Night Crawler

And Bingo Was Its Name. Oh.

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.

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