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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: Bingo Fever

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I’ve occasionally had passing fixations for things that amazed my friends because they don’t seem to align with the politically correct, organic food eating, pop culture loathing person they think I am. I’ve had brief but full-blown passing fancies with shooting guns, fast-food fried chicken and Michael Jackson. And now bingo.

As the new activities director in a Vermont assisted living residence, I was charged with breathing fresh air into the activities schedule. Delete the stale ones and add others that would help elders have more fun. “Bring it on!” I thought. “Fun is what I’m all about!”

With a newcomer’s zeal for improvement I questioned the frequency of bingo. It seemed mindless and, well, corny. My supervisor was frank but supportive: “There are two activities you don’t monkey with here - weekly coffee and donuts, and bingo. But you’re the boss.”

I took that as the go-ahead to lighten up on bingo and initiate more worthwhile things like book discussions, yoga and brain games. I assumed that my first time calling bingo would be a dull and predictable hour that we’d all doze through. Wrong.

The ninety year-old ladies brought to the table a cutthroat zest for winning. Playing for quarters, they piled their winnings next to multiple bingo cards that they scanned like hawks seeking prey. When I announced at the end of the hour that I had to leave and it was time to pack up the cards and chips, they registered disappointment. “And another thing,” they chorused. “Why are we getting bingo only once a week?”

Thus began my fascination with a game sprung from sixteenth century Italy and now played in senior centers and bingo halls across the nation. It didn’t hit America until the twenties, but by the thirties more than 10,000 weekly games were held as church fundraisers. Current estimates have Americans spending $90 million dollars a week on it, with such variations as Electronic Bingo, Facebook Bingo and even Meat Bingo - a version that awards winners with juicy cuts of beef pork and chicken - not for vegetarians or the faint of heart.

What is it, I wondered, that lures my dedicated group of ladies to the table to hear me announce combinations of letters and numbers and fill their squares with plastic milk jug caps? To find out, I took friends to a local game one night to experience firsthand the allure of bingo. We felt out of place among the regulars in the dingy Grange hall filled with the sound of tumbling plastic balls and the deadpan voice of the caller. But within minutes we were hooked. By night’s end I’d won ten dollars and we vowed to return.

Bingo has its detractors and it’s the frequent brunt of senior citizen jokes. But those with aging brains benefit from the game’s ability to boost concentration, memorization and camaraderie. And it provides a level playing field where anyone can be a winner - even in their nineties.