By Naomi Serviss
My friends worry about getting bingo wings
I told them to stop playing bingo.
I wasn’t joking.
Bingo wings don’t bother me.
The game does.
Just hearing the word bingo triggers a tsunami of anxiety.
My mother played religiously in church basement cafeterias.
Three times a week.
She was a hard-working single parent of five children.
She uprooted four of us when she left my father in Rhode Island.
I was four years old when we were Greyhound-bussed to a Philadelphia suburb.
We moved seven times.
I attended two elementary schools and three high schools.
The one constant was my mother’s bingo habit.
It swept her away from a grueling full-time job and four unhappy kids.
She was overwhelmed and underpaid and under-nurtured her children.
I pleaded with her to bring me to those magical games.
There I had temporary respite from a cruel older brother.
The games ran about four hours.
Long tables filled the church cafeterias.
Scores of middle-aged and old women fished talismans from deep vinyl pocketbooks.
Out came trolls, rabbit’s feet and other lucky charms.
They sanctified their cards with troll hair and rabbit fur.
My mother bought 20 cards and taped them to her spot.
Magical thinking sustained her.
Despite unpaid electric bills and eviction notices.
Workers strolled the aisles with a lucrative side hustle.
They sold Lucky 7s, an instant game with a lousy payoff.
A church representative called the numbers from a stage.
Workers wore aprons and coin changers.
They took orders for pizza, soft pretzels and soda.
A night circus, the smoky air was thick with prayers and oregano.
Winners stood shouting, “Bingo, I’ve got bingo!”
Loser disappointment shrouded high hopes.
Aproned workers paid on the spot.
The jackpot game held high stakes.
The weekly prize was $1,000.
My mother held her breath waiting for her winning number.
One summer evening we drove to an imposing church in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
The entrance was down steep concrete steps.
The door opened and we were stopped.
“How old is she?” asked a surly flock member.
“Eleven,” my mother answered.
“Children aren’t allowed in. You can’t stay.”
Playing bingo was more urgent than my welfare.
I was told to wait on the hard outside steps.
The game would end by 11 p.m.
A window offered a glimpse into the smoky room.
The sun set and the sky darkened.
I gazed up, hypnotized by the stars.
I rose from the cold step and walked up to a dark sidewalk.
Down the block and turned the corner.
I studied the sky and trees.
Three hours passed.
I found my way back.
I waited another 30 minutes.
Fifty years later I am horrified by my mother’s decision and grateful I was unharmed.
I count my lucky stars.
My favorite church was modest, with a built-in money-making opportunity.
Other tagalongs bunched up in front of the pretzel window.
The manager let us take orders.
We hard-sold 10-cent Cokes and 50-cent soft pretzels.
Sometimes I’d get tips.
Mostly dimes, but winners tipped more, maybe 75 cents.
I made a friend who was a regular.
He was blind. Neatly dressed.
He took out wooden braille bingo cards from his briefcase.
His gentle German Shepherd guide dog rested beneath the table.
Most times he ordered pretzels and soda from me.
He showed me the braille numbers on his wooden cards.
He stroked his dog’s head between games.
At the end of the night, we’d collect the empty soda bottles.
We brought them upfront, loading them into wooden crates.
The manager gave each of us two dollars.
Fond memories of bingo have long gone.
I can still see an 11-year-old child wandering alone in a strange neighborhood one June night.
Booted from a bingo game.
Stranded by a mother with high hopes and low expectations.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com