“N-33,” the caller announced. Throughout the room heads dropped and hands quickly made marks on Bingo cards. I slowly searched the “N” column on each of my six cards, not wanting to miss any. Oh, there’s one. Let me just—
“0-72,” she said moments later. Whoa, slow down, I’ve barely had a chance to use my fancy marker to blot out the N-33s.
“G-54,” called the pleasant voice. Another one? Already? I thought Bingo was supposed to be enjoyable, not a frenetic activity of feverish number scanning.
In reality, I had no idea what Bingo was supposed to be like. Sure, I had played the game with my family as a child, where we sat at the dining room table, ate ice cream, and chatted between drawing the tokens that had the letter-number combinations. It was even competitive—as were most games and activities with my family—but it was never for money. Adding a monetary element to just about anything automatically ups the ante. (Pun intended, of course). And these Bingo games were no joke. Each payout was $250.
For whatever reason, my idea of Bingo was a room full of blue-haired old ladies peering at their cards through their coke-bottle glasses, silently marking the called numbers, and hypocritically loudly hushing anyone who dared distract their concentration by so much as coughing. I imagined the winner of each game thrusting her wrinkled hand into the air, thunderously calling out, “Bingo!” and grinning gloatingly at those she deemed her rivals, while the latter sneered and grumbled under their breath. I figured such halls were no place for a novice outsider like me.
In addition to my childhood game playing, the only other experience I had had with Bingo came while working as the librarian on a cruise ship. One of my myriad tasks was to help sell Bingo cards, and then calculate the winnings for each game based on the number of cards sold and the price of each card. A perk was when I sold a winning card to a guest who wanted to show appreciation to the card seller—me—by treating me to a drink or two. (As a crew member, I was allowed all the food I wanted, but I had to buy my drinks).
I earned additional cruise ship Bingo experience by volunteering to be the caller for one of the monthly crew games. I had never called Bingo, but I had seen the show host do it for the guests often enough that I was fairly certain I would be able to work it out. Maybe I wouldn’t know the same jokes, but calling letters and numbers? Surely I could handle that.
Those experiences, combined with the knowledge of how much my late grandmother enjoyed playing at her local Bingo hall—and the prize money she took home on one particular occasion—enticed me to try my luck as a participant.
“I-21,” the caller stated. I sighed, still working on G-54. If Bingo was this much of a race, I would surely fall behind and never be quick enough to be the first to notice Bingo or call it out, as I so very much wanted to do. This thought troubled me, considering the average age of the participants was around fifty. Not being able to keep up with people nearly twice my age frustrated me. Fortuitously, “Mother Hen” was there, seated across the table, to offer her assistance. In her words, she had been playing for as many years as I’d been alive. Her set up, one that involved an assortment of fat markers (what are referred to in the Bingo world as daubers), four packets of cards for a total of twenty-four games to watch at once, and a stand propped up to more easily display her large collection of cards, indicated she was telling the truth, and maybe even underplaying it.
“See that?” she asked, pointing to a small TV screen on the wall facing me. It showed the caller’s hand retracting the ball that randomly popped up into the chute, and turning it so the letter-number combination was clearly visible to the players.
“You can look up there and see what’s coming next,” she said. “That way you can mark the number before it’s even called, mmkay?” I nodded again. “If it gives you Bingo, you can call Bingo as soon as she says it, mmkay?”
“Thanks,” I responded quietly, not wanting to disturb the other players that were giving rapt attention to their cards.
“I don’t want to get in your business,” she assured me, seemingly not wanting to go against a Bingo credo of not meddling with other players and their cards.
“No, please do. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
She smiled, looked at my card, and marked a G-54 I had missed ages ago.
“B-9,” the caller said, reminding me of the time I called Bingo for my fellow crew members. If you have a tumor, I hope it’s B-9! Like I said, my calling abilities didn’t automatically come with the best, or even appropriate, jokes.
“Bingo!” a lady shouted. I swiveled my head and saw in the sea of older women an arm outstretched, holding what was presumably the winning card. An attendant walked over, called the number on the bottom of the card and announced the contestant won. Bummer. But at least there are a couple dozen more games.
As the night wore on, and one hour became two, two became three, the room got noisier. Bags of chips popped open, sodas were slurped down, chatter picked up. Mother Hen conversed with nearby players and some of the attendants who, in addition to verifying the winning cards, sold pull tabs. “Three Little Pigs!” they’d say walking up and down the rows. Mother Hen would respond, “Three little homies,” and then exchange a couple dollars for a chance to win a couple thousand.
Game after game was played. I had the hang of it and relied primarily on the screen, listening to the caller only when I had missed what was shown overhead. “Bingo!” was shouted numerous times but never by me. I ripped failed card off of failed card. Loser, loser, loser. I craved yelling Bingo, and having everyone else groan and temporarily despise me, almost more than the prize money.
“B-8,” I heard the announcer say. If you fall overboard, you’re liable to B-8 by sharks. I groaned at the memory. My groan continued when another player exclaimed, “Bingo!”
Mother Hen noticed my disappointment. “Are you having fun?”
“Yes,” I replied with a smile, though apparently not very convincingly.
She laughed. “It’s more fun when you win.”
“Have you won a lot?” I asked.
“Like I said, I’ve been playing for years, mmkay? You win some, you lose some.”
“If I don’t end up winning tonight,” I said, “I’m going to want to come back just to make up for all of my losses.”
She laughed again and nodded. “Honey, I play as often as I can. I can’t play every night because of my work schedule, but I’m here all the time.” A participant walking by on her way to the bathroom during the break in between games exchanged a few words with Mother Hen. I looked around and saw people engaged in lively conversations, laughing, eating, making a night of it. At that point, I realized that Bingo was more than a game. It was more than a chance to win some money. I saw here, in this room in Buckingham Heights, it was a little community. Sure, if a contestant won more than once, other players said under their breath that she was what veterinarians call female dogs, but at the core it was a room full of comrades. Many of these people played several nights a week, no matter how often they won or lost, and no doubt they would keep coming back. For Mother Hen, who had been playing for a few decades, it was an integral part of her lifestyle.
The beginning of the last game was announced and the voices in the room hushed. This was it, the ultimate chance for glory, at least until the following night, when everything I had witnessed would once again be played out in a very similar fashion. Each number called got me one step closer to victory. But it got everyone else closer as well.
“N-36,” the caller said, for what turned out to be the last time of the night.
“Bingo!” was happily shouted. I would like to say it was me, but alas, it was not.
“Bummer,” I said.
“I hope you had fun,” Mother Hen replied, as if she knew I had directed my dejected sentiment to her, a long-time player who most assuredly had experienced the feeling countless times before.
I smiled, told her I did, and thanked her for all the sage advice she had provided during the past four hours.
“You come back, mmkay?”
I nodded, grateful to be accepted into the world of playing Bingo, a world that had previously been foreign to me. A world that had been made up in my mind to consist only of blue-haired old ladies with coke-bottle glasses and stern glances to those who coughed. Mother Hen did have glasses, but her hair was not blue. It was brown. With tinges of gray.