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Bingo

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I thought my obsession was licked, but circumstances this summer drove me back to Bingo Palace after ten years on the wagon. Mike had taken a job in San Francisco, and I'd have been alone were it not for the mammoth ants that defiled my countertops. I begged Mrs. M., my landlady, to investigate.

"Don't vorry!" she said. "Dey only garden ants!" She pointed to two insects in a jelly jar: a monster I'd caught in my kitchen and a runt she'd picked off the sidewalk. "Zee? Zame ting. Different zizes."

The Orkin people, however, had another diagnosis, and when Mrs. M. learned it would cost several thousand dollars to avoid being eaten out of house, home, and six-flat, she released her anger on me.

"You!" she shouted. "Mit dem vorms from the voods! It's your fault! Dose ants come in mit dose branches."

She referred to the wild cherry branches that had been in our kitchen the previous summer, home to several finger-sized caterpillars that ate the cherry leaves. Mrs. M. would never understand the joy of watching cecropia caterpillars spinning their silk or adult cecropia moths hatching from their cocoons. But each year Mike was obsessed, stealing branches daily from neighborhood "city property" trees just to feed his caterpillars.

Unlike the cecropia, carpenter ants require little maintenance. Since they eat dead wood, not live leaves, our apartment could feed colonies only expressed in powers of ten. Exterminators were essential. I sympathized with Mrs. M.'s plight but could not convince her of our innocence. Worse, the Orkin man supported her theory. "I ask him if ants come in mit dose branches and he say, 'Yah, it's possible.'"

A psychological ploy. Exterminators, like doctors and auto mechanics, need hypotheses to support their credibility. Especially when they're asking you to sign a $4,000 contract.

"Look," I said, "they just came in from outside."

"But vy here?" she looked to the ceiling for an answer. "Vy my building?"

I placated Mrs. M. by suggesting that perhaps only my apartment would need to be sprayed--a fraction of the initial estimate. This worked until the following morning, when she discovered a trail of carpenter ants marching through her pantry.

I was dragging down garbage at 7 AM on only a half cup of coffee when Mrs. M. popped her head out the back door.

"I'm zo mad at you I could scream!"

Her new theory concerned aluminum cans that I'd placed beneath the stairs for her son's soccer team to recycle. My ants, unable to crawl down three flights on their own, had apparently hitched a ride. Mrs. M. threatened to evict me. She said she'd have to sell the building just to pay for the exterminators--if, of course, anybody would now want to buy it.

"Und you shouldn't vait zo long to take out garbage," she added. "Dat's vy dey like it by you!"

I have always had a special affection for Mrs. M., who, like my grandmother, is a hardworking woman obsessed with cleanliness. She gave us homemade cookies and wine each Christmas, invited me in for coffee klatches, and brought us leftover stuffed cabbages. I'd listen sympathetically as she'd complain about kids who cut down her calla lilies, cats who reproduced on her back porch, a basement tenant (now gone) who beat his wife and, worse, brought roaches. But now, for the first time, Mrs. M. was raging at me. Worse, I was angry too. A suppressed womanly conditioning in me that took pride in sanitary living habits was deeply offended.

"This has nothing to do with housework!" I said, loud enough for everyone in the building to hear, and stamped my foot for emphasis.

"Dey vere by you first!" Mrs. M. screamed.

I was lonely; I missed Mike, but I had a year of grad school to finish before I could join him in San Francisco. And although I half-planned a long summer visit, I was anxious about the financial feasibility of two months without a job. Coming home from work that evening I was depressed by the thought of another ant argument with Mrs. M. And I didn't feel like whining to sympathetic friends over the telephone. I needed physical company and a mindless good time.

After dining at a neighborhood coffee shop, I walked past Bingo Palace, a landmark that long ago had intrigued me but for ten years had blended in with the one-story brick storefronts of North Lincoln Avenue. It offered what I needed: crowds, noise, and the chance to win $500. Plane fare to San Francisco.

I had just enough time to run home and search through ten years of junk for my bingo chips and dabber. On my way back out, I saw Mrs. M. in the front yard, conversing in German with another matronly frau.

"Vere you go now?" she said.

"Bingo," adding before she could comment, "I'll play a card for you."

"Gut! I need the money."

Bingo Palace had not changed in ten years. The nondescript warehouse was still three times larger inside than outward appearances suggested, and packed with over 300 players from 18 to 80--a diversity of races and an overabundance of women, seniors, and the overweight. Many had been there for over an hour; their cards were taped to the tables, their lucky objects lined up before them--crystal elephants, photos of grandkids, and plastic figurines of favorite saints. Some munched on snacks purchased at the concession stand--a full variety including frozen yogurt, nachos, salads, soup, and sandwiches. The cloud of smoky air still burned my eyes; the ineffective row of nonsmoking tables remained. The frigid air-conditioning, pumped up to the max, still gave me goose bumps. And the spiky-lashed, platinum-haired women selling cards still gave me a hard time.

"I haven't been here in ten years," I said. "What do I do?"

"Nothing's changed, honey."

"But I forgot."

"How could you forget? You need your pink master that's a dollar the regulars are 50 cents you better hurry and pick 'em then those are specials three on a card a dollar each." Cards were scattered on the table between us.

"There's nothing left to pick!" said another seller, an elderly man, and handed me a stapled pack of cards. "Master's there too dear. All you need, seven dollars."

"She'll want specials for the 500," said the woman. "Right, honey?"

"Take a pack," the man said. "Seven cards, five dollars."

The woman stuck my cards into an ugly gray machine that looked like a time clock and pierced them with validation holes. I held the cards to my face; the scent of fresh ink and newsprint brought back memories. I grabbed a roll of Scotch tape, shoved two quarters in the seller's palm, and walked past rows and rows of tables, looking for a space large enough to spread out in. By the time I found a good table, two numbers had already been called. I dealt out my cards in three rows of five with the 16th--the master--cantilevering off the top row.

"B-6 and N-39," said the woman across from me. "You're OK. They're calling 'em slow."

"N-31," said the caller.

I tried Scotch-taping my cards together between calls, but the movement caused my bingo chips to slide off their numbers.

"N-35," said the caller.

My neighbor sighed. "Not an N game!"

If three numbers are called from the N row (the row with the free space), someone in a crowd this large will always produce a bingo on the fourth N. My neighbor's N rows were almost barren. So were mine.

"N-34," said the caller, and a female voice responded--"bingo"--with the calmness of a one-club bridge bid. This hadn't changed. I've never heard anyone actually scream "bingo." The only earth-shattering noises were the groans of disappointed players and the tinkling of chips being swept off the traitorous cards.

The years had not brought a group of more gracious losers to Bingo Palace.

A volunteer checked the winner's cards.

"39...31...35...34...that's a bingo." My neighbor waved a plastic wand across her cards; magnetic chips stuck to its head.

"Any other bingos?" said the caller.

Because my cards were not taped together, I couldn't remove my chips with one broad sweep of the hand. Instead I had to pick them off one by one.

"OK," said the caller. "Game number one is officially closed."

"Start taping now," said my neighbor. "This next one's the small picture frame--always gets off to a slow start." On the wall a grid of light bulbs displayed the square configuration I needed to emulate to win $100. It seemed so easy. How could I lose?

I discovered Bingo Palace in the spring of 1977, and christened it a marvel of my new neighborhood along with the magic shop, the Halloween-costume shop, and the Hoover repair center (an auspicious sign; I owned a Hoover). But it took the blizzard of '79 and a New Year's Eve date with a recovering alcoholic to take me inside Bingo Palace--the only entertainment within walking distance not based on liquor consumption.

My date won $30. Another auspicious sign. We celebrated at a near-empty Mexican restaurant a block away, where I drank my date's complimentary Kahlua and planned my return. I knew I could win the $500 jackpot.

I lost, of course, but that didn't stop me from trying again. I introduced many friends to Bingo Palace. I even began to play alone. But unlike the players who wore polyester denim and "I 'heart' Bingo" T-shirts, I rarely enjoyed the game. The rote activity was as boring as knitting but less productive--no scarf or sweater. Still I played, chain-smoking, drinking coffee at 9 PM, and hoping that I wouldn't win the $100 game since it would ruin my odds for the jackpot. Until the last bingo was called, I'd fantasize about spending my money. I was only there to win; when I didn't (which was always), I'd come home seriously depressed.

Then I got lucky. Really lucky. After two years of bingo, a new love, Mike, filled my evenings and a new job filled my wallet. I no longer needed bingo, preferring the joys of raising cecropia moths. And after Bingo Palace added the paved lot and I could no longer hold it against players for hogging all the neighborhood parking spaces, Bingo Palace had become as neutral to me as a Tile World or Jiffy Lube.

But ten years later I was back, glad to have lost the first several games because it only increased my chances for winning the $500 special, or the "Big E." Because our special cards would only be played once, we could use our dabbers: squat, water-based markers with wide sponge tips. One quick stomp with a dabber resulted in a juicy, transparent circle of color. Most players, including me, dabbed the free spaces on their specials just for kicks.

As the game progressed, I considered ways to handle my winnings. I could trade the $500 cash for a money order at a neighborhood currency exchange, or I could take it straight to the bank. Or I could buy my plane ticket to San Francisco with cash. I wondered if my pants pockets would be deep enough to hide the bills, or if I should shove them into my bra cup.

My neighbor whispered "O-69," and I checked the board. No O-69 there. And the game had barely begun; our cards were too empty to start muttering the numbers we wished for. I wondered if the light was burned out when the caller announced, "O-69." Was my neighbor psychic?

"How'd you know that?" I asked.

"It's right there on the monitor."

Bingo Palace had changed after all. A TV screen displayed well-manicured fingers turning a bingo ball to the next number: B-4. State lotteries had left their mark.

"B-4!" said the caller.

"And after," said the crowd. The Rocky Horror influence was still alive at Bingo Palace.

I began looking for the "best" card--the one with the most dabs. This move jinxed me; my favorite card held at six dabs while the rest caught up. The game progressed, and soon I was looking for the card with the least number of dabs needed for completion. Of course, this was absurd. But because bingo strategy is nonexistent, players create compulsions--like my neighbor, who was tracking the amount of numbers called by dabbing extraneous circles in the borders of her cards.

"Thirty-five already," she said.

"That's a lot?"

"Oh yeah. But sometimes they call 40, 45, before someone bingos."

I still needed three numbers. I lost hope, dabbing thoughtlessly, watching nothing but my best card, which had gone stagnant. I daydreamed about winning the second $500 game, last of the night, my only salvation.

"I-22," said the caller.

"Toot-toot," said the players.

The numbers were called faster and faster. My good card was dead. Winning was hopeless. I wished someone else would bingo and end my agony when I noticed a different card, one obscured earlier by my fixation on another.

It only needed one number to win: G-61. I sat up straight, clenched my teeth, and squeezed my dabber.

"G-59," said the caller.

I held my breath, hoping no one else would bingo.

"Close?" asked my neighbor.

"I just need one!" I whined, and glared at the video monitor. The fingers twirled B-1 at me.

"F-f-f-f-f-f-" I hissed. This instantly communicated.

"They're still going," said my neighbor. "You got a chance!"

I began my mantra. "G-61, G-61, c'mon G-61."

The white ball was on the screen.

"Please!"

The fingers grabbed and twirled. G-61.

I screamed. I stood up. I thumped my fist on the table so hard it hurt.

"BINGO!"

The reactions of the surrounding players were typical:

"Christ Jesus! So loud!"

"Isn't that the girl who said she never plays?"

"She almost gave me a heart attack!"

"It's not fair!"

A volunteer yelled out my numbers while the rest of the room groaned. I felt embarrassed, sure I had made some foolish dabbing error until the caller confirmed my game. After ten years something had changed at Bingo Palace: my luck.

"Congratulations," said my neighbor.

"Should I go up and sign something?"

She laughed. "Just sit."

Minutes later an old man brought me an envelope thick

with battered fives, tens, and twenties. Five hundred bucks.

No questions asked.

After all my fantasies, I still wasn't ready to win. I was too excited to continue playing (plus the odds were against me) but too afraid to walk home. Over 300 people knew I had $500 cash on me. Mostly oldsters, but I suddenly noticed several young, angry-looking males. I went to the bathroom and hid my money. I bought a piece of cheesecake. I played as best I could and planned my strategy: it seemed best to leave with the crowd.

At 10:30 I was standing in front of Bingo Palace waiting for a cab with another woman who had offered to share the fare. The cabbie drove for two blocks and let me out; I handed the woman a ten-dollar bill.

"Keep it," I said.

Two days later the Orkin men-- short-haired boys in their early 20s who wore neatly pressed uniforms and reminded me of West Point cadets--declared war on my carpenter ants, drilling holes into my baseboards and spraying poison behind the walls. Neither one was familiar with the cecropia-moth theory. The next day, Mrs. M. declared war on my dirty windows, insisting that she'd help me clean them. She knocked on my door at 8 AM armed with bucket, squeegee, and insults.

"Vy don't you vater your plants?" she said. "Dey zo dry!"

This didn't disturb me; I'd be leaving her and a few terminally ill carpenter ants in less than a week to spend two months in San Francisco with Mike.

"Vat if you had five kids?" she said. "How could you manage?"

I tried to imagine this surreal possibility. Although my mother had promised to water my plants while I was gone, baby-sitting would have been too much to ask.

"Don't be silly," I said jokingly. "I have enough work to do!"

"Den vy you play bingo ven you got zo much vork?"

I was finally fuming. "That's my business!" I hollered over the hum of the vacuum cleaner (Mrs. M. had suddenly decided to dust the windowsills). I added quietly, "Besides, I won $500."

But she only heard the first part.

"I'm zorry," she said. "I should mind my own business, yah?"

I almost shouted bingo.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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