and we know how to trash talk,” said Rivas, although Ortiz, who has lived in Philadelphia for 44 years, is a fixture around these parts.
Rivas laughed but he wasn’t kidding. It only took a few moments to see, and hear, that they’re a lively, and opinionated, bunch. And no person or political party is spared.
“Hey guys, how will the Democrats find a way to screw up the Supreme Court choice?” asked Ortiz.
“Oh, don’t worry, they’ll find a way ...” said Rivas.
Most of the guys were only knee-high when they learned how to play; Juarbe, though, is the exception: a 30-year veteran of New York City’s transit system, he picked up the game during work breaks with his Puerto Rican coworkers.
“They don’t tell you the rules, you gotta learn it as you go along, they’re sneaky like that,” he said, laughing. “They tell you, ‘Oh, you just gotta match them up,’ and it’s a lot more than that.”
No matter when they started playing the game, their traditions have endured as a favorite personal pastime while balancing careers and family. And now, well into retirement or semi-retirement, they’re still going strong.
Without keeping busy, “you grow old faster,” said Rivera-Benitez, a former civil litigator who still does some work as a temporary municipal prosecutor for Elizabeth, N.J., and teaches yoga and meditation. “You notice every pain.”
Dominoes, then, became an even more welcome distraction when the pandemic struck and forever changed everyone’s lives.
Luis Roman conceded he had his doubts about playing dominoes over Zoom.
“Gimme a break,” he recalled thinking. “Who does that?”
There were some hiccups and a few adjustments. But they settled into an honor system that works.
“I close my eyes when I show the dominoes,” explained Angel Roman.
“It’s OK, we know where you live,” Angel Ortiz said.
“I did go to Catholic school,” Roman said. “But I guess that’s not really a defense.”
Here’s a brief explanation of how the system they’ve concocted works: Angel Roman has one camera pointed at a miniature master board on a placemat featuring — what else? — a map of Puerto Rico, and another camera on himself.
He deals each hand and shows the dominoes to each player while the rest of them cover their cameras.
The others use their phones, and their own boards at home, to keep track and reproduce plays.
“It’s evolved,” said Angel Roman, who retired as a deputy press secretary for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
The group plays with near-religious regularity, even when someone is in a different time zone. Angel Ortiz got up at 5 a.m. to play while visiting a daughter — actress Ana Ortiz of Ugly Betty fame — in Los Angeles.
“If you’ve been winning, you’ll hang on for as long as you can,” said Rivas, who retired from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “If you’ve been losing, then you’re gonna say, ‘The hell with it, it’s a bad day. I’ll hang it up.’”
Things can get competitive — hence, some of the nicknames; Rivera-Benitez is called El Tranque, which roughly translates into “The Closer.” But the camaraderie keeps everyone in check and keeps the conversation flowing. No topic is off the table, and ribbing is not just encouraged but expected.
“I’m out with the double one,” said Rivas.
“Ohhhhh,” Juarbe said, sensing a good turn.
And then, drama: “Hold it ... hold it, I have the double one,” Ortiz announced.
“No, you can’t have the double one ... I have the double one,” Rivas corrected.
After a little more confusion, Ortiz cracked the case. “It was a glare. My mistake.”
“Yo, that’s like the old, ‘Sun got in my eye,’” Angel Roman teased. “We have to get him some shoe polish.”
In the last two years, they’ve seen each other through injuries (Angel Ortiz took a nasty spill recently, but he says he’s OK) and illnesses (Angel Roman lost a brother to COVID-19). But they’ve found a deep sense of kinship in the Zoom games — and have come to rely on this exercise in fellowship, bonding, and brotherhood.
“For two days a week, it’s served as a safety valve, a mental health valve, as a way to look outside of the cocoon we’re all in,” said Angel Ortiz.
“It’s helped me deal with the isolation of the pandemic,” said Luis Roman, echoing a sentiment that each of the men expressed in one way or another.
“This has been a comfort in the back of my mind knowing that ‘Hey, man. I got something to look forward to.’ We can talk about stuff, so it’s been very, very soothing.”
In 2020, the men put on a virtual championship where, in honor of the nickname they’ve given their group — the DominOsos, which loosely translates as the “dominos playing bears” — Angel Roman dressed as a bear for the occasion while announcing the winners during an online awards ceremony.
As they prepare to celebrate their second anniversary, they’re thinking of putting on another championship. With the easing COVID-19 numbers and restrictions, maybe they’ll even be able to gather in person one day soon.
Until then, it does a pandemic-weary heart good to know that twice a week, just about every week, the DominOsos are out there, separated but connected, and finding a way — despite these otherwise challenging times — to keep the good vibes going.