The VFW Post 280 has the feel of a grade school cafeteria. The beige linoleum floor and rows of tables bring back memories of 25-cent milk and smashed PB&J sandwiches.
It’s just past 12:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and we’ve decided to escape the fresh air to spend three hours at a weekly Boone County senior citizens’ bingo game. As the 22-game marathon begins, the only sounds heard between number and letter calls are the low hum of an air conditioning unit and the frequent lighting of cigarettes. Fixated on their sheets, no one notices us as we find an empty table and settle in.
One table over, a middle-aged woman wearing sweat pants and a “BINGO FOREVER (housework whenever)” T-shirt says hello to a friend behind her without even turning around. It doesn’t seem the least bit rude. Moments later she stands up and heads for the concession stand. Her friend yells an order for “Coke with lots of ice,” without looking up from her game sheet. The exchange is like that between an old married couple who know each other better than they know themselves.
The only audible conversation is occurring two tables over as four generations of women casually discuss curing a nicotine addiction. “They’re not as expensive as Zyban,” says a grandmother in a homemade bingo sweat shirt as she makes her case for the patch.
Make no mistake — the game is serious business. Today a pot of $1,100 and two $450 prizes are up for grabs.
That bingo is more than the favorite pastime of the elderly is evident from the various specialized bingo bags slung over players’ shoulders. The bags have pockets to hold the elongated ink daubers players use to mark their sheets. These totes run the gamut of bingo fashion — nylon for the seasoned pros and butter-soft imitation leather for the weekend players.
Once they are seated, players meticulously arrange their bingo gear. Game sheets are surrounded by lines of ink daubers that look like oversized Pez dispensers.
The superstitious players display an assortment of novelties such as family photos and small figurines.
As our announcer, a white-haired woman conservatively dressed in a white turtleneck and blue sweater, methodically calls out numbers and letters from a dais, we wonder why such a simple game has become so popular. As far as we can tell, there’s no strategy or skill involved. The game requires a level of attention just above television watching but below more intellectually demanding activities such as playing solitaire. The pause between number announcements provides enough time to form a thought but not enough time to do anything with it.
Despite the electronic scoreboards and strategically placed television monitors, bingo remains decidedly low-tech. A cell phone rings across the room, and the sound seems terribly out of place.
The rhythmic call of numbers creates a surprisingly soothing soundtrack for the proceedings. Even with hundreds of dollars at stake, the games create enough tension to keep things interesting but not enough to result in devastation at a loss.
Each shout of “BINGO!” is followed by a group moan as players tear up their sheets and stuff them into garbage bags. Any frustration about not winning disappears with the discarded sheets. As the hours pass, everything in the hall falls in line with the drumbeat of number and letter calls — even the ashtrays and garbage bags fill up at a relaxed pace.
On this day, the bingo gods look fondly upon one lucky gentleman, who wins the $1,100 game and one of the $450 games.
A single player winning so much money seems contrary to the game’s egalitarian spirit. But bingo offers no opportunity for cheating.
Squinting into the sunlight as we leave the three-hour gaming session, we can’t help feeling a sudden twinge of sadness about re-entering a world in which the rules aren’t so cut and dried.
— David Bracken