By Clay Champlin
I remember thinking even the table of big girls from Minnesota will get laid tonight. The Hard Rock's center bar makes any woman weighing over 100 pounds and sporting less than a C cup stick out like a walrus in a kiddie pool, but these ladies would be considered hefty at a St. Paul Applebee's. There were a few more guys than women at the bar, so it would just be a couple of hours before the harpoons came out. Some drunk guy would snag one of these voluptuous ladies, drag her back to his room, have sex with her blow hole, then render her blubber for soap. As many Vegas bars do, this place had the vibe that everyone was getting laid this night. Everyone except me. Mainly because I'm married, and the only thing that stays in Vegas for me is my money and a few million unnecessary brain cells. Also, I wasn't in the mood to chat up strange women. I had just done something I swore I'd never do, especially being raised catholic. I played bingo, and it was worse than I remembered.
The Gold Coast casino ain't fancy. The dingy gold decor combined with dim lighting gives the place an overall hue of a smoker's teeth. The staff is as cheerful as a starving coyote, and the gamblers are the worst kind: old and local. My friend and I intended to hit the Gold Coast Bowling Center for a few frames, but after a few hands of blackjack, and a number of cocktails, we couldn't get past the bingo
"Let's face it, bowling isn't gambling, and we came here to gamble!" is what I think I said to my friend as stood in the threshold of the bingo parlor. I was pretty buzzed, so I may have actually said, "The roof of my mouth feels like marshmallows." There's no way to tell for sure, but whatever I said it wasn't long before we were lined up behind the octogenarians and their walkers picking up our bingo cards.
I developed a hatred for bingo at an early age. In third grade we played every Friday. Sister Mary Grace would give each kid a bingo card, and a handful of dry navy beans that she kept in a Folgers can, to mark the cards. So help you God if you tattered your card or lost even one bean. Sister had had these cards and these beans for 50 years, and not once had anyone ever ripped a card or lost a bean. Not once! She had to hide her precious beans during the Great Depression, and saved the cards from becoming hippie reefer paper during the '60's.
Will you be the first one to rip a card or lose a bean? Hell fucking no, Sister, I don't even want to play this game. It wasn't just this crazy nun that made me question bingo, it was also Gary Schwall.
After every two balls Sister called this retard would jump up and shout, "Bingo!" I also never won, so I hated playing. To pass the time I'd drop the beans on the floor and try to look up Laura Gianorio's jumper.
At the Gold Coast bingo parlor, few people used cards, and the guy at the counter strongly suggested we use hand held machines that can keep track of 500 cards for 100 games. Different games had different prices, too. We bought five cards for five games. The first two games were a dollar a card, and the last three we got a two free cards for each two-dollar card we bought. The counter guy programmed all of the cards into our personal bingo computers. My catholic attachment to the old fashioned cards, and my friend's desire to get a bingo marker, prompted us to buy another five cards for each game. "Go grab a few beers and have some fun," the counter guy wished us as we left.
The room reminded me of my school days: Fluorescent lights, puke yellow wallpaper accented by a diarrhea brown carpet, and the longest rows of tables and chairs I'd ever seen. You could fit a whole parish and their extended Episcopalian relatives in here for a pancake breakfast. But I'd bet no one in here had been inside a church since Vatican II. Making my way to a seat I held a large beer in one hand, a calculating device stuffed under my arm, a fist full of 40 colorful bingo sheets, and a red marker tucked behind my ear. I looked like a of clown's accountant preparing for an audit. The rest of my table thought I was funny looking too.
I counted six oxygen machines within eye shot. I noticed one on the guy sitting next to me first. Not because of his proximity, or that he was puffing on Pall Malls despite being force fed air. It was because he was laughing at me. "You know what you're doing there?" he said pointing to my sheets of bingo. Sure, I hear letters and numbers and mark it down with my red bingo marker. How hard can it be? "Good luck there, sonny. Let me know when you need a refill on that beer."
He turned to the rest of his buddies from WWI and pointed and laughed at me. I was about to tie a knot in his air hose, but balls were in the air.
The ball reader had as much personality as Ralph Nader on Ambien. The bingo balls percolating in the bingo ball percolator were more mellifluous than this mope. After he read a ball, the thousand or so bingo machines that hit a square would beep. It sounded as if he was swearing after saying "I-14". I would imagine what curse words this monotone senior citizen was saying, and before long before the first game had ended. I made only three marks on my sheet. There were many things diverting my attention from the game.
Sitting across the giant table, and down a few seats was one of the few other people in the room under 60. She could have been 25 or 45. Skinny, chain smoking, shaking, and looking a little dirty, I thought she was on junk, but it turns out she was just sad. She sat next to a big, fat old lady, who smoked a lot, too. I guessed they were grandmother/granddaughter, and came here on a regular basis. For the first few rounds they smoked, drank coffee, and stared at their beeping bingo machines. When they started talking it was in whispers.
"Have you heard from the lawyers?" Granny asked.
"Yeah, sentencing is next week."
"Are you going?"
"I don't know."
"Why didn't the judge give you any of his money?"
"What about John's social security?"
"He only put into it for a few years. Whatever I get is going to cover hospital and funeral costs."
"So young. Goddamned drunk drivers."
They sat there for a few minutes listening to the balls being called and machines beeping. Granny couldn't hold back her concern.
"What are you going to do dear?"
"I don't know."
They fell silent again, but amidst the beeping and the bingo balls I heard a tiny thud. A tear had slipped off her nose and landed on her bingo machine. She wiped her eyes with the long sleeves of her bright red sweater, and excused herself.
I looked up at the big bingo board above my head. We were in the fifth game, but I had the cards for the second game in front of me. My friend was spaced out looking at his first game cards. I crumpled up my sheets and threw them at him. He fired back, which got the attention of the old bastards next to us. "You giving up already?" asked oxygen tank. Yes, I am giving up. Bingo got the better of me again. So, fuck you, Wheezy, and get me that beer. We bolted before he could hobble back with my drink.
I left the center bar at the Hard Rock monogomistically stumbled back to my room, and flipped on the TV before passing out. I landed on the nightly news where I saw the red sweater of the skinny girl.
She was walking down the steps of the Clark County Regional Justice Center, and a big fat grandmotherly arm squeezing her for comfort and protection from the onslaught of media gathered on the steps. A 20 year-old gang banger smoked some pot, drank to a blood alcohol level of .18, stole a Toyota Land Cruiser, and took off doing 90 mph on West Craig road. He never saw the man on the side of the road, stooped over helping and old lady change a tire. The man's body ricocheted off the old woman's Taurus and plopped down in the middle of the road 20 feet away. On the TV, the skinny girl was coming out of the court house after seeing the gang banger convicted of first degree manslaughter for killing her husband, John, a casino maintenance worker and father of a three year old girl. He was 31.
I thought playing bingo as a grown-up would erase those childhood memories of a mean-ass nun, and short-bus Gary who never figured out the rules. Instead, it had done the opposite, but I couldn't blame bingo. Whether you just got married or buried a loved one, scooping a monster pot, lining up three 7's, or shouting "BINGO!" gives you that pop of euphoria erasing all of your problems: You've got some money in your pocket, your luck is changing, and a winner suddenly forgets she's a widower. It's a shame that feeling goes as quickly as it comes when you give all your money back to the casino, or you're hit with the reality that the biggest jackpot can't fix a broken heart.Clay Champlin is from Chicago and shoots dice behind the Aldi at 49th and Kedzie to pay for his cot rental at the South Side YMCA. He also has a blog called theclayshow.com.