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Night Crawler 

And Bingo Was Its Name. Oh.

Wednesday, Dec 29 1999
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And Bingo Was Its Name. Oh.
It's a brisk San Francisco evening, the kind that transforms hanging stoplights into kaleidoscopes and masks the smell of stairwell urine. Surprised by the chill, most of the junkies at 16th and Mission streets have scampered away, leaving the short jaunt between BART and the Lab inhabited by a lone entrepreneur on a BMX bike; he offers "happy meals" and "outfits" in a rasping voice that sounds like dead leaves. Inside the Lab's very bright doorway the air is warm and filled with the sort of low, cozy chatter that usually precedes a small-town hall meeting. On the walls -- surrounding an assortment of mismatched cafeteria tables at which most folks are comfortably seated -- is a collection of newspaper clippings, photographs, fashion, and artwork inspired by 20 years of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The show is "A Consistory Conspiracy: Changing the Face of Activism," but most of the crowd is already familiar with the exhibition; they are content to stay in their seats, drinking donated beverages and bottles of custom-made Sisters Holy Water or drawing in the Sisters Coloring Book while Cardinal Sin takes donations and novice Sister Roxanne Roles passes out bingo cards and daubers.

Bingo.

This is why the gallery looks like a neighborhood rec room tonight. The volume of conversation increases considerably as folks barter for their lucky dauber colors and swipe one another's cards. One gent carefully arranges good luck charms along the edge of his card, and someone begins humming a familiar childhood melody about the dog with Bingo as his name-o.

"I haven't played bingo since I was a kid," squeals a gal in fun fur.

But this isn't her first-grade teacher's bingo; this is "Dr. Ducky Doolittle's Dirty Butt Plug Bingo," a favorite pastime of the randy order of falsies and bad habits. In place of numbers, the bingo cards are filled with a sundry collection of disquieting images: mud-flap girls, vulgar Santas, flying eyeballs, laughing devils, empty martini glasses, wrinkled old men kissing stiletto heels, topless women wiggling, scrotums, corncobs, whips, something called "mate herb," brass knuckles, four-fingered hands, and adult underwear. Prizes include donations from the Sisters: a soiled white backpack adorned with pink boas, an "angry red dildo," questionable folk art, bottles of raspberry-flavored vodka, unnameable mementos from previous Sisters parties, and some souvenir T-shirts.

Sisters Dana, Reyna Terror, and Kitty Catalyst begin calling, and a poorly contained hush falls over the crowd: "It's a magical night here at Sister Bingo! I assume everyone knows how to play, so mark death on all your cards. Why?"

"Because death is inevitable and always free," answers the crowd in unison.

"Very good. Now, for the game. B-tighty whities. O-pentagram. G-eerie little clown."

The first winner emerges from the "overly rambunctious, delinquent table," and card verification allows time for public-flogging, libation, and reflection.

"We don't have bingo where I'm from," says Athletica de la Bain, a visiting Sister from the Convent Dunn Eideann in Scotland, "but I can see how it would be helpful for our cause. Bingo brings out the greed in people. It is our role to sate every whim and fancy, then alleviate the guilt, whether the sin is sex, drink, or gambling. Bingo has always been a game of luck, but perhaps with our help, it will become a game of lust as well."

Actually, in the early 1900s, bingo was a game of beans, played in county fairs across America, until a traveling toy salesman from New York discovered it and began marketing "Beano" as Bingo. The roots of the game, however, stretch back to Roman times; it re-emerged notably in 16th-century Italy, as Lo Giuoco del Lotto D'Italia, then migrated to France as Le Lotto (a parlor game enjoyed by Parisian intellectuals), and finally to Germany, where young children used it for school lessons. During the Great Depression, American parishioners used bingo to raise cash for the needy and, until the 1950s, when the game was widely legalized, it remained the domain of churches. Today, bingo pulls in billions of dollars annually, and there are no fewer than 35 rooms in the Bay Area that host large games at least one night a week.

At St. Anne's of the Sunset, players begin arriving at least one hour before the game, leaving ample time for securing favorite seats, eating inexpensive bingo food, and setting up elaborate displays of good luck charms (stuffed animals, coffee mugs, medallions, trophies). Even before the first number is called, an impenetrable cloud of cigarette smoke hangs over the church hall; in fact, not smoking seems an affront in the company of the many impeccably quaffed white-haired grandmothers who maintain 4-inch ashes on the Marlboro 100s jutting from between their lips.

"It's just a really nice way to spend Tuesday evening," says Doreen McDonald, peering, like a hardened pool hustler, through a cloud of smoke as she arranges six bingo packs (four cards per page, 14 pages per pack, for a grand total of 336 cards, not counting "specials," which can pay $1,000 each). Across the hall, 41-year-old Laverne Purnell selects a dauber from her personal bingo caddy to match her nail polish, which matches her painstaking outfit. Like most of the bingo players, McDonald and Purnell do not belong to St. Anne's congregation; they just go where the bingo goes.

"I don't go to nightclubs," says Purnell, who will drive as far as Sacramento every week to play, "so this is stress relief from my work [at a busy mortgage office]. It's very relaxing. I grew up playing. During intermission, I eat licorice and read my book. Sometimes I win."

Ready for a nice, relaxing game of bingo, I sit down in front of six packs, little dauber held high. The crowd falls completely silent.

"Game one," announces the caller over the loudspeaker. "Violet. Bingo and biscuit. Four corners OK."

The electronic board lights up in a complex pattern of blinking lights.

"What?" I ask a stony-faced bingo magnate to my left. "What does that mean?"

The first number is called and appears on the screen overhead. I leisurely mark off the corresponding boxes, getting to pack three before the second number is called. Learning from the mistake, I pick up the pace, getting almost to pack five. I look around at the crowd that is casually daubing and miss the third number completely. On the fourth number, working at a furious pace, I am able to check through all of my cards before realizing I am still completely lost. People nearby already have five in a row, but they're looking for some other, more complex, pattern. What's a biscuit? I'm sweating. There's no time to take off my jacket. I have to pee. My muscles are tense. Smoke from my cigarette is beginning to burn my eyes. Young volunteers from St. Anne's walk up and down the aisles during the action, selling "cherries," and "grand slams" - side games that people are meant to play simultaneously with the regular bingo. By game five, I feel nauseous.

Across the table, Kevin Shaughnessy -- a large, sweet-tempered man with a full white beard and penchant for Salem Ultra Lights -- and his gambling companion Jim Imbt -- a wiry riverboat character with glistening black hair, a pencil-thin mustache, and cigarettes to match -- sit coolly regarding their cards, only occasionally marking a number. During a break, after game five, I approach, broken and exhausted.

"Don't mark everything," says Shaughnessy. "It's a waste of time." Avid bingo players who can be found in halls nearly every night of the week, Shaughnessy and Imbt are able to commit bingo patterns and numbers to memory, only marking the essential squares.

"It doesn't actually help you win," says Shaughnessy, who once took $10,000 on a game at Cache Creek. "But it's more challenging."

"You always spend more than you win," agrees Imbt, "but one win can pay for your whole week. I won $1,000 on Wednesday and $1,000 on Friday, so I'm doing pretty good."

At Army Street Bingo my education begins in earnest. Here, games are run 365 days a year, and hosted by nine nonprofits, including the Sojourner Truth Foster Family Service, the Japanese Cultural Center of Northern California, and the National Kidney Foundation. As at most local halls, the entire staff is volunteer, except for two paid security guards, and the callers -- avid players, themselves -- get nothing more than a few tips from winners. Unlike many halls, there is a smoking and a nonsmoking room.

On Christmas Day, I join 300 other holiday bingo players, buy two packs, and choose the nonsmoking room (fewer distractions). Assessing that I am not a major threat, folks seem willing to share advice.

"There is no such thing as cheating in bingo," says veteran Paul Esplana, who first began playing with his grandmother. "There is no such thing as strategy or technique. It's just fun and pure luck."

There is, apparently, no single way to set up a pack: Some people "stack up" in neat vertical lines; some play the edge, placing them in a single horizontal row; some use an intricate system of free-standing clipboards; and some, like 31-year-old Dahlia Huezo and her 21-year-old sister Karees, tape each game into a single large board.

"This is the way my aunt does it," says Dahlia, who first played in Panama at the age of 8. "My whole family plays. In Panama, children learn their numbers and letters by playing bingo." Now, Dahlia and her sister accompany friend and retired co-worker Janis McGann to the bingo hall whenever possible.

But my personal bingo angel comes in the form of sympathetic Tanya Lewis, a 22-year-old shellback from a long line of bingo players.

"Some folks will just sit there and let you flail," says Lewis, arranging my packs and crossing off inconsequential blocks of numbers. "A biscuit is a block of four. A hard-way bingo is five-in-a-row not using the free space. An easy-way is five-in-a-row with the free space. A small crazy kite is a biscuit with a tail of three. A grand slam is a block of nine. A picture frame is like it sounds, unless it's inside. On the 4-5-6 Special, you need a hard-way biscuit, a hard-way bingo, and a hard-way six pack. ... You're gonna need help."

By game 21, I'm feeling confident and eager, with my two humble packs. I'm happy to see both Lewis and Huezo win games ('cause they earned good luck helping me, according to one wizened knower of such things). In the smoking room, I meet another of Lewis' apprentices, 30-year-old James Johnson.

"You feel that rush?" asks Johnson. "That spirit you get when you're just one number away from bingo? That's adrenalin, all right."

And here I thought bingo was just about keeping the Stoli cold and figuring out the difference between a chicken-boy chasing a bug and a chicken-boy playing with a doll ....

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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