It was a warm Thursday evening, the kind of night you might sit in the window of a bar with friends watching the city change colors. I was at Bingo Palace, part of a crowd drawn by the promise of instant cash (not to mention the charms of ritual and superstition). A middle-aged couple entered ahead of me, both of them wearing dark blue shirts that said “Lucky Shirt,” while behind them pranced a little girl waving a red plastic gun. “No one under 18 allowed,” intoned a woman near the door. The couple looked around in confusion, then, spotting the girl, answered quickly, “She’s not ours. We don’t know where she came from!” The door lady quipped, “You didn’t plan her and now you don’t want her, huh?” Then she talked to the mystery child, who was just looking for a drinking fountain to fill her water pistol.

I paid for my cards–$13 for 24 of them–and took the only available seat at a table near the numbers board. Also in view was a huge black-and-white poster of Mike Ditka, who, with his folded arms and terse expression, seemed to be trying mightily not to scratch himself. I checked out my company for the evening. Bingo must be the ideal place for both loners and people who want to be in a crowd. And for those who are a strange combination of the two. There were big family groups and lots of men and women alone, some who sat as far away as possible from everyone else and kept their jackets on the entire evening. There was an old sailor with faded tattoos up and down both arms and a man holding a portable oxygen tank to help him breathe. A black woman chatted with me about Michael Jordan while her retarded son occasionally rang a tiny copper bell for no apparent reason.

Suddenly all eyes turned toward a couple in their late teens who had just entered. The girl, in a pink and white aerobics costume, looked like she’d just stepped out of a commercial; her boyfriend, who sported an entirely shaved head and a black leather jacket, stared gloomily into space.

“What do you think she’s doing with him?” whispered an elderly lady near me.

I shrugged, a little embarrassed that I’d been wondering the same thing. I said maybe they just liked to play bingo together. She gave me one of those “Do you think I was born yesterday?” looks and answered, “I think they do more than play bingo together.”

People were taping their bingo cards to each other, being careful not to stick them to the table. Several signs warned that cards taped to the tables would not be honored. A hard-looking blond a few feet away had more than 30 cards lined up in front of her. On the other side of her I heard a flurry of Arabic and watched several serious-faced men and women pointing their fingers at the various accoutrements of the game–bingo chips in primary colors and magnetic wands for sweeping them away–and then rearranging their cards into some mystical order. A few announcements were made, which everyone sat through with a kind of depressed stoicism. Life is tough, I mused, but at least sometimes there are prizes.

In the midst of one of the games, the woman sitting on my right blurted out a confession. “I’m a bingo junkie.” Her name was Joyce and she hadn’t been since Wieboldt’s closed downtown.

“I play about five times a week here and at Bingo City. I used to play at the church near my house but one time they caught people cheating. Do you believe it? Cheating at church! The guy who was calling the numbers had his relatives sitting in the front row. He’d look down at them and they’d signal whatever letters and numbers they needed and that’s what he’d call. Anyway, one night they caught him doing it. Well, I’ll tell you, I thought the crowd was going to hang that whole family from the basketball hoops.”

Joyce was interrupted when a girl she used to work with recognized her and came over, balancing a stack of doughnuts in her arms. They had one of those hurried conversations that people hold between bingo games. “You working?” “No, are you?” “No. Where’s your husband?” “Over there playing.” “Win anything?” “Won a hundred dollars last week.” “What’d you do with it?” “Bought diapers and lottery tickets.” As the girl went speeding back to her mate, Joyce began to chuckle. ‘That girl and I used to talk so much the store could have used us for air conditioners!” A few feet away, a thin nervous woman slammed her hand down and gave a disgusted cry. “I hate this game. What a stupid game. I was one square away from winning and now that bitch over there got the money.” Nobody seemed to pay much attention to her outburst. Or notice her change of heart 15 minutes later when she slammed her hand down again, this time hollering BINGO at the top of her lungs. “I love this game,” she gushed, “I love coming here and winning.”

Her victory was about as close to success as I got that night. Looking around, I decided my problem was that I didn’t have a good-luck charm. Almost everyone had something: tiny glass unicorns, large fuzzy dice, a mirrored and beaded elephant. One man had a Rambo doll standing haughtily in the center of a sea of numbers. Next to him, his wife, dressed in white pants with Las Vegas printed in hot pinks and blues all over them, snored gently.

As the night dragged on a certain lassitude filled the Bingo Palace. Some people worked on crossword puzzles; brief arguments flared up and were quickly forgotten; cigarette smoke hung in the air like gray cotton. Behind a fortress of coffee cups an elderly librarian type scowled at a young girl in garish makeup and a mohawk who was nervously tapping her feet, causing both the table and chair to squeak.

“You’ll wake everyone up with that squeaking,” scolded the librarian.

“You’ve got to be awake to win,” retorted the girl, without even looking up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.