If you want to play bingo at the hugely popular and somehow still obscure regular Thursday Bingo Night at the Czech Fraternal Lodge SPJST #88, it pays to get there early, way early or send someone ahead to claim a table.
By 5:30 p.m. yesterday, Missy Grohl had set up her table with a long paper tablecloth, a homemade birthday cake, a salad, a few bottles of wine, a couple more of whiskey, small bowls of M&M's, Skittles and Goldfish, and she's ordered a few pizzas to be delivered. She had invited 10 of her friends to celebrate her husband Rick's 55th birthday.
Indeed, around the banquet hall, the apparent provisioning was awesome. We spotted more than a couple bottles of Gallo table wine and plenty of rotgut. You can bring whatever you like to SPJST #88, except for beer and set-ups, which they sell there at a concessions window along with counter-service food like hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Regular bingo wasn't even to begin until 7:45 p.m., after the early bird games at 7:15. A full round of 10 games can be purchased for just $5, with extra game sheets for just a dollar more.
The SPJST Bingo Committee, currently chaired by Jo Ann Buri, has run bingo night here for decades, and the lodge regulars were our hosts: Men and women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who sold popcorn, ink dabbers, and game sheets and called numbers, collected bingos and confirmed winners.
Missy's friend, Kit Bartlett, said, "I like it because it's people of all ages." Indeed, the hipsters abounded, identified by their tattoos, scruffy beards, and incipient beer bellies. Kit's husband Bo kidded that their group of 50-somethings might once have been considered the youngins here, but no longer. The college kids, families with young children, after-work professionals and a good number of firefighters brought mix to the crowd.
And then, of course, there werrethe incredibly hospitable Czech regulars, who more than once welcomed us and invited us to return. Perhaps they were amused by the attention and attendance, but they are also capably raising funds for a list of a dozen worthy charities, including the Veterans' Hospital, the 100 Club, SPCA, and the Shriners.
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The lodge was crowded with several hundred game-players in a spirit of jocular competition, which can get politely rowdy at times. Considering the good graces of our hosts, no one was acting out belligerently or making a scene, but uncommonly early bingos were nevertheless met with a cranky hailstorm of boos that couldn't even be suppressed by the numbers-caller reminding us gently to practice good sportsmanship. After all, when the bingos are confirmed, the boos are traded for applause.
Mary Montelongo was here with her husband Jay and several friends to celebrate the end of her cancer treatment. She's attended bingo night once before with a group of fellow patients and with that wisdom is able to instruct the newcomers. "If you get a corner number, call out 'Corner!'" Here and there around the room, we heard it: "Corner!" What's the point? There is no point, really, except that getting loud can be fun in its own right. In fact, Mary admits that she originally thought people were yelling out "Boner!" instead of "Corner!"
Besides "Regular Bingo with Corners" there are games like the "Postage Stamp," "Cover-All" and "Capital X." A player who had maybe one too many margaritas forgot which game we were playing and called out "Bingo!" in error. Luckily, his friends shout him down and we are able to resume without much delay.
Mary Draper, who graduated last year from Rice, was sitting with 20 of her closest friends when she discovered she had a "Bingo!" She and three other winners would split the $110 pot (less tax). Her $33.25 share of the winnings was plenty enough to prompt a rather hysterical bout of hollering and jumping and stomping, buoyed by her very own cheering section.