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Tom Whiteside waited 11 years to play with a full deck of cards

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The 6 of Hearts was found in Cambodia, shortly before a tour of the ruins of the Angkor Empire.

The 8 of Spades was stumbled upon in Paris, France, while its prospective owner embarked on the trail of a baguette.

The 2 of Diamonds was not as much discovered as it was the discoverer: "I was drunk and passed out under a table. Woke up and it was right in front of my eyes," wrote a man who found it on a ferry on the Puget Sound.

As of Friday, June 22, Tom Whiteside, film connoisseur, artist and collector of ephemera, had been waiting for 11 years for the last, elusive card to complete his second deck of 54, Jokers included. Maybe he would find it. Or someone else would and send it to him. That would be left to chance: Whiteside would not reveal the missing suit and denomination in order to deter a well-meaning scavenger from simply pulling the outlier from his or her personal deck.

The find must be random, even lucky. "It is its own card game," Whiteside said. "You're dealt something."

Whiteside's exhibit at Durham Cinematheque, Cards: Almost Two Decks, contains his first found deck, completed over four years. Its cards, many of them worn and torn, hang from strings. The second, an unfinished deck, lies under glass. All of the cards are turned face down, their values hidden, their backs—emblazoned with names of casinos, smiley faces and intricate geometric patterns—as varied and beautiful as a butterfly collection.

Playing cards seem to be endowed with a mind of their own, bestowing upon us luck—a winning poker hand, for example—or misfortune. Aces and 8s is known as Dead Man's Hand, the two pairs Wild Bill Hickok was reportedly holding when he was murdered in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D.

Whiteside's exhibit riffs not only on the theme of fortune but also of technology. No longer do we play solitaire with a crisp deck of Hoyles, but rather on smartphones and computers. Even the sound of shuffling is computer-generated. Cards are becoming endangered.

And as we increasingly retreat indoors to our Wiis, iPads and Internet-enabled 60-inch televisions, we wander less. We are not as open to the joys of spontaneity, the chances of stumbling upon an unexpected find—in Whiteside's case, the final card.

"People now don't spend a lot of time outside," Whiteside said. "It raises the question of 'What do you find when you get lost?'"

There was no Internet when Whiteside compiled his first deck, beginning with a 3 of Spades he found on the ground in Porthole Alley in Chapel Hill, in 1978, and ending with a Jack of Hearts he discovered in 1982 on Franklin Street—remarkably, just around the corner from where the collection began.

The first deck contains cards he discovered in six countries on three continents. His self-imposed rule was if he found multiple cards from the same deck, he could take only two.

"None of the cards were taken from full decks or anywhere a card might normally belong," Whiteside writes in the exhibit notes. "These are genuine discards."

For his second deck, Whiteside enlisted the help of others, albeit under more rigorous restrictions. Only one card could be taken from the same deck, what he calls "a perfect find."

Like a sheep separated from its flock, cards often become removed from their deck. Cards are dropped, blown, tossed, abandoned. Whiteside and his fellow scavengers have found cards in vacant houses and parking lots, in the Bowery in New York City and near Maplewood Cemetery in Durham.

"I found a lot of cards around K-Ville," Whiteside said, where Duke University students camp out for months for basketball tickets.

People send him cards from far-flung locales, and as the search for the final card intensifies, well-wishers seem intent on finding it. Whiteside recently found a 2 of Hearts on his windshield.

Wrong card.

Filmmaker Alan Berliner gave him a card without a suit or number; its front had peeled from the back.

Blank cards don't count.

Nearly three years lapsed between Card 51—found in 2007 by a woman while reading a book and walking her dog along Milton Road in Durham—and 52, discovered by Whiteside in the parking lot of the Card Gym (yes, really) at Duke University.

A year has passed since a man discovered Card 53 in Buffalo, N.Y., while walking home from Louie's Hot Dogs.

Card 54, where are you?

On the evening of June 23, Whiteside and his wife bought tacos and sliders from the KoKyu food truck. He had eaten there before, but he resisted the temptation to frequent the place because he knew it gave out cards.

"I was not thinking about cards when we spontaneously decided to go to KoKyu," he said. "I was thinking about the food."

As he placed his order, he saw a 5 of Spades on the counter. His card, Card 54.

"I told them they wouldn't get their card back."

As cards will do, the 5 of Spades seemed to speak to Whiteside earlier that day, when his 10-year-old stepdaughter placed a deck from the National Air and Space Museum on the dining room table. On top, face up: The 5 of Spades.

"'There it is,' I was thinking to myself, 'the card I need, with the Apollo Lunar Model and all.' Nobody knew it was THE CARD."

He refrained from taking it. That would have been cheating.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Card 54, where are you?"

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