Bingo. It’s not what you think – or it’s not what I expected. At 6:30 on a Friday evening there is nowhere to park in front of the South Portland Bingo Hall. A Cadillac is double parked behind a Kia. Cars spill out of the parking lot and line the street.
Inside it’s nearly silent: hundreds of people intently track colorful stamps (called daubers) above huge sheets of bingo papers, lucky charms strategically placed on the table beside them. In front of them, Gary sits on a small stage, in front of a large machine. He calls out the numbers the machine selects. Like the players, he moves in an un-choreographed rhythm, reading numbers and letters to the crowd, again and again, until someone calls “Bingo.” It’s only then, after a Bingo, that the crowd erupts in noise and movement.
I find myself wanting to play, too. I want the rush of the win, sure, but what I really want is to be a part of something that is pure Americana, a game that has knitted people together in every town I’ve ever lived in.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN CALLING BINGO?
Twenty-five years. Since the beginning. I learned by doing it. It’s not that difficult. I have trouble public speaking – like getting up in front of people and telling a story. But I don’t have any trouble doing this in front of 200 people. I think it’s because I’ve been doing this forever. The crowd can get a little unruly if you make a mistake. It gets a little tense if you call the wrong number. You hear a rumbling throughout. You try not to make mistakes. They are a different crowd.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU ARE CALLING?
It’s a lot of feelings. It’s a little bit of control. Controlling the situation. Kind of in charge, monitoring thing, moving things along. That’s kind of what it feels like.
DO YOU HAVE ‘REGULARS’?
Yeah, we have a ton of regulars. Most of our customers are regulars. There’s a woman who is of Vietnamese descent, and she calls herself Loco. And she acts “loco” a lot. She’s known here, everybody knows her. And there are some older people who are quirky and different. It’s really cool. Bingo is so different than any other gambling because it’s social. It’s community. People come here to socialize. It’s not like going to the casino where you are glued to a slot machine. People come here early, they play cards with each other, they talk to each other. It’s not like that in most other forms of gaming.
HOW DID YOU COME TO DO THIS WORK?
The reason for bingo in this state is for nonprofits to raise money, and so when my father started running bingo, it was because we was a member of the Drum and Bugle Corps. It was to raise money for whatever they did, parades and competitions. They ran bingo once a week. He was a teacher and when he retired from teaching he opened up a bingo hall and continued it. The Drum and Bugle Corps is now nonexistent. He kept running bingo for the music boosters. So, one nonprofit actually runs the bingo, seven nights a week here. They distribute money to the high school, alliance clubs, a sober house. We give money back. Most of the money goes back out. But we have all kinds of side projects where we make money, like concessions, and we lease the hall to the nonprofit group, like a property management company.
WHAT DOES BINGO MEAN TO YOU AND YOUR LIFE?
Well, it’s been a livelihood. I’ve spent my last… cripes, a huge chunk of my life right here, doing this. It’s fulfilling in a lot of ways because I’m making profit, yes, but we’re giving back. We’ve given out millions of dollars back to the community. In that way, it’s been a win-win for both the community and my family. We’re the biggest hall in Maine, as far as commercial bingo goes.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE OF BINGO?
I don’t know. I don’t know. We were really hurt when the casino opened, it took a big chunk of our clientele. Younger people don’t seem to gravitate towards bingo. They think it’s an older person’s game. So unfortunately, our clients die off. And we don’t get as many new people coming in as are going away. We have some electronic bingo, where people put numbers in, rather than daub. That’s one way we can get to younger people because it’s more like a computer base to the game. There’s only one other place in the state with electronic games.
YOU JUST SAID THE WORD ‘DAUB”. WHAT IS THE BINGO LINGO?
Daub is stamping. That’s what it’s called. It’s how you mark off what’s called. Daubing. You daub with a dauber. There’s different names for games. There’s “being in.” If you are “in” it means that you are waiting for one number. “Are you in?” “Yeah, I’m waiting for a B12.” If you are “set” you are “in.” Cards are pronounced “caaahds” in this state.
TELL ME ABOUT THE MONEY ASPECT.
When you come in, you go the counter and pay to for your papers. You are allowed to pay our $1,400 a night. You take the $1,400 and break it into games. The smaller games are worth $50 and can go up to $500. Tonight, there’s a winner take all section of the night, where all the money that comes in gets paid out. It’s the end of the evening, the last games of the night. And tonight we’ll probably have four or five hundred games. The crowd affects how much money you’ll take in and how much money goes out. Anywhere up to $2,500 to $6,000. If you hollered “bingo” now, you might get $50, but later tonight maybe $500. It all depends on the crowd. It’s definitely possible to make a profit.
WHAT IS THE CULTURE OF BINGO?
Gambling. Gamblers. But not ferocious gamblers, not degenerate gamblers. Moderate gamblers. The older people have grown up with the game. It may be the oldest form of gaming in the state. People have grown up with it, and it covers all spectrum. You can have people on welfare who play, or people who have lots of money who play. It’s a broad spectrum. More older than younger. There’s no subculture that’s just “bingo players.”
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Family is important to me. Helping other people is important to me. Being involved in something that is giving back is extremely important to me. It’s basically how I live my life. Being able to enjoy life, and that is what bingo has afforded me to be able to do. I’m at a point in my life where I can do the things I like. I have a granddaughter I love to spend time with. She’s going to be one soon. I have three children, one actually manages the kitchen here.
WHAT DO YOU WANT IN YOUR LIFE?
I want a little bit of serenity. Some peace and love. Stability. Just basic stuff. I don’t want a lot anymore. I’m a recovering alcoholic, I’ve been sober for ten years. And that’s a big part of my life. I own two sober houses in Portland. So I’m involved in that a lot. So just basically giving back in all aspects of my life. I used to see it as money maker, and I was just interested in making money. After everything I’ve been through, I see if a completely different way. And with sobriety, it’s the same way. I’m sober, so I give back.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE TRYING TO BE LESS SELFISH, OR REPAYING FOR PAST BEHAVIOR?
Oh, absolutely. I was a selfish prick most of my life. When you realize that and see the damage that you’ve done, and you have recovered; you are at a place where you are comfortable. I don’t worry about drinking anymore, I don’t even think about it. So, things have changed in my life, I want to give that back. I’ve got to be selfless as much as possible. I’ll always continue to live this way and see what happens. I think that is what is intended for me.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY?
When I am teeing the ball up on the first hole on the golf course. That’s my favorite moment, I just like to golf. It’s relaxing. My favorite part of everyday is probably getting home. I work here at the bingo hall until ten or so, and it’s nice to relax for a minute and see my dog.
For more info about Gary’s bingo hall, click here.