The wooden beads rattle in their metal cage, pregnant with fortune as the crowd awaits the announcement of the next combination of number and letter. Whatever bead pops up, the reaction will inevitably be a mixture of groans of frustration and yelps of enthusiasm. And occasionally, you get something else altogether.
“O-69.” The caller’s voice is deep and drawn out, vaguely sensual in that automated-bus-stop-announcement sort of way that isn’t disconcerting as long as the people next to you get the joke. And tonight, it’s clear the players at the New Haven Gay and Lesbian Community Center Beach Blanket Bingo game get the joke. A tide of “Ooooohs” and snickers swells in the brightly lit room.
As the modular, drab green Bingo King machine rolls on, the host intersperses the calling of numbers with witticisms.
“Who came here just to play Bingo?” Some hands go up.
“Who came here to win some money?” More hands.
“Who came because they’re single, and really wanna …” A few more hands, amid laughter.
There is no game quite like Bingo. Devoid of strategy, it is gambling stripped down to an almost primordial form—a simple pattern of squares and dots, the delayed gratification of prizes, and the instant gratification of a friendly community. Even less of a spectator sport than bowling, the game is all about abandoning oneself to the skinnerbox-like mindlessness of dabbing dots onto a piece of cheap paper. There’s nothing inherently romantic about Bingo, so the partakers have to spice it up a little.
“We’re not one of those high-tech, high-stakes games of Bingo,” reflects the hostess over the microphone. “We’re working on yard sale equipment here.” But the magic of Bingo lies in using creativity to make it worth your Saturday night.
“G-50.” Each intonation of the hostess’s voice brings a slight pause, followed by the diligent pop-pop of Dab-O dabbers hitting the flimsy game sheets along with groaning from those with unlucky grids, sibilant whispers of anxiety from those who have almost completed the winning pattern, and then—
“Bingo!” No sore losers here; everyone cheers the winner. She reads out her Bingo card, and the win is confirmed with the ceremonial “That’s a good Bingo!” from the hostess.
The players settle down again as they rip off the old grid and start afresh, their quiet chatting punctuated by—
“I-25. I-2-5. … N-40. N-4-0 … Are we getting close?”
And every so often, they get—
“O … say this with me—”
“O-69!” chimes the crowd in unison.
The players are mostly women, some as young as their mid-twenties and the oldest in their mid-60s, with the majority falling somewhere in the elder part of that range. Many of the participants are friends who come in groups, but there are always new faces. At the senior table the SLAPHaps (Senior Lesbians at Play Happily) are absorbed in their game. These dozen or so ladies sport the kind of retired-but-vital look with an oddly homogenous uniform of sweatshirts and boyish haircuts. One member of the group, who also plays Bingo at her local senior center, has come equipped with a tiny plush Moose for good luck, and two translucent orange plastic squares, which she places daintily on her card to keep track of the squares she wants to dab.
The pattern for game number five amuses the ladies, who delight at the neat little L-formation of the dots. That is, L for “long,” “luscious,” “lanky,” “lascivious” and all those other delectable “L” words.
While the crowd supplies most of the innuendo, the volunteer staff plays up the exotic theme in their Hawaiian shirts and parti-colored garlands, sporting baseball caps (which may or may not be part of the uniform, though every volunteer seems to be wearing one), clipboards for tallying the results, and purple aprons impressed with the “NHLGCC” logo.
When it’s not masquerading as an equatorial paradise, the Center is actually quite homey. Books, pamphlets and newsletters line the walls. A rainbow kite and matching windsock dangle from the ceiling, and metallic garlands of hearts, stars and stars of David enrobe the lavender pillar. A stuffed King-Kong perches atop a bookshelf modeled after the Empire State Building, which contains titles ranging from “Taoism” to “Current Concepts in Transgender Identity.” A rainbow-striped banner proclaims “Gay Fathers of Greater New Haven—Gay Pride.”
In addition to Bingo, the volunteer-run Center also features support groups and performances by locally renowned gay artists. But Bingo has a uniquely broad appeal, drawing people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations. The management is always the biggest winner. Tonight’s draw almost exceeds the 100-person capacity of the space, and the staff expects to gross about $1,000. They keep attendance growing with playful themes. Last May was Mexican-style Bingo De Mayo, and the Halloween game was “Drag Yourself to Bingo,” an occasion for transgendered costumes.
“N-34. N-3-4. 34. I was 34 once … It was not a bad year.”
The coordinator and hostess is Cathy, a saucy psychotherapist with short sandy hair, bulbous features, and a robust figure. Her monotonic yet feisty voice glosses an otherwise patently dull pastime with the extra oomph that separates this community center from all others. She reflects over the microphone, “People say to me all the time: ‘Why do you do this crazy stuff?’ You know? ‘Why do you break your back?’ … The energy. The love of the crowd.” The people below cheer and chuckle when Cathy reminds the audience of her dedication: “I don’t get paid. Liza doesn’t get paid. Bonnie, Frank … We don’t get paid!”
The crowd works a bit of additional glitter into the game with donated door prizes for holders of the selected tickets. One lucky Bingoer wins a high-tech joystick. (“Is that what they’re calling them these days?” says Cathy.) A gift certificate to Rimage, a local salon known for the quality of its pampering as well as its “gay-owned, gay-operated” status, goes to a middle-aged woman with a mousy brown ponytail in an olive sweater. She laughs quietly—she’s not the spa treatment type. A black leather fanny pack goes to one of the out-of-staters, who, as her friend proclaims, “came all the way from Colorado to play Bingo here tonight!” This elicits a hearty applause. The center attracts people from all over the East Coast, but Midwesterners are a bit rarer.
Then come the clothing prizes, which Cathy is reluctant at first to show off. In her orange life-vest, rumpled sailor hat and Hawaiian shirt, she remarks, “I’m a lesbian; I wear flannel and jeans. I’m dressed up tonight!” But you don’t have to be well versed in coterie to appreciate these fashions: cotton T-shirts triumphantly displaying the word “FIST.” But the prize that gets the most cheers and jeers is a life-sized poster of two lace-trimmed, lip-locked ladies. “Was this donated by the American Red Cross?” asks Cathy, noting that it demonstrates a life-saving skill.
The final door prize is a navy Absolut Vodka jacket, courtesy of Frank, the rotund, raspy-voiced, salt-and-pepper volunteer who spends most of the evening in the kitchen, serving up piping hot Sloppy Joes and Costco cheesecake—another source of revenue for the Center. The winner, a bashful, flaxen-haired young man, stands up to claim his prize. Frank delivers the jacket, sauntering down between the long tables, pelted with jocular cries of “Slow down, Frank!” and “Frank, are you part of the door prize?”
Is it real leather, inquires Cathy?
“It’s 100 percent leather, baby.” Frank’s a man of taste, not pleather.
As the evening progresses, cans of diet soda, bottles of non-alcoholic brew and Bingo sheets twisted in frustration pile up in the wastebasket. The Smart Dogs and slices of cheesecake (which according to the Cathy contains zero calories) vanish one by one. After three hours and fifteen Bingo cards, the ennui is starting to set in. The first one to leave early is Alison, tonight’s tall, slender “Bingo police” representative—dispatched by the State to supervise all non-profit fundraisers that are technically considered gambling. (Unfortunately, she’s married, and according to Cathy, “it sounds like she’s straight.”) Upon Alison’s departure, Cathy begins to exhibit signs of fatigue, accidentally calling a number wrong. The crowd starts to wail “Alison!” hoping Cathy will be apprehended for her shoddy hosting. Cathy rebuts, “Frisk me! Who knows where the pieces are hidden!”
Cathy considers herself a “natural” at Bingo calling, despite occasional slip-ups and the fact that she’s never actually won a game. For the seasoned hostess, announcing the numbers at the right pace at the right volume is key. “Watching people’s dabbers” is also extremely important. Bingo operates on an intricate feedback loop; every crowd has its own collective personality.
For the players, Bingo is a game of stamina rather than strategy. And by 10pm, the atmosphere has quieted, and the dabbers begin to lose their bounce. The older players prepare to go home, and the younger ones are ready to hit the local club and bar scene. Yet almost everyone holds out for the last game, for a grand prize of $75. The pattern they seek is a Bingo along the top or bottom row.
It’s almost too easy for Cathy to joke about this one. “Everyone who’s a top stand up—she goes first … Half of us are going to be very unhappy tonight.”
In the end, though, it seems like all the players are leaving happier than they came. “This is more fun than Foxwoods,” chirps Cathy as they close in on the last few dots. “I’ve been to Foxwoods. You can win more money there, but this is more fun.” For these folks, long after the last dot is dabbed, long after the last lavender-bordered Bingo board has fluttered on to the trash pile, the spirit lingers.
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