Depending on what stage of life you’re at, the title will probably mean one of two things to you. The first is this:
That one’s for all the mammies and daddies with small children who are mesmerised by the great purple dinosaur.
The second option is the vision of white-haired, apple-cheeked grannies and twinkly-eyed grand-dads sitting in a cosy hall drinking tea and eating buns, while listening to someone calling out numbers with cute twists – “two fat ladies”, “all the twos” etc. etc.
Ok, so neither of these options are anything like the battlefield that is the Bingo Hall in Saskatoon. Think intense silence, furious “dabbing”, scrabbling for coins and absolutely no craic whatsoever.
The reason I know this is because I worked the 8.30pm to 1.30am shift on Thursday night. All Goldfins parents have to work two mandatory and two optional bingos a year, so this was my first one. I set off at 8pm, with the map imprinted in my mind, and still managed to get hopelessly lost. I actually missed the turn onto one of the main arteries of the city. Don’t even ask. I found myself wandering around what they call the Alphabet Streets, which is supposed to be the “bad” part of town. It was deserted and dark, and I kept having to pull over and look at the map to figure out where the hell I was. Time ticked on, and I was still driving at 15 mph up the H and down the G and across the D…..
I eventually stumbled across a useful looking crossroad, and finally found the bloody bingo hall. There were crowds of people smoking cigarettes outside, so I weaved between them and landed into a huge hall, with about five hundred people in it, all concentrating hard on the papers in front of them. Erin, the swim coach who runs the bingo nights for the Goldfins, was dishing out the jobs and instructions, so I stood by and watched for a while. Nothing made sense. At all.
There were people buying sheets, and others holding up plastic signs with “BALLS” written on them in huge black letters. The bingo caller was reciting numbers and the screens were all changing and flashing. Everyone had these gigantic colourful markers, which they used to dab on the numbers that were called. They could do this at incredible speed, over multiple game sheets. It was a very intricate dance and I didn’t know any of the steps.
So, I donned my money apron, took my folder, said a quick prayer and plunged into the fray. Every time a hand went up (about every 10 seconds!), I had to rush over, open my folder and start dishing out the game sheets. It was like a different language. “Gimme a 6 up, five dollars of Bonanzas, a King and Queen, two Jackpots, 2 pre-bonanzas and a Sweepstake”. Um… ok….I flipped back and forth through the folder, counted it all out, added it all up, gave the change and rushed off to the next person.
I didn’t get there quick enough for one little old dear, who actually snarled at me. Mind you, I think her meds must have kicked in then, because for the rest of the night she smiled sweetly at me every time I walked by. Another cranky old cow ate the arse off me for not noticing that her hand had been up for ages, and then nearly had a cardiac when I told her I was out of bonanzas. I hurtled back to Erin to get some, skidded back down the hall, and the ungrateful hoor had already got them from one of the other sellers.
Everybody else was lovely. They all knew exactly how much every sheet was, how much change they were owed and which sheet they needed next. There were some real characters there. One guy sat for the whole evening in a massive black cowboy hat, and spoke to me in a kind of Mexican accent. The Lone Ranger. Another old man and his wife told me how their car had been reversed into by a woman in a one-ton truck in a car park, and they would use a big win to get the car out of the body shop.
There were plenty of communication problems. Apart from the fact that I have never played bingo, and hadn’t a clue about the names of the game sheets, I had to deal with accents, mumblings, people speaking with a mouth full of nachos, and the fact that half of them couldn’t understand me either. There was one lovely old man, whose whole face was a mass of creases, sitting on his own at the front. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have his teeth in, so when he asked me for a game sheet, it sounded like this “Aneepnape”. “Sorry?” I asked politely. “A Neep nape” he repeated. Oh God, help me. I bent right down to him, and smiled apologetically. “A NEEP NAPE” he semi-bellowed. A Sweepstake. I avoided him like the plague for the rest of the night in case he wanted a King and Queen or a Pre-Bonanza.
Everyone was eating. I hadn’t realised that there would be anything to spend money on, so I was like the Bisto kid wandering around, inhaling all these delicious smells and getting hungrier by the minute. I realised that I was starving when a plate of chips covered with gravy and cheese curds starting looking like a good dietary choice. They’re called poutines and there’s a whole franchise dedicated to them:
I could feel my arteries hardening at the thought. I still wanted a plate of them though.
As the night wore on, time slowed down and my legs were really aching. We were all strolling slowly, stretching our legs when we could and watching the clock tick by. At midnight, I absconded to the washroom. It was the nicest sit-down-to-pee ever. I thought I might never be able to get up again. I was bathed in ultraviolet light and starting to feel very trance-like. After about five minutes, I reluctantly got up and re-entered the Dante-an circle of hell. I had lost the will to live at this stage. The evening was interminable.
Finally, it finished and the hall emptied. Then we had to clear off all the rubbish from the tables and wipe them all down. I staggered out to the van and drove home, with my legs and feet on fire and dreaming of toasted white bread. Only eleven more of the fuckers to go.