We awoke this morning at the crack of dawn, 6 am, when the weak sunlight seeped through the as yet unspring-cleaned dingy window. We lay in bed thinking about aquatic mammals – specifically, why they don’t die of thirst. Can they live, unlike other mammals, without fresh water? Do they somehow desalinize salt water? Do they get thirsty?
Until the ever-surprising Norma Yvonne gave us something better to think about. Norma has been inspirational since her citizenship ceremony, significantly upgrading our opinion of American women. Using an ingenious system of obvious rewards and subconscious consequences, she has found a way to get me to modify my behavior without nagging.
So how could we argue when she mentioned, as if in passing, “I’d really like to go to the Bingo this afternoon. I passed the church on my walk from Watertown Square, and the doors open at 5.”?
“C’mon Norma, I just got home from work, I’ve been up since 6, and if I don’t take a nap I’m going to get very cranky,” we argued. It was 4 pm.
She didn’t answer, but then she didn’t really need to. We got into bed. We were exhausted from an hour-long workout in the rec pool at FitRec. The rec pool is 86 degrees while the lap pool is 78, and we prefer the warmer water because we are in training for our retirement to a private beach somewhere on the Pacific coast of South America, where the water is, coincidently, 86 degrees.
But we couldn’t fall asleep. We listened to a dog barking down the street and the clitter-clatter of the keyboard in Norma’s office. We kept thinking about how rarely Norma ever asks tus to take her anywhere.
“Norma” we spoke to the empty dusk above the bed, with as much enthusiasm as we could muster, “how would you like to go to Bingo?”
We’d been passing the sign for years, every time we walked or drove to Watertown Square, outside the stodgy stone façade of the St. James Armenian Church. “Bingo Tues. Nites – Doors Open at 5pm”. We always said we should check it out one day. Apparently, today was the day.
Of course, like all Americans, we had played Bingo as a child. Wednesday nights at summer camp, rainy afternoons in game rooms of seedy Miami hotels, basement rec rooms during family events. Our grandmother taught us when we were five or six, as soon as we could recognize the numbers and letters. We were not looking forward to an evening of mental stimulation; any game a six-year-old can play offers limited challenges, so we carefully tucked today’s New York Times under our arm before leaving.
We arrived shortly after 5. “Wow,” said Norma, “When I came by here an hour ago there wasn’t a single car!” Now they were jammed into every available parking space for a block and a half in all directions. Ominously, many of them sported handicapped license plates.
Inside, it looked like Dante’s Inferno as painted by Grandma Moses. A huge, institutional hall with a stage at the front, and metal-grilled windows along short sides. It contained 70 cafeteria-style Formica tables connected end to end in ten long rows, with three chairs on each side of each table. Four folded basketball backboards hung from the ceiling like giant preying mantises above our heads.
Distributed around the room, at least a few on almost every table, were slim plastic bottles in a variety of colors and designs. Complementary water, we wondered? Some kind of glue for use in the game? Hand sanitizer? Obviously something used in the game play, and provided by the house.
Together with Norma we circumnavigated the enormous hall. There were maybe 200 people distributed around the room, some alone, some in small groups. 9 out of 10 were women, their men folk presumably dead or watching sports on TV somewhere. The women were chatting, sipping coffee, a few reading. Multiple groups were playing cards for loose change. The average age in the room was at least five years over the average US life expectancy. These were survivors. And they were feeling lucky.
On the tables were what we took to be the tools of the trade: the ubiquitous little bottles, Kleenex, handiwipes, a variety of bags, plastic, cloth and paper, change purses, mammoth purses, decks of cards, drink holders, skin cream, Scotch tape and throat lozenges. Leaning against the tables were a variety of canes and walkers.
We wandered into a second, slightly smaller hall off to the right of the big one, where there an additional 30 or 40 cafeteria tables and a satellite numbers board. For overflow, we thought. Then we noticed the 40 or so bodies spaced out around the area. If the average age in the bigger room was north of average life expectancy, this collection of geriatric gamblers had them beaten by a good decade. We expected to hear the hum and beep of modern medical machinery in the background. Where were the white-coated health care professionals normally hovering over people of such advanced age? We hoped there were at least a couple of ambulances warming their motors in the parking lot outside, in anticipation of the high drama sure to unfold when the numbers start to roll out.
Frankly unnerved by this ancillary assemblage of the truly ancient, we retreated to the larger hall and sat down at an empty table near the end of one of the rows. The room built from cinderblock but was painted an attractive institutional beige and tan. Looking out over a sea of bobbing grey, while, silver, bottle brown, blue and frosted hair tones in between, we were aware of an air of intense anticipation, There was avarice in the air, and money on the tables. These ladies were serious players.
The crowd was overwhelmingly white, but not entirely. There was a sturdy middle-aged lady with a West Indian accent a couple of tables over, playing cards and chatting with three other women, and a quiet, studious-looking black gentleman sitting alone in wool sweater, scarf and sports coat. And back in the corner, to the right of the stage, a squadron of Hispanic women in red aprons and hairnets were buzzing around some sort of cafeteria, the obvious source of the Styrofoam cups of coffee and cardboard trays laden with institutional hotdogs and pizza.
We grab a nearby bottle of multicolor design to decipher their mystery. They were all varieties of a Bingo-specific product called “Dauber”. Which allows players to mark multiple cards quickly.
While we were engrossed in reading the back of the bottle, we failed to notice a 300-lb lunch lady get up from her card game across the room and march in our direction. She was dressed in a charming pastel top which resembled a cross between a muumuu and a hospital gown. She skidded to a stop, reached out a giant hand and intoned, “Is that my Dauber?”
Slowly, in our chagrin, it dawned on us that EVERY ONE of those hundreds of bottles of dauber belonged to someone. That they had staked out their tables hours in advance, and were just killing time around the room, smoking fags out on the steps, gambling for change, waiting for the real action to start. We began to suspect we were out of our league.
The Dowbrigade was alone by this point, Norma having gone home to get her glasses once she saw how far away we were sitting from the flashboard where the numbers were displayed. We dropped the dauber like a hot curling iron and retreated into our New York Times. The behemoth returned to her card game with a withering gaze that said, “You better not have given me ay of your bad mojo when you touch ed my lucky dauber, boy, cuz you know I can find out where you live…”
A couple of minutes later, as we were starting to wonder at what time they would be calling the first numbers, the solitary black gentleman got up, went to the church lobby, and came back with a half dozen dittoed betting slips, one of which he slipped us on his way by. Solitary male solidarity? We perused the card.
Whoa. It was an order form, which players used to request cards for any or all of the 32 games of Bingo on the agenda for the night. Two things struck us immediately. The first was that the calling of numbers wasn’t scheduled to start until 7pm! The tables had literally filled (judging by the distribution of the dauber bottles) as soon as the doors opened, two full hours before the games began. These people either had extremely elaborate pre-Bingo rituals, warm-ups and psych-ups, or very little else to do.
We glanced at our watch. It was 5:30.
The second thing we noticed was that no two of the thirty two games nominally called Bingo we alike. The series started out in a somewhat familiar vein, with a game of Regular Bingo, followed by an easy-to-understand variant, Regular Bingo + 4 Corners.
But from there things quickly spiraled into the stratosphere of Bingos sophistication. Double Bingo, Diagonal Bingo, and the Letter X. One could imagine, at least, what these may have consisted of. But from there the list entered the domain of Bizarro Bingo. Games like Hatpin, Triple Postage Stamp; I.Q., Sandwich and Coverall. Who can decipher the arcane imagery of Six-pack Anywhere or Butterfly? Not us.
As we sat there, stunned by the fiendish complexity of what we had known, in our innocent youth, as a simple parlor pastime, Norma returned.
“Honey,” we began gently, “I think we better brush up on our Bingo at home before we try to run with this pack.” We showed her the list of games.
“Why didn’t you call me? You could have saved me the trip back.”
Noting the 7 pm start time she continued, “That explains why the sign says doors open at 5. Otherwise they would be camping out here from the morning on.”
“Do you want to check out the new Armenian pastry shop on the way home?”
We have learned a lot in our three years in Watertown. The Holocaust wasn’t the only genocide in the last century. Armenians make mean pastry, and love nuts. And don’t play Bingo at an Armenian church unless you’re at the top of your game and prepared for some serious action.