all of the selves we Have ever been
Life is a numbers game.
I learned that in the church basement when I was seven.
I am not certain where it ranks in the catechism of the Catholic Church, but somewhere among Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, and Matrimony, there is also BINGO. At least it seemed so in my youth.
The church basement was reserved for special functions, chief among them were funeral meals and BINGO. There was always a good turnout for mass or a funeral meal, but BINGO drew the biggest crowds. Sure there were some raised eyebrows if someone MIA for mass was later spotted at BINGO, but no hard feelings. Play on.
The participants were the usual church crowd but in casual clothes. There were no stiff jackets and ties. No tight shoes, hats, chapel caps, or veils. No expressions of piety. Everyone was loosened up. Game faces on. Sinners mingled with saints. Protestants and non-believers came too. In the Lord’s game, everyone was welcomed at the BINGO table.
It seemed to me the entire town was present. Like Brother Love’s traveling salvation show, it was “pack up the babies and grab the old ladies” ‘cause everyone goes…If foreign vandals had wanted a big haul, all they had to do was check the church bulletin for the BINGO schedule. No one was home, and every door in town was unlocked.
With all of the adults in the church basement, there was no one to watch the children, so we got to go too. That meant staying up late, a much-prized accomplishment of youth, a sip of adulthood like trying on lipstick or tasting dad’s beer.
In the context of the times, men ran the show, usually Knights of Columbus. They had no sparkling armor but wore soft cotton aprons with pockets full of change and tiny pencils. Women ran the food stands and DOMINATED the sport. It was women who filled the tables to play. It was rare to find a woman with only three cards. That was the minimum and the sure sign of a beginner. Many of the Olympians watched over three or four long rows of cards.
The room was filled with lively chatter and tobacco smoke. No one worried about lung cancer when she was busy looking for B-9. It was an evening of contagious joyful anticipation. Even losing was not so bad. It was how you played the game.
Observing the players, it would be impossible to believe that BINGO is a game of chance. Among the seasoned, there were strategy and rituals. Folks had to have their lucky seats. Same people, same seats week after week. It was easier to find someone in the BINGO hall than in the telephone book. They positioned their paper coffee cups and enjoyed their lucky snacks at the propitious time.
People looked for cards with their special numbers. They brought their own equipment including disc markers, wood and later, plastic, and ink daubers, the true mark of a professional. While I had a sweet prayer book with a picture of Jesus on the cover, and a rosary with tiny white beads, the prized possessions of a second grader, what I really coveted was the womanly red BINGO blotter. It put me and my stubby, dull-tipped, yellow pencil to shame. I did not covet my neighbor’s wife, but I would have wrestled her to the ground for her ink dauber.
There was excitement at the front of the room where ping pong balls stamped with numbers 1 through 75 rotated in a wire cage. Later, it would get fancier—balls would float around inside a glass aquarium-like box and pop out through a small hole on a gush of air. A man called the numbers through a microphone. If the room was noisy, the man might say, “Do I hear a BINGO?”
The sport of BINGO requires exquisite hand-eye coordination. Multiple markers are held in the palm and rapidly moved onto the BINGO card while the next chip moves up between the thumb and index finger. All the while the eyes are moving quickly up and down each row of every card. Eye movement therapies may have gotten their start in the BINGO hall.
For those women who had children tagging along, the moms, grandmas, and aunts kept watch over those cards too, reaching over a shoulder to capture a missed number called. There is no falling behind in BINGO. The worst experience was to find that you had sat on a winner due to inattention or a bump and shift of the markers.
A player had to be attentive to keep up with the game being played. There was the straight row, four corners, postage stamp, criss-cross, and diagonal. So many ways to win! In between the regular games, the MC would announce “specials.” These were additional small paper “cards” sold for an additional sum. This is where the coveted BINGO blotter was put to proper use.
People around the table grew tense when someone announced she was “set”—meaning she only needed one more number to win. Generally, a large number of folks became “set” at the same time adding to the tension. When someone finally shouted “BINGO,” you could feel bodies relax as they cleared their cards for the next round.
The big game of the night, the finisher, was the cover-all. It took the most time to play and had the largest prize. By the time the cover-all was over, folks were tired and full of limp pizza and chocolate cake. Most of us walked on home. We were back in our lucky seats the next week. The game never got old, but I did. I got busy with life as a teenager and young adult. I went to work and raised a family. Years later, in another town, at another church, they would do away with BINGO. The pastor said it was a form of gambling and that the parishioners who could least afford to play were the ones spending their income on the game. I guess the poor aren’t allowed to make their own choices or have their own fun, be part of the same community as those that have money to play. BINGO had fallen out of the ranks of the seven sacraments and into the refuse pile of the seven deadly sins.
I was devastated by the news. I played a little field hockey in high school, but I never really had a sport except BINGO. BINGO is every man’s game regardless of circumstances. It is beloved and played in preschools and nursing homes, VFWs and church halls. Can we be sure Jesus and his disciples didn’t play BINGO? What were they doing at the fish dinner while they waited for the loaves and fishes to multiply? Maybe that’s why the crowd was larger than expected.
I am not a competitive person. What’s great about BINGO is that we didn’t play to defeat our neighbors; we were all one team taking a break from the demands of life and trying to defy the odds. There was no competition, no hostility. In the present moment, I say let’s get the police, the protesters, and local community members together, fill the streets with folding tables and chairs. Provide plenty of hot coffee, cold pizza and home-baked goodies. It’s time EVERYONE got a fancy ink BINGO blotter, no questions asked. Let’s get together in the game of the Lord.
Life’s a numbers game. Lately, we’ve been counting cases of COVID-19, but when this pandemic is over, I am heading to a community hall or a nursing home and getting back in the game.
Do I hear a BINGO?