The only time in my life, other than sleeping, that I’m not obsessed with money is when I play bingo. I know it sounds ironic, but bingo is my mental escape, offering a few hours where the numbers in front of me all start with a letter, not a dollar sign.
I’ve been in debt my entire adult life, first with undergraduate student loans and law school from which I never graduated, then living beyond my means – not difficult to do with a salary of $ 40,000 in New York.
In my twenties and thirties, I ignored my debt, thinking it would eventually resolve itself somehow (how, I’m not sure, but I assumed that over money would just materialize as I got older). When, at age 40, I realized that this wasn’t quite how real life worked, I dedicated myself to earning as much as possible as a freelance writer, with a mix of royalties from books, d ‘articles and part-time editorial work.
The downside to self-employment is that I never feel like I can really be “off”. There is always a potential story at hand, and therefore a way to reduce my impending debt, which hovers at just over $ 50,000.
My local bingo hall is my happy place, a place I can go any night of the week and know I’ll walk away with a smile on my face no matter what the outcome. It’s the only activity that allows me to escape, well, me, where money becomes more magical and less heavy.
I live within walking distance of a bingo hall which has games every night, plus an extra game Tuesday night at 10:30 a.m. and games Friday morning and Sunday afternoon. Over the past four years, I have attended almost everything, and winning or losing, each was money well spent.
Entrance costs $ 5, for the bare minimum of two boards for 12 spins, but I never play the minimum. You can buy extras for a dollar or two, depending on the value of the ride; most offer jackpots of $ 100 or $ 200, with some spins for larger amounts ranging from $ 1,000 to over $ 4,000, depending on the amount wagered. The first night I attended I spent around $ 30 and earned $ 200 which turned me into an instant convert. Now I usually spend around $ 50 each time I go.
Lately it’s been every few months, but after the 2016 election I played bingo several times a week to help me forget about the news. I was a regular at drag queen bingo in the East Village in the 90s, but there we were competing for Queer as folk DVD boxes and giant glasses filled with margaritas. It’s serious, adult bingo, the kind where you shut up for speaking too loudly.
The bingo hall is a place where I can forget myself for two hours. For this little bit of time, I’m not a failed adult riddled with debt. I’m just a middle-aged white lady with a tampon in my hand. All those money worries and existential agonizing thoughts that rush to the surface whenever I have a spare moment – will he be able to retire someday? Will I one day be a mother? what if [insert horrible catastrophe befalling anyone in my family]? – I can take a back seat and just focus on getting five stamps in a row, or a pyramid or four corners, or whatever variation of the game we’re playing at this particular time.
I’d be lying if I said the prospect of winning didn’t motivate me to settle down alongside women 30 and 40 my senior, who are armed with special bingo bags that contain a rainbow array of dabbers and tape to tie their boards together. . Money, of course, is the main reason each of us is hiding in the bingo hall. Another reason I stopped going to the casino is that the only games I love, slots, have the lowest odds. After reading this, I couldn’t really bring myself to revel in their flashing lights and calling noises.
With bingo, I have never stopped looking for the odds (don’t tell me if they are bad). Instead, I let myself be immersed in a make-believe world where I firmly believe I might walk away with a stack of cash. All I need to do is dab spots of red, green, or purple ink on a pre-printed piece of paper. I love the feeling of excitement that comes over me at the start of each new round – all those white squares, all these possible chances.
When my boyfriend and I moved within 10 minutes of Atlantic City, I was worried that it would be impossible to resist the allure of the casinos. Yet one evening at a smoky local casino, I recovered from any romance I might have had. I don’t know how to play casino games like poker or craps, and I don’t care. I don’t want to overthink it when I’m hoping to catch a financial windfall, or it feels like work, but I want my mind to be busy.
Bingo fulfills this objective perfectly. There is no free time to dazedly staring at Twitter. I can’t relax or I’ll miss a called number. Avid gamers know that you have to watch TV screens to see what number will be called next before it is spoken. Bingo makes me feel like an active participant who, with a combination of luck and vigilance, has a chance of winning. Bingo is full of colorful markers, breathless anticipation, and quick reflexes, surrounded by people a little more relaxed than the average casino player. Regular players give advice to newcomers, call each other happy birthday, and support their friends as much as themselves. What I learned is that I don’t really like the game; I love bingo.
I allow myself to be completely immersed in the drama. I double and triple check my cards, mentally noting which ones are about to win and which ones are missed. I rub the orange hair of the troll doll I bought on my first visit. I silently sing “I-18” or “G-57” until the combination resonates in my mind. There is a ripple of energy that runs through the room when someone is about to hit the bingo, a knowledge that is conveyed either by a passing little gasp as if playing an almost silent phone game or by a collective sense of Spidey shared by players.
The few times my luck tactics actually “worked” and I looked up at the screen to see my number about to be called, I felt euphoric. That’s what I imagine winning a game show – my ultimate bucket list item – would be. I don’t care if it’s luck, luck or fate. Right now I’m not thinking about money for once. My whole being is just focused on hearing this magical letter and number spoken into the microphone by the person sitting behind this spinning wheel, in which case I can pull my hand up in the air and scream as loud as I can, “BINGO! There is no other time in my life when I can literally claim victory.
This possibility is really why I play bingo. For $ 50, I can spend an afternoon or evening completely caught up in the dramatic ups and downs of being three, then two, then one. I know that when I walk in I’m as lucky as anyone else in the room.
While the outcome can be just as predetermined and out of my control as playing the lottery, bingo seems more active, as if I paid enough attention to it, I might just win. History has shown that I really can; I won four times, out of about 40 hits, for a total of $ 1,350 (with a Super Bowl winning of $ 1,000). I spent about $ 2,000 by my estimate, so my total losses are $ 750.
Given those numbers, you might assume that I’m getting even deeper into debt, and technically you’d be right. But I buy a lot more than this potential chance to become a champion. I buy myself a temporary shortcut to sanity, a reprieve from that constant inner refrain that loops you will never be good enough at why even bother to try. Unlike casinos, I never feel like the people around me are gambling with their rent money in a last ditch effort to get rich. We all play bingo, with an emphasis on gambling. With bingo, I don’t have to be smart or ambitious. I’m not measured by my net worth, or anything.
In lottery player language, I’m a dreamer, someone who sees their game as a “chance to fantasize about making money”. A bingo win seems likely enough that it makes sense to give it a try, knowing that what I could potentially win in any given round, while exciting, would not change my life. At best, I would pay off a small fraction of my debt. Competing for a welcome but not mind-boggling amount of money, however, seems healthier and more satisfying to me than wondering if I’ll win the next Mega Millions.
In addition, bingo is more common and more fun; in this room, I am a dreamer surrounded by dreamers. I know someone in the same room as me will be the big winner. I can say congratulations and see the expression on their faces when they win – and know it might be me next time.