My headlights vanish as I turn into the lot. This place used to be an old Kmart or Roses. A hundred cars cluster near the entrance, gleaming in the December moonlight. A glassed-in smoking section features two long blue benches. The perforated metal on reads “Bingo World” and “Bingo at its best.” No one is smoking now. My steps crunch in the loose gravel. I feel like I am on the moon.
Inside, a friend places the order for our group at the cashier stand. We each get a stack of several pages, each with 9 bingo cards on it, and a small tablet screen. I buy a dauber from a vending machine.
We find two tables that are empty and all sit together. My friends tell me that this is not usually the case, that it’s a slow night. When they’ve come too close to the start time before, they haven’t been able to find seats together. The place holds 500, 700, 1000 people? Tables stretch the length of the hall. I am not used to measuring the capacity of places like this. I can’t imagine all the seats filled.
A clerk hands us a schedule of games that night. The basic admission gives us 11 games of bingo, 9 cards for each. But that is not all the games that evening. The clerks walk along the aisles hawking additional games played in between the base games. These include the early bird games at 7:30 as well as instant games where you pull tabs to reveal potential prizes. The latter are like lottery scratch-offs without the scratching. The clerks wear blue polo shirts with breast pockets. Money sits in the pockets. The bills threaten to fall out but also do not seem to move.
The announcer names the game (blue cards, olive cards, etc) and says what we are looking for. I swim in the language all evening. I understand the words but not the way they are being used. Six pack the hard way. Small round robin. Wild ball diamond. Mercifully, the video tablet illustrates diagrams of the way winning gameboards look.
Large mounted monitors on the ceiling and wall display the called numbers. The benefit of the video tablet is that the numbers are closer to you and do not have to look up constantly. Two electronic cards are included for each game; the numbers are electronically daubed as they are called. The video tablet also shows the next pulled number in the tube (that will be called next). Everyone in my part of the hall has a tablet.
The announcer begins calling numbers. A quiet blankets the hall. The slot machines sing a distant looping lullaby, but there is hardly any talking. I have never heard several hundred people being this quiet together, except maybe in church. My friends tell me that if you talk during the game, beyond a passing comment, that other players will tell you to shut up. If you keep it up, security will come over and tell you to be quiet or leave. Occasional muttering is okay but extensive talking is not.
I am scanning 9 cards, looking to see what’s next, and also going back to confirm that I have not missed any numbers on my cards. This takes immense focus and concentration. I could not talk while doing this, even if I wanted to. I would fall even farther behind.
I sit at the edge of our group. At the next table is one man. He plays two sets of cards. During each game, he is scanning 18 cards for each number. He is friendly with all of the clerks who walk by and knows several by name. He mutters to himself once the game starts, growling when a particular number does not get called. He predicts with astuteness when a game is just one or two numbers from being over. This amazes me. There is so much to keep track of that I can’t understand how he is able to monitor the total number of numbers called.
I walk around during the 15-minute break midway through the session. Several large spinner wheels with thin slices of color are mounted on the front wall next to the caller table. These are not used during our session. Two cafeteria stations sit in the front and back of the hall. Both have a bowling alley style menu. Both look dismal. Beer may be sold at the station near the front although I do not see anyone drinking. It would be hard to focus on the numbers being called.
I roam through the slot machines. The area smells stale. I would play a machine with a pull lever but there aren’t any of that style. The faces of the people playing the slots are like those of people I’ve seen at casinos. Blank, distant. Not hopeless, but also not hopeful.
Clerks roam around both during the break and once play resumes. The one who hangs out near us the most is Larry. He’s chatty and amiable. Larry helps us understand a couple of the sub-games that we haven’t bought, or what we’d be looking for if we bought a particular kind of instant game. This man is a gambler. He says that if two cockroaches were running, he would bet on which one would win. His mindset fascinates me.
I play most games. A few I do not understand and hold off on those. If you play an instant game and get a particular array of items, you are listening for a number within the next called game. This seems like the bingo metaverse and I’m already overwhelmed.
Someone calls out bingo in the last game. The evening ends unceremoniously, with a collective groan, as if everyone is waking from a dream. We start to head out. Other people talk with friends and finish the food they have brought – chicken boxes, sandwiches. They have not packed up their items yet. Cards sit out, ordered deliberately, along with arrays of items, delicately placed. Daubers arranged by height, figurines flanking, a few small stuffed animals.
I wonder what items I would bring to curry favor, to cultivate luck.
Sarah, this is brilliant! The Bingo you’ve experienced is a far cry from Bingo Night at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in York, PA! But then…it’s 2023!