Bingo to You, Sir

I-17, I-17! N-33, N-33!

For a few years in the late seventies and early eighties I was in charge of twice-monthly Bingo games. My responsibilities were simple and straightforward: I’d pass out the cards and chips, then call the numbers for about an hour’s worth of games. I’d then put away the game components and pass out the winnings, generally candy bars. The players were old men at a nursing home in Boston. I was the activities director at the facility and felt quite at home with the 45 men who lived there. I came to view them all as my friends. As a Bingo caller I could just about doze off running the game, but some skewed creativity helped to keep me awake. I’d call the numbers too quietly until greater volume was requested and I would then become too loud. I’d talk too quickly until I was requested to slow down. For the residents of the home, their world had become rather static, built upon schedules not of their own making, and I figured it was the least I could do to make them scratch their heads a bit about something outside of themselves.

I took the greatest pleasure when engaging in subtle word play. For example, I could make B-10 into beaten and bloodied, B-4 into, Beef ore, mined from a cow. Vaguely rhyming couplets were also possible to slide through, with G-49 being delivered as Jeep for the mind. The men thought they were hearing what they needed to; some were experiencing hearing loss. They were also assuming I was calling out actual Bingo board spaces.

Twenty years later, at the beginning of the new century, I was in Chattanooga interviewing old people. One day I was at a center and there was one man in particular who would be perfect for me to talk with. He was a Colonel Sanders look-alike and his voice was rich with the sort of character I find so compelling. However, he was distracted by a Bingo game that was scheduled to start. In fact, it was late in starting because whoever was to run the game was busy elsewhere. I volunteered to step in, citing my past experience. Being in an unfamiliar setting and amongst people who didn’t know me, I called the numbers with unembellished professionalism.

I was not looking to relive the Bingo experience. I was just trying to keep the schedule moving along so Colonel Sanders would be able to talk with me when the game was over. But a short time into the game something happened. The Colonel, sitting off by himself at a small table, lowered his head and quietly vomited onto his shoes. An attendant came and wheeled him away while I continued with my game duties. I never did get to speak with or see him again.

In the decades I have remaining, I’m quite likely to wind up at more Bingo games. As long as I can find ways to amend the responsibilities with my personal brand of hijinks, I’d prefer to be the caller.

– David Greenberger

(aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, 29 August 2006) AUDIO