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I Hate Numbers

I’m a Bingo Caller for Senile Semites

By Matt Stefanik
Photos by Roger Snider

Welcome to my nightmare. There are pensions. There are paid holidays. There are pureed foods. And then there’s me, jockeying instant coffee and generic chocolate chip cookies to the monthly bingo game. It is my duty.

When I started the government-subsidized (and insured) position at an elderly assistance organization, I was idealistic. I had dreams of leading soul-stirring group sessions and quilting bees with the gracefully aged. But my altruistic vision ended when a dollar-store bingo globe was thrust into my hands.


This is life at the weekly bingo game. The beige cinder block walls in the activity room lend an eerie glint to the medical devices splayed about the room. Walkers and canes outnumber the players. Sitting beside three of the four eager participants are home health aides.

Distinguishing them from the elderly are skin tone and international accents. On a daily basis, the aides show amazing patience and skill. Today, Table Two has no patience: Translating broken aphasiac slurs is too much and the aide and resident are locked in an ear piercing battle of Caribbean accents and stroke-laden stutters. Luckily, it’s a quick battle that ends with a winner at Table One.

A glance at my Timex shows 2:00. The crowd, loaded with sugary (and not so sugary for the diabetics) treats is ready to begin. I am not. I hate running bingo. It’s the most dreaded program as it serves to remind me of the inanity of my existence. However, there’s no escape and no time to dwell. The natives are restless. Denture cream dissolves quickly, and a chunk of teeth impatiently thrown at my head smarts.

With a nausea-inducing spin of the globe, the first game begins. Following tradition, it’s full card. Full-card bingo involves filling every space on the card. With only four players, this can take 20 minutes. I pull the first few numbers from the yellow globe and establish a quick pace. Hungry for this all week, the players are with me. I pull, call, repeat. Pull, call, repeat; it’s a smooth ride, maybe not so bad after all. Pull, call, repeat. My flow established, the mind wanders to more important things like last night’s debauchery and how bottle deposits can supplement my rent.

I tear through the numbers and soon the game has almost ended. Yet an unusual number of Bs remain. Leftover Bs leave me with a queasy memory of the man I replaced. Initially, he seemed a good fellow. His ability to sing a cappella Yiddish folk songs and impending attendance at rabbinical prep school endeared him to the elderly. Harmless, right? But, like a werewolf under a full moon, he morphed into a new beast behind the bingo globe. Quipping clever phrases like, “B10, B10 is an important vitamin to take,” the players were in stitches. After surviving his inanity, I made a pact with myself to never, ever rhyme about vitamins. No one notices the difference.

“Bingo,” someone warbles. There’s a winner and the 90-something woman at Table Four, repeating “shit” after each number, has stopped. Having lost the game to Table Two, she mutters a few insults and focuses on her mound of half-eaten cookies. Several players, certain they were jilted, call for a check on the winning numbers. “We all trust each other, right,” I say, settling it with a smile. Little do I know how untrustworthy Table Four’s player is. Two weeks later she stole my turkey and Swiss on wheat from the fridge. Guess I was asking for it by getting the Boar’s Head.

We’re 23 minutes into the hour and things are smooth. “N37!” I call. “B2!” I announce. “G- ” Splash! The woman at Table One has spilled her drink all over the game cards. The distraction ruptures my numeric flow and I stutter over I23, knocking a few numbered balls onto the floor. I’m flustered and the seniors can smell my fear. My shuffling underneath the black Samsonite folding table becomes frantic. Where is B14? My sanity depends on a plastic bauble; I need it for the rest of the games. Wait…there it is. Underneath Table Four! I recover with a flourish. I spin the globe and call O72 confidently. Table Two is the winner. Another one down.

It’s time for small box.

Small box only uses ING and skips the BO. That’s two less letters and a lot less work. It’s a quick game. After a few yells of “shit,” “bingo” rings throughout the room. Goodbye, small box. With twelve minutes left, I hope they pick an easy one. “Whole card, redux!” shouts Table Three. My life is over. The budding disappointment of the gathered crowd is imminent.

All these “bingos” has riled the crowd. Their excitement swells as mine drops. If I have to cycle though the all the numbers again, I’ll lose it. And my paycheck. And my insurance. Table Two starts fighting with her aide about the volume of my announcing. The lunch thief curses at her under her breath and Table One threatens to spill again. The others stir and the arthritis creaks resound off heaps of the paperback Louie L’amour novels. Then the angelic echo, eerily resembling Slash’s “November Rain” solo, hits me and Table Three changes the game to the Big L. The game passes uneventfully. My Timex flips to 3:00. The game’s over. It’s time for the booty.

Lying behind me in a decorative sprawl are spoils for the victors. There are discards from residents’ junk drawers: keychains, change purses, yellowed note cards, miscellaneous junk-store goods: candies, fruit-shaped candles, Tupperware, and costume jewelry from the recently deceased. Luckily, folks have yet made a connection to the inverse proportion of deaths to amount of bingo prizes.

And I leave before they can ask. They gather the spoils of the dead with an air of victory. Then they wait for the next game to begin.









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