August 24, 2000

Bingo

Once, long ago, I was a bingo caller. I was fifteen at the time and got the job through a friend whose grandmother was president of the ladies club in her apartment building. The club had about fifty elderly members, most of whom, to judge from appearances, were addicted to bingo. They played in a room in the basement of their building. Every Tuesday I joined them, sitting at a table at the front of the room. For my services I received six dollars an hour plus all the fresh-baked cookies I could eat.

An important part of the job, aside from spinning a small metal bingo wheel and calling out the numbers of the resulting ball, was to confirm the winner of each round. I did this with the aid of a big flat white board that was covered with lots of small round indentations, each of which corresponded to a number on one of the bingo balls. After calling a number, I would place the ball in its proper indentation on the grid. When someone shouted “Bingo,” I would ask the player to read off her winning numbers, and as she did so, I would check the numbers against the balls on the grid. In this way I would catch a few false bingos each night. I didn’t like doing this; it’s no fun to inform a gleeful winner that she is in fact a humiliated loser. However, since many of the women followed along during the confirmation process, I knew I’d be in trouble if I ever confirmed a false number.

All of this relevant to the confession I’m about to make, which involves one of the players, a woman who would sit at a nearby table with a chair between her and the next woman. During the intermission, while I was busy with the cookies, she sat alone, eating cantaloupe out of a plastic container. Thus I dubbed her the cantaloupe woman. She appeared to be the only woman in the room without friends. I would have talked to her myself, but I really had no idea what to say to an elderly woman, aside from thanking her for her cookies.

Each week she sat there, alone, eating her cantaloupe. It was heartbreaking. And then one night I finally decided to do something about it. During the intermission I lingered past her table and memorized a row of numbers on one of her bingo cards. In a subsequent game I called out these numbers during the first eight balls or so, virtually guaranteeing her victory. And it worked: she yelled “Bingo” loud and strong. (As a precaution, I had placed the balls on the slots belonging to the numbers I had called, not the numbers on the balls. I did this in case the cantaloupe woman overlooked her bingo, in which case the game would continue and I would need to confirm another winning combination.)

Emboldened by the woman’s reaction, I falsely awarded her at least one bingo a night, and several times granted her the final game, which was worth double. I was never caught, nor did I ever sense that anyone realized that such a thing was possible. In moments of self-satisfied reverie, I fancied myself the Robin Hood of bingo callers, stealing from the rich Ladies Club members and giving to the poor cantaloupe woman.

It was the best wrong thing I’ve ever done.