Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the October 24, 1975, issue of National Review and is part of a weekend series of classic D. Keith Mano columns.
‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” But before these bingo Catholics there are plaster frogs, horseshoes, wooden elephants and cats, kewpie dolls, stuffed toys, even one very ecumenical Buddha; graven images all. Man, if Moses had come down from Sinai to find his people in a bingo hall, he would’ve eaten the tablets.
It might be a theater lobby popcorn machine, this ark of the new covenant. Inside, ping-pong balls carom off the glass, blown where they listeth by a vacuum cleaner hose. Right now 25 bucks is/are on the line. People have been “waiting” for some time. Me, I’m waiting for G59. My wife has promised to yell it out: there’s something wrong with my aesthetic metabolism, I just can’t scream “Bingo!” in front of 200 grown-ups. Men with loin-cloths — sporrans full of small change over the groin — hawk jackpot and special cards. Two bits here, four bits there. Each wears an ID with name and photo: state regulations. Somehow this doesn’t make them look honest, it makes them look like parolees. The bored caller intones: “B4.” Six ladies shout “Bingo!” — one across from me so excited she has to catch her upper false teeth. Divide six into $25. $4.166666 apiece. Red tiddledywinks hail into fruit cake cans, crocheted bags, tupperware sandwich boxes. They’re all set again. The bingo constituency: in this nation there isn’t a more willing or numerous group of dumb suckers.
Laying two on a horse, that’s stupid but easy. Bingo is stupid hard work: I get panicked. The numbers come, come. Women of seventy shame me. There’s a cortisone in bingo that frees arthritic joints. One old woman who can hardly walk plays five dozen cards at once, broadcasting chips, dabbing with her marker bottle, fast, sure as a Benihana chef. Some, I’ve heard, manage to watch forty cards without any marker at all. A few men are here, mostly trapped husband-chauffeurs, and several young things. A brunette sits alone, craning glances around her Marlboro smoke. The face is gimcrack pretty, it might last through next summer. I note the wedding ring. Her husband works nights maybe; or maybe he doesn’t work hard enough nights.
At least half these people make the circuit: Catholic church, firehouse, synagogue, K of C, VFW. Three, four games a week. In small communities there is no more important social nexus. They arrive early to gossip, set up their idols, stake territory on table-tops with the screee-snap of Scotch tape. For America’s senior citizenry bingo is, hands down, the most popular way of killing time before death. A priest has told me: “It’s essential for their continued psychological well-being. We have one woman with a bad hip; she’s in a profound state of depression because she can’t get to bingo regularly. Her friends are there.”
They’re there. And they’re getting rooked. Bingo is a loser’s game. No one — repeat, no one — can win over six months’ time. Never mind gas and equipment costs, a normal player antes up about $7 for admission, all-night cards, specials, jackpots. Total prize money is one grand, no matter what the attendance. Figure two hundred people. Figure they all have as many cards as you do. A standard bingo prize is $25, less than that when you split two or three or six ways. How would you feel winning $4.166666 on a 200 to 1 shot at Belmont? Right; you’d start fires under the grandstand. Say 35 games or parts of games for your $7. You pay twenty cents for each part. At 200 to 1 the average prize should be $40. But 35 into $1,000 is $28. The “house” is skimming off a fat 30 per cent profit. OTB, state lotteries, are all required to announce the percentages involved. But outside my local Catholic parish hall there’s only a picture of Jesus and the admonition “FOR MY SAKE. Do Not Leave the Church until the Priest Has Left the Altar.” Helpful as hell.
After he has left the altar, a priest will tell you — and I’ve talked to many — that “gambling isn’t immoral unless abused.” Unless it causes hardship. But most senior citizens are stuck with a fixed income and everyone agrees that your best bingo attendance coincides with the arrival of welfare and Social Security checks. “It’s up to an individual parish priest.” The Catholic hierarchy, I sense, would like to pretend that bingo doesn’t exist. There’s no diocesan or national supervision. One knowledgeable source shrugged over the phone: “Well, if they didn’t spend it with us, they’d go to the firemen.” Sure, I said, but couldn’t a similar argument be used to justify church-sponsored prostitution? “Hah!” laughed my knowledgeable source, “don’t give us any ideas.”
One local parish skims off $400 or $500 a week from bingo, Maundy Thursday included. There’s overhead, of course; state and local governments tax. Even so, that’s handsome money. The receipts are used for parochial schools, building funds, all worthwhile causes. But I suspect you could serve Cheez-its at the altar, ordain Doberman pinschers, and it would probably affect small parishes less than a ban on bingo. Talk about separation of church and state: here they connive to rip off society’s poorest element. Gambling isn’t immoral, I agree. But gambling organized and promoted by a church — especially no-win gambling like bingo — your most efficient casuist couldn’t sanctify that.
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And there it is, friends, right up front, bouncing around with the ping-pong balls. Indulgences were bad, but at least they had something to do with religion. If Catholic lay people aren’t prepared to finance their schools, their new parish balls, then perhaps they’d be better off without them. Bingo is a shabby cheat. Let them go to the firemen. “Is it not written. My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.” He said that once. He’d say it again.