Everybody blames me when they don’t win bingo. It is always my fault. People give me dirty looks; they shake their daubers at me; they hold up their empty cards and ask me for a refund; they accuse me of stealing their money every week. There is nothing I can do about it. I just give them a little amusing smile and shrug my shoulders. It’s not like they can fire me. I am just a volunteer after all.
The American Legion in Eyota, Minnesota is a rather long, unremarkable, brown, rectangular building. On Monday s there is bar bingo and pizza night. Tuesdays has of burger night. Wednesday is taco night. Thursday is regular bingo which is located in the back hall. There the serious bingo payers converge with their lucky paraphernalia and their fingers poised to hush anybody who dares talk aloud.
But this is bar bingo. Not the cut throat world that is regular bingo.
The first player I met was Walter, a stocky elderly gentleman who keeps his pants up with suspenders. He was outside, sitting on one of the three picnic tables smoking a cigarette which is part of his bodily composition. “How are ya feeling to day Walter?” I asked. He looked up at me then said in his gravelly voice, “Rotten,” then erupted in a fit of coughing that only a lifelong habit of smoking can produce.
I go inside. The bar had a slightly golden hue due to the lights and the fact that the walls were yellowed due to many years of consuming smoke. There was a pool table to my right, to my left, up in a corner, was a flat screen TV turned to a football game. I start to set up for bingo as the players arrive. I get out the various colored daubers (red, orange, green, violet, blue), the instruction sheets so people can follow the games and not get lost in which game they are playing, and small baskets that the players use to throw away their loosing cards. I go up to the bar and glance at Dawn, the bartender. She glances at me then goes to the cash register and gets our starting money: twenty-five dollars in five and twenty-five dollars in ones. She hands them over and I thank her. “I’m going to play tonight Benji so don’t forget me.” I told her if I do just yell at me. “Will do,” she said.
By six thirty, the start of bar bingo, the bar was buzzing with chatter. Ann, my aunt, who runs the bingo program at the Legion leaned into the microphone and said: “Ok, we’re gonna start bingo now.” Slowly the crowd quieted down to a whisper. Soon after that the first game began.
Monday night bingo consists of 17 games split into two halves, the first half consisting of eight games followed by a fifteen minute intermission and then the last nine games finish out the night. The games range from regular bingo (up, down, across, four-corners) to more complicated games such as the Letter X or the Large Diamond. There are usually two regular bingos followed by a special game (such as the Letter X) and the prize varies depending on how many cards are sold.
Regular bingos are fairly easy to come by so it didn’t take long for someone to win. The first winner of the evening was Margie, a future aunt of mine. She yelled out the magic word and all the other players cheered and clapped. Sitting behind Margie at one of the tables, Karen, an energetic and animated woman, started to sing, “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday.” I went over and grabbed her card then read out the numbers to verify that the card was a winner then handed the money over to her. “Thanks dear,” she said.
The next person to win was Brad. Brad, an over-friendly guy who likes to shake your hand and ask how you’re doing, yells out, “I won! I won!” His hand shoots into the air and he starts giggling with excitement. The other players cheered. Some called out, “Way to go Brad.” I grabbed his card and verified the win. As I handed over his winnings he thanked me several more times. “I can’t believe it. I won. I can’t believe it.”
After several more games, it was time for the fifteen minute intermission. The players got up and stretched. Dawn the bartender ran around filling up drinks and delivering slices of pizza to people. Walt headed for the door, a cigarette already in his mouth and a lighter ready in his hand. Ann and a few others followed him out.
As I sat there, my stop watch ticking down the minutes and watching everybody move about chatting and laughing to one another, my thoughts wandered to how I came to volunteer every Monday night for bar bingo. My senior year of high school I was assigned to spend so many hours volunteering in my community. I had so many hours to do and I didn’t know what to do them on. Then my aunt Ann said that she could use some help at bingo Monday for bar bingo, which was fairly new then. I said yes and for the next several weeks I volunteered. When my hours were filled, Ann asked me if I wanted to stay on. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve thought about quitting sometimes. But I couldn’t leave Ann all on her own. That is the only reason I stay on. If my aunt didn’t run the bingo program I probably wouldn’t be volunteering. It’s all about the family.
My stop watch ended its countdown. Ann came in and handed me the blue cards for the Black Out (a game where you have to get all the spots daubed to get the jackpot, which today was for two hundred dollars in sixty numbers) and the next regular bingo which is played after Black Out. Ann sometimes helps sell the regular game because it takes me a little longer due to the fact that people buy multiple cards for the Black Out. But instead she leaned forward and said to me, “I’m not coming after you with the next game. Fuck em. They can wait.” I laugh then started selling the cards.
The jackpot didn’t go. Terry, a jovial man with a contagious high pitched laugh and husband of Karen, won the consolation prize of thirty five dollars. He also went on to win two more special games. “Terry! You quit that!” yelled Heidi. “If you win one more game Terry we’re gonna roll you in the parking lot,” said Logan, Heidi’s father. “Hey Karen,” yelled Dawn, “at least somebody got lucky.” “The night isn’t over yet,” yelled Terry. The bar erupted into laughter.
The last game of the evening is called Cover 23, a blackout minus one number. This game was for three hundred and sixty dollars in sixty numbers. On the sixtieth call, after a slight pause, Brad called out, “I got it.” His hand shot up in the air giving everyone a good look at the muli-hundred dollar winning card. I verify the bingo. “I never won anything this big in my life,” said Brad, basically jumping up and down.
That ended the night. People got up and left. I helped put everything away. Said good bye to Ann then left too. Sometimes I wonder if this is my future. I can picture myself older, my hair gone, my hand shaking from old age and the weight of the couple pound dauber. I can picture myself not winning anything every week and, like Walter, describing everything as rotten. I can picture myself kidding around with the young bingo seller. Telling him I want a refund. Pointing my dauber at him. Blaming him, with a slight smile on my face, every time I lose.
Sometimes, you just got to have fun any chance you can get. BINGO!