BINGO! - Adventures among the daubers
Bingo, Pt 1
My daughter's high school has hosted a weekly bingo game for the last 35 years each Saturday night. This weekend I was asked to volunteer to help support my daughter's dance class.
I think it is safe to say that I was a bingo-virgin to all this. I played bingo when I was a kid, and I've seen it in movies as something that old people do. Occasionally, another parent in my town will talk about "having to volunteer at bingo tonight" and roll their eyes.
I had no idea.
My daughter has a dance class at her high school instead of normal Phys Ed. And, I have found, you can't be a normal dance class if you aren't scrambling for money to buy more costumes EVERY SINGLE DAY. So, the dance class agreed to supply parent volunteers to help run the weekly event twice this year. My daughter announced to me earlier this week that I was volunteering for a 6hr shift on Saturday. "But, what?"
"Volunteering. You have to do it for me. For Dance."
"No, you're not."
"I could be."
My daughter looked at me.
"Why do I have to do it. Why not Mom?"
"Dad, stop. You're the volunteer in the house. You'll like it."
My wife smirked.
At 4pm on Saturday, I was walking into the high school gymnasium when I saw my friend Joss. "Hey, you're coming to bingo?" he said when he saw me. I shrugged. “You?”
He nodded a little too enthusiastically. "Oh, you'll like it. It's fun," saying it in that way that made me think it wasn’t fun but that if he didn’t say that I might run away.
We walked by a few people smoking cigarettes before heading inside. The high school gymnasium was set up in long rows of tables. On each of the various rows of tables were taped garbage bags (later I would learn for the endless supply of lots of used bingo cards and tickets). There were a handful of people milling about chatting with each other, while others arranged their places w/ good luck charms and assorted markers used in Bingo called daubers.
I arrived, signed in and was handed an orange apron. My friend Steve had also been "volunteered" by his daughter who was in the school color guard.
"You ever done this before?"
"Nope, no idea."
I soon figured out the general pecking order. There were eight “parent volunteers” (about half of us first-timers), four managers, and two “callers” who ran the bingo games (“B17, O56, i71”). Everyone's six-hour volunteer shift would get a share of the evening's profits which would be donated to our child's school program. Managers and callers, because of their extra responsibilities, got double-volunteer time, which Jean, the volunteer manager, explained was one of the many, MANY benefits of joining the high school's Bingo Committee. "We definitely need more managers and more callers. Think, you could be up there calling out the wins!"
May I interest you in some Flash?
We quickly learned our job. Each parent volunteer would get a plastic tool caddy with a few hundred tickets and a paper crown, and assigned to one row of tables on the floor. We would be offering side games called Flash to the various players. Players could buy the tickets that could be opened for cash prizes. Each ticket would be $1 and our job was to sell as many as possible. I groaned inwardly.
"But, it's important to remember," Jean warned, "when you first go out, you can only sell a set amount until you get to the end of the row. Your manager will tell you how many you can offer. Otherwise you might run out."
I was confused and somewhat suspicious. Run out?. "How many do people normally buy?" another newbie asked.
"Oh, it's not unusual for someone to try to buy 30 - 40 tickets in one go," Jean said. The veterans of our group nodded.
"Once you sell out your share, sit down and wait for the next round of Flash," said Jean. "We'll sell seven or eight rounds of Flash tonight."
"So, I just want to warn you, some of our players get... a little grumpy," Jean said. One of the veteran parent volunteers snorted. Jean gave her a look before continuing. "Understand that they take Bingo really seriously and might get upset occasionally. I just ask that if someone isn't as nice as you think they should be that you be the better person and let it pass."
"What if someone wins Bingo? Do we do anything?"
"No, the Bingo games are the responsibilities of the callers. You'll just be selling Flash."
Still completely confused, I followed the others out to the bleachers. I saw that Joss was a caller, seated on a raised platform at one end of the gymnasium next to the glass box where dozens of numbered bingo balls swirled. The place was about half full with bingo players, some already concentrating on their cards, though the real bingo games wouldn't start for another 45 minutes. "What are they playing right now?"
One of the veterans answered. "Oh, pre-games and other warm-up games."
"Do they win anything?"
She shrugged. "Sure."
At the bleachers, each of us took our caddy filled with Flash tickets and put on our crowns. Several of the veterans started arranging their Flash into neat, alternating 10-ticket packs. The rest of us started following suit. I looked to the volunteer next to me. "Who are you volunteering for?"
"My daughter's volleyball team."
An overly-dressed woman in blouse and uncomfortable-looking platform shoes came over. "Hi, I'm Michelle, I'll be managing you tonight. Each of you have $25 and your Flash tickets. Each of you have been assigned a row. You'll start at the end of the row together. This first round is called Cherry Flash and there is a 10 ticket limit until you get to the end of the row. After that you can sell as many as players want until you run out. Only sell to your row when you start but you can go help out another volunteer if they get busy. Understand?"
I didn't, but I nodded.
"Okay, let's walk out."
We walked out in a line like new recruits at a Boy Scout ceremony, each of us with our plastic caddy's and paper crowns, to the far end of the tables. After a moment pause, I walked to the first person. 'Would you like some Flash?"
The woman didn't look up at me but held up some dollar bills. "Give me 3."
I looked down and grabbed three tickets, annoyed that my first neat pile of ten was down to seven and was going to throw off my counting system. I handed her the tickets, grabbed the money and moved on.
The next person was a heavy-set woman with a dark t-shirt that said Sure, let me drop everything and work on your problem. "Would you like Flash?" I asked. She eyed me suspiciously and then looked back down at her bingo cards. I moved on.
It was surprisingly easy. I had expected that I would need to convince people to buy them but it soon became apparent that convincing people wouldn't be the problem. About half-way down the table, a very large woman was set up with multiple bingo cards, a bingo caddy with a dozen rainbow-colored daubers and a small portable fan. Across from her was a younger man with a green trucker's cap that said I Love BINGO. "Over here," she said, "What's your name?"
"Okay, Scott. I'm Carrie. What's the limit?"
"Okay, then give me 10." She handed me a $10 bill. "When you get to the end of the row, come straight back, and I'll buy a bunch more. Don't worry. We buy lots of Flash. We'll take care of you."
I moved down the row. Most of the players bought Flash tickets, with the more serious ones always buying the limit. In a few minutes, I had gotten to the end of the row. The player at the end looked up and said, "You can sell me as many as I want, right?"
I was suddenly confused. "I guess?"
"Gimme $20 more."
A woman at the row of tables next me held up a $10 bill and looked at me. "Flash!" I moved over to her.
Suddenly, I heard Carrie from down the row of tables. "What are you doing? That's not fair! YOU HAVE TO STAY IN YOUR ROW."
I looked at the woman in front of me. "Sorry," I said, shrinking away back to my row of tables. I moved over to Carrie. "You were right. Sorry about that."
Carrie didn't look at me, continuing to daub at her bingo cards. "You're new. It's okay. But, don't let it happen again." She pointed to a small pile of bills on the table next her. "Now give me 30 more tickets."
I stacked out 30 tickets in 3 neat rows of 10 and put the money in the caddy and moved to the next table.
Steve walked by. "Just think", he said in a low voice "we only have four more hours to go."
Bingo - Part 2
By the third round of Flash, my anxiety began to abate. After about 3hrs in, I felt like I had a system. It wasn’t about “selling” Flash to the patrons, it was about being available when they decided they wished to buy, which more often than not, was nearly immediately.
I began to realize that my job was more like a waitress at some dingy bar, with a bunch of semi-drunk patrons that would keep ordering beers till closing time or as a dealer in a casino in some border town in Nevada. It wasn’t glamorous, but it wasn’t all that tough. The players would want to their Flash, regardless.
I began to develop a system. I would approach each patron “How much Flash would you like? 20? Of course, here you are. May the odds ever be in your favor.” Okay, I didn’t say that last part. Maybe I was overplaying it, but people barely seemed to notice.
I came to an older lady with straight blond hair wearing a tight dress. She was missing a couple teeth and her hands were dirty. “May I offer you Flash? People seem to really like this one.”
She looked up from her multiple bingo cards and noticed my crown. “Oh, yeah.” She reached into a duffel bag that was lying on the table and pulled out a wad of money bigger than my fist and gave me three $10 bills.
“$30? Of course.” She took the cards and absentmindedly put the money back in her bag, her eyes back on her bingo cards. I had been dismissed.
I continued down the tables. “Flash? Yes, of course.” I approached Carrie. “Hello. What can I do you for?”
She stopped playing bingo and looked up from her cards. She gave a throaty chuckle that made me a little uncomfortable. “Do me? Honey, you can do me all night long!” And roared with laughter. Around the tables, giggling spread as Carrie gave me a little wink.
I adjusted my plastic crown. “So, um... 20 Flash then?”
I had never thought of bingo as a sport, or something that had might have its own following. I never realized that there was a circuit of bingo locations thoroughout the City. There were dozens of bingo nights, and the vast majority of patrons that I was seeing in South Pasadena were from some other part of Los Angeles and played multiple times a month, if not a week.
What never ceased to surprise me was how much money people were playing in bingo and the various Flash games. In my normal life, I would say that I have on any given week a discretionary income of approximately $30 to spend on lunches, gum and gas for my car. The idea of dropping $20 on lottery tickets or a horse racing would be a crazy splurge and one that I would need to explain to my wife in great detail.
However, I watched Carrie and her friends spend at least $200 each on the various Flash games, let alone the other bets and games during the course of the evening.
I pulled the manager Michelle aside. “Is it always the same people?”
She shrugged. “Not every time, but we get a lot of regulars?”
“How do they afford it? I mean, it’s just gambling.”
She shrugged again. “It’s cheaper than going to Vegas.”
“It just feels like... you know, taking advantage, or something.”
“Well, maybe, but this gives them a chance to see their friends. A lot of them know each other through other Bingo nights. And, the better ones can actually do okay. There is a skill to playing well.”
“The woman over there in the dress, do you know her?”
“Cindi. Yeah, she won big at one of the other bingo nights a couple weeks ago. She said she’s saving for a house.”
“You can do that playing bingo?”
She shrugged again and walked away.
At 8:45pm, we finished the last Flash game of the night. There was an antsiness in the crowd, and you could feel how many of the players were anxiously waiting for their opportunity to win, be it a Bingo, Flash, or another game. Time was running out and Lady Luck hadn’t smiled on them yet.
Jean pulled us back into volunteers section.
“Okay, if you haven’t done your final count, do so now and then you can put your caddies and crowns away. Once the last Bingo game is announced, we’re all going to stand at the entrance to say goodbye to the players. We made a lot of money thanks to them tonight. It’s only right that we say thank you.”
We all walked to the front of the gymnasium. The concession stand was packing up along with the bingo counting machine vendor who was throwing them in a giant stack of grey milk crates. There were two doors out to the street and a handful of us each stood alongside each door. Within a few minutes, people began to filter through.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Have a good night.”
“Be safe driving home.”
After a couple minutes, we noticed a short, very obese man making his way to the entrance with a walker. I had seen him earlier in the night. His wife and he had laid out a variety of crackers, cheeses, olives, cookies and pastries surrounding their bingo cards and had finished off most of them during the night. I hadn’t noticed how big he was until he was making his way toward us. His skin was florid. He wore open toed shower sandals and his toes were purple. He looked miserable as he inched along toward the doors. What does one do? Was there anything we could do to help?
He moved a little closer to the door. We were all watching him. After a moment, someone said “Thank you for coming tonight.”
“Uh-hunh. It’s my knee. My knee is very bad.” We nodded. When no one said anything, he continued “my wife went to get the car.”
“Would you like a chair?”
He inched a little closer to the door. “No, I have my walker. It’s just... my knee.”
“Thanks for coming.”
It took less than an hour to clean up. A group of 20 high school volleyball players arrived at 9pm to help with the clean up. Dozens of tables were broken down and stowed in shipping containers behind the football field, the platform and the bingo machine were stored in their own locker.
Outside there were a handful of bingo players chatting amongst themselves, including Carrie. I waved and she waved back. Steve was talking to another manager that I hadn’t met.
“I’ve been doing bingo for 16 years, ever since my father was a player. I used to come with him and then after he past away, I liked coming back and helping out. It’s a nice group of people.
Steve nodded. “Seem like nice people.”
“You should come in a couple weeks. During Halloween, everyone gets dressed up and they play in their costumes.”
“And what’s nice is they do a turkey dinner during Thanksgiving. It’s actually really good. The catering service does a really nice job. It’s one of the most popular bingo nights of the year. So, you should definitely come back.”
Steve looked at me. I shrugged.