My heart is pounding. Blackout is the last game called at the weekly bingo game at St. Gregory’s Church in Andersonville and to win the $500 cash prize, every number on your bingo card must be blotted out. I’m just one number, N-39, from winning it all. In what my mind perceives to be a prolonged slow-motion drawl, the caller yells out, “N thirty—.” But more on that later.
My fascination with bingo began in San Francisco in the late ’90s. My friend Ferris invited me to play church bingo in the Castro, the city’s gay mecca. Payouts were typically in the $200 range, which was a lot to me at that time, and proceeds benefited congregants living with HIV/AIDS. I was hooked instantly. Not just on the money—although I won twice—but also on the roller-coaster thrill ride of being one or two numbers away.
When I relocated to San Diego in 2000 I brought my bingo obsession with me. I hit many times at gay bars and took home stashes of novelty prizes, and eventually I competed for bigger bucks at the casinos in East County—but never won.
All of that was years ago, but it flashes back to me in an instant during a booze-fueled haze at Spin Nightclub, where drag queen Mercedes calls the balls every Tuesday. It’s my first serious bingo outing in a decade, and I want so badly to win. Prizes include a cache of junk that I’m greedily coveting, like dog-tag necklaces from Skyy Vodka and gift certificate subscriptions to Next Door Studios—a gay porn site.
Mercedes looks cool and confident on that stage in her blue blouse and fedora, and I want to tear that bitch’s wig off for standing in between me and my gay porn. Shots are passed around whenever O-69 is called, a nice touch. On the third game, I hit. But when my numbers are checked, I’ve gotten one wrong. A rookie mistake. I exit quickly in shame.
I try my luck next at Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee. Casino bingo is highly competitive. It’s not a big moneymaker for the venues, so only a few even do it anymore. During my Sunday visit it’s packed to the gills; there must be a thousand players. The session is nearly four hours long and I cough up almost $80 to buy in all 50 games, most paying out $2,000 at Level 2 (You can also buy Level 1 at half the price and half the payout). Casino bingo moves fast. I’m very rusty and have to lean several times on the middle-aged Midwestern lady next to me, who is terse but helpful. I never even come close to winning, but on game 33 the woman sitting directly across from me bingos. I’m happy for her until I see the usher unloading her jackpot in a steady stream of $20 bills. At this point I want to murder her.
“You’re too ugly to play bingo!” I hear that being shouted a few tables over at St. Gregory’s Church, where the game is played every Tuesday for an average payout of $100. Buy in starts at just $12. I feel at home. The joint is full of seniors and oddballs who you can hardly believe still live on the gentrified North Side, and they won’t shut up—which I love. I hardly come close to winning until that last game, the lucrative blackout where I’m just one number away. “Please say N-39,” I whisper to myself.
“N-31,” says the caller.
“BINGO!” shouts the man behind me. I about die.
I’m officially at zero wins, but it doesn’t matter. My appetite has been whetted. I’m back. I’m fucking back.
Bingo hosted by Mercedes happens every Tuesday at 10pm at Spin at 800 W Belmont Ave (773-327-7711). Potawatomi Casino at 1721 W Canal St, Milwaukee, WI (414-645-6888) offers several bingo sessions daily. St. Gregory at 1609 W Gregory St (773-561-3546) hosts bingo every Tuesday at 7pm.