Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Bingo brings people together

St. Boniface charity game lures all sorts of people trying to unwind - and win

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They arrive more than an hour early, many of them. They buy their game sheets, stake out a favorite spot, settle in and wait for Doug Robinson, the caller, to say: “I want to welcome everybody to St. Boniface Thursday night bingo.”

        And then, “Your first number: I-29.”

Bingo players at St. Boniface School in Northside.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        By that time — shortly after 7 p.m. — the St. Boniface School cafeteria in Northside is packed with nearly 200 people — mostly women — eager to blot out bingo numbers with ink daubers.

        Some players come from the immediate neighborhood. Some drive or bus from miles away. Some come to be with family. Some come to get away from family. Some come to unwind.

        Everybody comes because they want to win.

        “Bingo!” says Robert Thompson, one of the evening's early winners. The 69-year-old College Hill man smiles as he collects $70, then says, “That's what you come for, to yell bingo!

        Mr. Thompson, an electrician until he retired on disability, plays often. But he's a newcomer at St. Boniface.

  This is a first in a monthly series about “third places” — those places other than work and home people gravitate to for fun and fellowship. We call it the Gathering Spot.
  Readers are invited to send ideas for future stories. E-mail reporter John Johnston at jjohnston@enquirer.com or photographer Steven M. Herppich at sherppich@enquirer.com.
        Others, like Bobbi Griffin, grew up in the neighborhood and have been regulars here for years. She was 8 when an aunt first brought her.

        “Even when I was in college I would come,” says Mrs. Griffin, a 30-year-old chemist who now makes the weekly trek from Forest Park. “This is relaxation for me. It takes my mind off other things.”

        She's with her 6-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who's playing with a doll. Across the table is Tiffany's 64-year-old grandmother, Georgia Griffin, who enjoys this time with her grandchild.

        What's more, “I like getting out,” Georgia Griffin says. “You meet a lot of people.”

        That's also part of the appeal for 51-year-old Peggy Gillen of Miamitown. She's single and her children are grown. “I enjoy getting a night out and being among adults. We talk about our kids — and if we've won at any other bingos.”

        At this bingo, everyone sits on metal chairs at rectangular tables lined up in several rows, where hours earlier St. Boniface students ate lunch.

Betty “Mercedes” Brown is the caller at St. Boniface bingo.
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        But instead of a lunch pail, Betty “Mercedes” Brown of Mount Airy brings a bingo bag. From it, she pulls out a red ashtray, tape (to hold her paper bingo sheets in place), framed photos of her three children (for good luck), and the all-important daubers (an assortment of green, pink, orange, purple, red and blue).

        Ms. Brown, 30, who washes dishes for a living, spreads out in front of her a paper bingo sheet with 24 “faces,” or game cards. When a number is called, she quickly scans the sheet — her eyes scrolling down and up and down and up the rows — stamping with her dauber.

        Players can buy bingo sheets with as few as six cards, for $8; or as many as 36 cards, for $26.

        As players wait for Mr. Robinson to call a number, the air is heavy with anticipation. And cigarette smoke. Many have mastered the art of daubing with one hand while dangling a cigarette from the other.

        Tammy Campbell, a 31-year-old Northside resident, decides to play in a nearby non-smoking room, where called numbers can be seen and heard via video monitors and speakers. But first she lets friends ooh and aah over her 13-day-old baby, Lorenzo Campbell Jr.

        It's his first bingo night. “Maybe he'll bring me some luck,” Mrs. Campbell says.

        Not tonight. Mrs. Campbell will leave $40 poorer.

        Little Lorenzo is the youngest on hand, but there's a good mix of ages, as well as African-American and white players.

        “Our big focus is to try to be a friendly bingo where people feel welcome,” says Pat Bracken. The 50-year-old Colerain Township woman and her husband, Terry, 52, run the weekly event. Both grew up in the parish.

        At the snack bar, Mrs. Bracken's mother, Agnes Luensman, helps serve up pretzels, nachos, hot dogs, pickles, brats and metts. Her late husband, Tony, helped start bingo at St. Boniface 35 years ago.

        But you must go back to a night in December 1929 to trace the game's roots in this country, according to Roger Snowden's Gambling Times Guide to Bingo. That's when Edwin S. Lowe, a New York toy salesman, stopped at a carnival in Jacksonville, Ga.

        He observed a game in which numbers were randomly pulled from an old cigar box, then called aloud by a pitchman. Players checked their numbered cards; if they had a number, they placed a bean over it. When a line on a card was filled — horizontally, vertically or diagonally — the winner shouted “beano!” and received a Kewpie doll.

        Mr. Lowe took the idea back to New York, where a female friend played and became so excited she couldn't shout beano. Instead she stuttered, “b-b-b-bingo!” Mr. Lowe put the game on the market, and it eventually found favor as a charity fund-raiser for many Tristate churches and schools.

        “People say, "Do you tithe to the church?' I say, yeah, I play bingo,” says Rita Beiderbeck, a 72-year-old Northside resident and St. Boniface parishioner. She's only half-joking. This night, she's out $100.

        Actually, it's St. Boniface School — which is next to St. Boniface Church — that is the beneficiary, with 17 percent (about $70,000) of its annual budget coming from bingo receipts.

        Win or lose, people keep coming back.

        “I'm a bingo freak,” says Marilyn Randall. The Oakley resident, 32, says she plays just about every night of the week at bingo halls around town. She's here with her 33-year-old cousin, Wonda Davidson, of Elmwood Place, another avid player.

        Ms. Randall says she once took home $4,000 from a Norwood bingo. Her winnings came not from traditional bingo, but from instant pull-tab tickets. Rip them open, and you know immediately if you won.

        At St. Boniface, workers roam the concrete floor all evening peddling the hugely popular tickets. The “instants” have names such as Beer Nuts, Little Babies and Hogs to the Rescue.

        “I got Super Hog! Oink, oink,” shouts bingo worker Dart Lumpkin, hustling to each table where a raised hand means somebody wants to buy.

        Still, traditional bingo's appeal remains strong.

        “It's the thrill of almost winning, and maybe I'll do it next time, and the frustration if you don't win,” says Ms. Brown. She never gets to shout bingo! this night, but she wins $75 on instants and heads home $5 ahead.

        After he calls the last number, Mr. Robinson, a member of the St. Boniface school board, watches the winners and losers quickly file out. It's a good group of folks, although occasionally somebody takes bingo a little too seriously.

        “One night (in the parking lot) I had a lady actually drive her car at me,” he says. “I jumped out of the way. She rolled down her window and said, "You didn't call my number!' ”


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