We went to the Hubbards Fire Hall bingo last night and, from the get-go, I was pleading with the gambling gods to lose every game.
This obsession came after a quick scan of the room. My girlfriend and I were likely the youngest people playing by at least 20 years and I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t deserve to take any money from the grey-haired dabbers, who eyed up us newcomers as we bought our cards and took our seats at the fold-up tables. I imagined they’d put in years of devotion, investing money into this local game – hobby? passion? – treating it like a community co-op and expecting the dividends to pay off due to their careful honing of meticulous superstitions, crafted through painstaking trial and error. (Some ladies in the room had as many as ten different dabbers lined up on the table, which they used selectively for specific games). They, far more than I, warranted the big jackpots – or the “cupcake” or “bonanza” or “lucky seven,” as the games and gimmicks were called. (It should be noted, the technical jargon of bingo ranks up there with the airline industry or brain surgery in its complexity and foreignness to outsiders.) Who was I, some young upstart from away, to come in and take part of this bounty that they’d been cultivating for months, years, decades? (I also recognized that there was likely some pension and retirement money in the room and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable taking any of that away.)
My sense of intrusion certainly wasn’t allayed when my girlfriend called a false “bingo” on the first game of the night, thinking it was a one-line winner, instead of the two-line or one-line-and-four-corners game. (Part of this had to do with Bingo’s aforementioned peculiar vernacular and with the accent of the Nova Scotian caller, who sounded, oddly, a bit like folk-rock troubadour Doug Paisley.) We heard frustrated sighs when she called it, amplifying my feelings of infringement, and then gasps and tsks when it came out that we had got it wrong. Her face turned beat purple. (She wound up winning the game with two other players, bringing home $17.)
It hit me last night that I don’t like to make waves in a new place, something that has been apparent throughout our Maritime road-trip this last month. I told my girlfriend, around the third or fourth of the 20 or so games, that I was rooting against myself, that I was terrified of possibly having to call “bingo” in this room of 50 or so seniors or near-seniors. She looked at me perplexed: “I want to win,” she affirmed, before scolding me subconsciously for distracting her and making her miss the most recently-called number. (She played nine cards per game, while I contented myself with three.)
As each game progressed, I would look at my card and see that I only needed a couple numbers for a winner and I’d get sweaty at the prospects of the required sequence being picked and having to single myself out in this room full of retirees. Luckily, I’ve never been a particularly lucky Bingo player, and really with lotteries in general. My only real run of success was during Quebec Carnivale week in grade school, where I’d get picked at random to wear a Bonhomme belt and get odd food and drink privileges during the festivities. Not much of a prize.
My cards would get darker each game, and my heartbeat would pick up, only to have the room fill with annoyed rumblings – filling me with relief – when a “bingo” was called somewhere behind or beside me. (One octogenarian at the table behind me would whisper-yell her “bingo.”) Despite a close call or two, things went as well as I could have hoped for during the first half of the night: I lost every game.
At this intermission, I spoke with the lady beside me, who told me the games at the Hubbards hall – located at the eastern tip of a beautiful stretch of the winding 329 highway that snakes around rustic coves and idyllic fishing towns – used to be much larger, with bigger jackpots. She didn’t have an answer for the drop-off, but I imagine it had something to do with that blanket legislation that slowly snuffed out smoking across this country over the last 15 or so years. (During said intermission, half the players ran outside to huff down a smoke.) The sweatbox of a room, which was heavy and humid due to the mugginess outside the last couple days, may well have played a part.
My aversion to attention had nothing to do with the friendliness of the folks at the hall, who were all really helpful. This sort of hospitality has been standard since we started our trip out east. I’ve always thought the ‘Canadians are too friendly’ stereotype was bullshit, and that it was really a superficial politeness that could be seen as almost standoffish or disinterest. But from Quebec City onwards, the people we’ve met, be it in rural PEI, or Tadoussac, Quebec or along country roads in Nova Scotia, have been genuinely interested in us, in our travels and in giving us memorable and positive experiences in their hometowns. At the bingo hall, a couple of old ladies at the table in front of us would tell us which one of the dozen or so coloured game cards would be up next. They “yoo-hoo”ed me at first to get my attention and inform me of the next card, before then giving me the thumbs up when I held up the card before the each game. Some of the volunteers in the hall would also come over and explain the rules for some of the more unique, obscure games. This was all very much appreciated and it made us feel much more comfortable in our new surroundings.
It was just after the intermission that my unease began to slowly morph into a disinterest in the game. Bingo doesn’t offer you the chance to change strategy or increase your chances of winning through tactical means, other than buying more cards, and so I found it stale that there was nothing that I could do other than blot out the number that was called out. I did enjoy thinking about the different permutations and combinations that I needed in order to win a certain game, but that excitement would be assuaged each time a different number was called.
And as I got more bingo weary, and the games ended anticlimactically, it suddenly hit me: Oh shit, I think I want to win now. I no longer viewed the game as a charity donation, or as a low-key night with my girlfriend, a bag of Hickory Sticks and a couple Cokes. My growing annoyance wasn’t from the deterministic nature of the game, but my shitty Bingo-playing abilities.
As I got more comfortable in the room, I suppose I got greedier. (What does that say about humans?)
Each game wore on, and the losses kept mounting, and I felt more and more disappointment. No thoughts about taking a pensioner’s nest egg anymore. I could use this money for gas. No worries about singling myself out amongst this tight-knit crowd. Just numbers I didn’t need, being called at random, affecting my mood.
When the “bonanza” and the final jackpot were called, the hall emptied at light speed and we were back in the car, driving that twisting road home, and I was confused as hell about my bingo experience. Was there a moral somewhere here?
If you set your expectations low, you won’t be disappointed?
You should do something for the fun of it, because as soon as you start getting selfish and taking things too seriously, you’re bound to be let down?
Or was the moral just not to play stupid games of chance?
Yes, that’s the one.