I think we need to take some kind of lucky charm,” I text Sophia, as I don jeans and a T-shirt with a kitty cat on it. “Do you happen to have a troll doll?”
As I await her response, I start getting nervous. Please, please be awake, I think. I don’t know if I can go through this alone.
It seems to be taking forever.
After about 20 minutes my phone buzzes. “I’m on it,” she writes. As for the troll doll: “No. I’m not 5.”
Phew. We’ve been planning this day for weeks and both are approaching it with a mix of trepidation and excitement. When you enter a parallel universe, as we’re about to do, you never know what to expect. It’s best to take a friend along, at minimum.
I rush around my house, grabbing the necessities: pen, paper, car keys, lucky Jesus and Mary action figures. On my way out the door I stop short. I almost forgot. I retrace my steps and grab my leprechaun-shaped “Luck of the Irish” dauber off of the entertainment center. When you’ve committed to spending hours playing bingo, that is the last tool you want to leave behind.
This won’t be the first time I’ve played bingo. That happened about seven years ago. I was on staff at Las Vegas Weekly, and someone had the brilliant idea of a “dare” issue, meaning readers could dare LVW staff to do something. My dare was to go into a bingo room and falsely yell out “Bingo!” after the first few numbers were called. I was all set to do it … until I got there, at the Gold Coast’s bingo room, and saw the assortment of determined bingo players, with their cards, daubers, back-up daubers and back-up back-up daubers at the ready. As winner after winner cried out the victory “bingo!” the entire room grumbled in unison. In this game, one person’s win is a roomful of loss. If I were to mercilessly scream those five letters, I would take the joy—if only for a second, while they verified it and discovered my fib—from hundreds of people. In the end, I left without calling out bingo. I just couldn’t be that a-hole.
- Beyond the Weekly
- Las Vegas bingo rooms
And now, I return. Oh, it’s not my first time back. I’ve actually played a few times since, but it doesn’t matter. Because every time I go, I mess up. Every time I go, I have to ask a regular player to tell me which sheet we should be playing (I call them the bingo angels). And every time I go, I marvel at how seriously the players take the game. I know that only with full immersion will I ever understand them in their natural habitat.
Sophia meets me at Arizona Charlie’s Decatur, and we both have that bingo sparkle in our eyes—a look of hope, an awareness of possibilities. Though she’s never played before, she’s come equipped with her own dauber, shaped like a hussy with a cowboy hat and a tattoo on her butt. She tells me that she’s always wanted to play. As a kid, she used to watch her mom play bingo with friends, and whenever their bingo posse lost, they’d cry out, “Fixed!” Clearly, Sophia understands the crowd we’re up against.
The bingo hall feels like the size of a football field, and there are at least 100 people here, mostly women, mostly seniors, who are getting warmed up to play. They’re pulling out their daubers (note the plural—three daubers seems to be the average), marking off the “free” spots in the center of their sheets, smoking their pre-game cigarettes, chatting amongst themselves.
We walk up to the counter, and I lie, telling the woman I’ve never played before, and could she just sell us the simplest package available? I’m not lying for any other purpose than to make myself look smarter than I am. So what if I’ve played four or five times and still just don’t get it?
The cashier starts speaking in Bingo, and my eyes glaze over. Wanting to report it all accurately, though, I take notes. This is what I write: “45 games. Three 1,000 coveralls. 2 after 25,000. $12 each.” I actually have no idea what that means, but we each hand her $12, and she hands us whatever it is that we just bought.
This is where my bingo anxiety comes in. I’ve always considered bingo a simple, no-thrills kind of game. Well, not this round, Mabel. Sophia and I just paid to play 12 games at a time. That means that when the bingo caller yells out “N-37,” we search for it on not one, not two, but 12 game boards, daubing as we go.
I fall behind by the time the fourth number is called, and I never quite recover. That’s not to say I don’t try. I do, and so does Sophia. We try with all our hearts, and we smile at the grumbles, and Sophia laughs out loud each time the caller cries out “O-69.” We’re having a great time, right into the third game, when we both flip to Page 3 of our bingo cards and start playing.
That’s when the yelling starts.
“It continues! It continues!”
Though it’s originating at my back, I sense that this is directed at us. I turn to see a woman running from two rows over, waving her arms frantically. And though she’s speaking Bingo, Sophia and I quickly catch on that Game 3 is actually supposed to be played on game card No. 2. By “it continues,” our bingo angel is telling us that we’re trying for a double bingo, meaning two straight lines on the card where we originally tried for a single line. I’m developing a bingo headache.
Once Game 7 starts I’m feeling bewildered. My computer-spoiled eyes just aren’t used to this much scanning. That’s when a woman with large, teased hair comes over to our table, and reaches down for something. Jarred from my bingo trance, I look up to see that she works here, as a cashier. And she’s picking up the fluorescent orange monkey puppet that Sophia brought as a good luck charm. “He’s cute,” she says. “May I?”
“Of course,” says Sophia, who doesn’t even look up, she’s concentrating so heavily on the game. I look at my supine Jesus and Mary action figures, wondering if they’re more or less lucky that she’s completely ignored them.
Then she walks away. With the puppet. “I didn’t say you could walk away with it,” Sophia mutters under her breath.
I’ve stopped paying attention to the numbers and take the opportunity to lay down my dauber and give my full attention to the cashier, who has walked about 50 feet away from us to the cashier cage. The bright orange puppet covers her hand, behind her back, as the two cashiers inside the cage ignore her, deep in conversation.
Finally they look up, and she joyously brings the monkey arm forth, pantomiming in some kind of monkey fashion. Though I can’t hear her, her mouth is moving, and I imagine that what’s coming out is high-pitched.
The two cage cashiers aren’t amused. In fact, they just kind of stare, making even me uncomfortable.
She sulks back, gingerly placing the monkey back on our table. “Those girls have got about as much of a sense of humor as a rattlesnake,” she says, and walks off.
I return to the task at hand. We don’t win. After losing 45 games each during the hour-long session, we decide a change of scenery is in order and head to the Silver Nugget in North Las Vegas. Whereas the Charlie’s room was expansive and filled with at least a hundred women and a few men, the Nug is much smaller and much brighter and, as Sophia points out, “much more desperate.” Only about 20 people show up for the harshly lit 3 o’clock game, and they sit in cushy chairs, surrounded by bright blue walls with bingo balls painted on them.
We wait in a short line, and again, I lie to the cashier. “Can you help us, please? We’ve never played before.” She runs through a similar spiel as the previous one, giving each card a name and a price, but I don’t take notes this time (got to save the dauber hand). We pay $7 here and are again given a package of sheets with 12 on each page. We take two seats and start marking off our “free” spots, our eyes aglow with the bingo sparkle. A cocktail cart rolls in front of us, but Sophia and I aren’t even tempted. We need every faculty we can get for this game, and no free booze will sway our determination.
As the numbers are called—I-21, O-75, N-40—I discover my bingo groove. It’s not pretty. It goes something like this: As I breathe through my mouth, my lips repeat the letter-number combo as my dauber hand traces down each and every column. If I did my “silent reading” like this in elementary school they would have put me in special ed.
Still, I’m able to stay on task a little longer this time, probably because I’m more emotionally involved. I want to win. As the people around us grumble with each new “Bingo!” I find myself doing it along with them—at least, in my head.
By Game 4 I need a break. I sit and watch, and count the seconds that pass between the calling of each ball: Six seconds! No wonder I’m behind, I think, placating myself. But few people here care, since they’re mostly using the electronic machines these days, anyway. These little computers actually keep track of your numbers for you, and no participation is required. In fact, just a few tables ahead of us I watch a man read the Review-Journal while his machine keeps track of the game. Now if I could just find a bingo room with wi-fi, I could spend the whole workday here, I muse. And then realize that I’m already doing that.
After losing at another 45 or so games, we trek up to Red Rock, the king of bingo rooms, where you’re not only offered alcohol, but they also have free hot chocolate (with whipped cream!) and donuts at the morning session (limit of two per customer, the sign warns).
This giant room, with row after elongated row of tables, can hold hundreds, if not thousands, of players. At the 3 o’clock session there are probably about 200 here. Sophia and I stare at the menu of game options, wanting—really wanting—to order for ourselves this time. As I open my mouth to order, the same thing comes out. “It’s our first time,” I explain for the third time today. We walk away with a pink book that has only six games per page, rather than the 12 we’ve become accustomed to. It’s like our bingo cool-down.
Sure, the odds are lower, but our attention spans will be heightened with fewer numbers to chase. That bingo sparkle is brighter than it’s been all day—statistically, aren’t we about due for a win?
As the games begin, an older man is having fun with the numbers as they’re called.
“I-26,” says the caller.
“Pick up sticks,” says the man.
“O-42,” says the caller.
“Who are you?” says the man.
His wife shushes him.
Back at our table, I’m only paying partial attention to them. I’m a single call away from a victory! When the next call elicits a “Bingo!” I grumble with the rest of them. Sophia, too.
By the time the hour is up, our bingo boards are full and our pockets are empty. We’re exhausted. The day felt akin to spending a holiday with the extended family—a mixture of hope, disappointment and defensiveness.
As we leave in defeat, I tell Sophia that if we’re single in 30 years, we’ll have to make this a regular outing. “Oh, please don’t say single,” she says. “At least say widowed.” With that, the bingo sparkle jumps right back into her eyes.