The community room
The high stakes of senior living
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Don’t be fooled by the bottle-top tokens. Over at Brook Manor, they play bingo like they mean it.
“O-68.” (Long pause.)
“N-32.” (Long pause.)
I finger my game card, a sturdy cardboard one with extra-large print, as a litany of letters and numbers rolls over the PA like a Saturday night auction. The seniors take time to shakily make their moves, and I take time to contemplate how serving God may as easily take you to Africa as here, alongside 25 residents in the community room where women players, I notice, outnumber the men 7 to 1.
Contributing to the lesser part of that ratio is popular Mr. Castilaw, hunkered down at a table in the far corner. He never misses the weekly bingo games. Claims they have astounding medicinal properties, he does. “I didn’t know what four nickels could do,” the retired laborer tells me, referring to the potential (and assured) winnings offered to players. “Someone can be in their room, not stirring, and the word gets around that we’re about to play bingo.”
Mr. Castilaw leans in closer, and I lean in, too, struggling to hear him.
“Let’s just say I’ve seen it raise the dead,” he finishes in a whisper, just before breaking into a gum-baring cackle. I raise my eyebrows, but hey, a little nursing home humor never hurt anybody, right?
“I-29. B-15. N-45.”
“Bingo,” someone murmured up front.
“Didn’t say it loud enough,” a player pipes back, and it’s true. The majority of their bingos are weak declarations. Some voices are strained. Others are monotone. One reminds me of Froggy from the Little Rascals. But they know the routine, these wizened ones, and they move on before the announcer gets her “clear your cards” out. They keep the pace going, slowed only by some excitement at the table in the right rear. Apparently two players have bingoed at once.
Meanwhile, a Vietnam vet wearing a tell-tale cap makes wise cracks, which are ignored by an announcer who does not appear to be easily amused. Perhaps it’s above her pay grade.
“I bingo!” shouts a little round-faced lady at the center table. Her next-chair neighbor, wearing a necklace and Nikes, doesn’t flinch. I wonder what she thinks of the teen volunteer’s fingernails, the psychedelic ones on the hand moving her token? The high school junior is here on a mission, the kind that involves doling out Kool-Aid and appropriate amounts of cheese puffs. This bingo stuff is an add-on, but she’s smiling.
I decide to introduce myself to the competition, solemn Mary Louise, who has anchored her free space with a piece of red plastic that once belonged atop a gallon of milk. Her board is filling fast. She does not care to talk.
“G-55. B-7. G-58.”
“G as in girl?” someone asks. The answer is yes, and with that we losers await a new announcer’s command, and it’s soon obvious that the coming high-stakes round—something called blackout—is the real draw for this crowd. In blackout the goal is to cover your whole game card with tokens, not just a five-space line. We are warned that the announcer will say the letter/number combos only once. Only once. Got it? “So listen up,” she directs from her spot by the piano. Things get quiet, even back in Mr. Castilaw’s corner.
“N-37. O-70. G-46. G-57. B-13.”
Time passes, and we’re getting close. I’m getting close. Four spaces left. But suddenly, it’s not “bingo” we hear, but “blackout.” The lady to my left with the fuchsia bow in her hair takes the prize—a crisp dollar bill. Moments later wheelchairs and walkers create a traffic jam in the hallway heading home.
Not everyone is so quick to leave, though. Mr. Castilaw pulls me aside and recounts that last round as if it were Super Bowl action. Listening to the play-by-play, I discover he wasn’t particularly impressed by the winner’s one-dollar prize. “Last week,” he says with a frustrated shake of his head, “it was two.”
That’s okay, I want to tell him. Last week I wouldn’t have thought an hour of Bingo was much of anything. I stand corrected.
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