Local Color

Kathleen and I had a little adventure in Austin the other day. We played Bingo. Maybe it sounds a little odd or out of character and perhaps it is, but we do like to experience local color where ever we are and this qualifies without a doubt.

Bingo halls are everywhere. It's likely that you have driven past large ex-supermarkets with waving flags, hugely lettered signs spelling out B-I-N-G-O and an overflowing parking lot on a Friday night. If you are like me you really never considered stopping to see what it was all about. You probably didn't give it a second glance or a second thought really.

I am not without curiosity so a new acquaintance of mine offered to show me what the game of Bingo is all about. Kathleen and I have no idea what to expect but we are game. We find my guy quickly when we walk into the giant non-smoking side of the hall. People are milling around and the long rows of tables are occupied here and there with single players and some with groups or couples who have come to play together.

Our Bingo tour guide is just the nicest of guys and has the gift of being part salesman, part comedian, part teacher and part businessman making him the ultimate host. He's just this lovely big ol' East Texas sweetie who has, what my friend Bill would call "The Teddy Bear Factor", meaning that people in the hall gravitate to him as one would a long time friend, seeing him as trustworthy, forthright and lovable. With all of this and the addition of his red tie and vest, he is nothing short of precious and endearing.

Apparently I had a misconception that the people here playing Bingo would be similar to the segment of the population that I found in the casino in Lake Charles last week. I had never been to a casino in my life and after that experience, I really have no desire to go to another one. I wandered aimlessly around that pretty upscale casino watching people play the Slots and Craps and various types of Poker and nothing about that experience appealed to me or even entertained me very much. I like "people watching", but even that didn't appeal to me at the casino.

Kathleen and I arrived at the Bingo hall shortly before the start of the first session because our host had told me earlier in the day that we should get there and get into the "Zen of the game" before the session started. I thought he was kidding me, but he was dead serious, explaining to me how Bingo is a quiet game that lets people just focus on the squares, the game, the numbers and the fellowship, allowing them to shut out all thoughts of their crappy jobs, bad marriages, financial woes and every other worry they might have in their life.

I am amazed by the diversity of the people here in the Bingo hall. I'm telling you, the ethnic diversity alone is pretty astounding, but the range in the age of the players is also eye opening for me. Our host whisked us past a fifty or even sixty-ish year old, possibly Filipino woman with a machine, multiple paper cards and a bevy of ink daubers in every color laid out in front of her on the table. Our host jokes with her like one would with his sister-in-law or something and says "I would seat y'all at this table, but she's mean!" They both laugh and she is just adorable.

I look around me and find that I am in an environment I really didn't expect to find in a Bingo Hall. It is super clean, organized, fun, and safe-feeling to this old girl. I think Kathleen is surprised as well. She had locked her purse in the trunk of her car, choosing not to bring it in with her. There is nothing rif-raffy about this place that maybe I expected. It seems like everyone is represented here. I see groups of sorority/fraternity kids, well dressed and diamond studded. I see single 50-ish year old men and women playing alone and happily not looking for a hook up. A young white woman sits behind me, a young black woman sits to her right, and a young hispanic girl sits one row down and to my left (and by "young" I mean they are each probably between 25 and 30 years old.) An older semi disabled woman comes in just prior to the second session. She is obviously a regular player and is treated like a queen by the staff. The staff, from what I've seen are all very friendly and energetic as they chat and joke with the players as they wander up and down selling pull tabs and extra game cards. They bend over backwards to make sure everyone is having a good time.

Our host explains "the roadmap" which is a list of the games that will be played during all the sessions that evening. He sets us up with electronic Bingo machines for the first session. These machines automatically mark some internal cards per game for you. You just hit a button when the number is called and watch the card populate. The machine keeps track of how close you are to winning with your cards moving up in the order as they get closer to a possible win. Neither of us wins during this session, but it gives us a really visual demonstration of how the games are played. The first session consisted of five games and lasted a little more than an hour.

For the second session, we decide to play the traditional paper card way. Our guy brings us a full pack of sheets for the second session and an ink dauber for each of us. Each sheet contains 12 bingo cards. You play one sheet per game, the color of the sheet corresponding to the color indicated on the road map. The caller announces the game and the wild numbers before he starts pulling balls. The games could be "Double Postage Stamp", "Granny's Quilt" or "3 Lines Hard Way, No Free Space" or a multitude of other games which are named based on the pattern required to win the game. I screwed up my first game just by marking my wild numbers wrong. I thought the caller said "any number with a two" was wild when in fact he said "any number ending in a two" is wild. Ok, Nancylou, pay attention!!!

I thought that Kathleen and I would probably run the risk of getting reprimanded for being too loud, 'cause we do tend to get loud and silly when we are together. But we managed to behave ourselves even with the "6 beers for 6 quarters bucket" of Costa Rican beer we had in front of us. I've known Kathleen for at least 15 years and she said to me "I don't think I've ever seen you drink a beer, Nancy". Well you never saw me play Bingo before either, did you?

We are playing and looking over each other's shoulder to see how our games were going. I'm distracted from time to time looking around at what's going on in the hall and watching in fascination at how some of the other players keep up with multiple "three up" sheets while simultaneously playing machines and buying extra cards for the next game. At one point Kathleen jabs me with her elbow to jolt me out of my people watching to tell me to mark the new number that was up on the monitor.

All in all I found this Bingo thing to not only be fun and friendly, but somehow it was also relaxing, mesmerizing, surprisingly exciting and in no way "as common as a grandma in a Bingo hall!"

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