I arrived promptly at 5:20 tonight, but no one there was able to tell me much. Everyone grunted and pointed to where I had just been. I wandered aimlessly through a cavernous, sickly yellow room, looking for someone to tell me what to do. Finally, an armed security man steered me into a back room and towards a bouncing whirlwind yelling in code at a sullen bunch. I waited until she paused and introduced myself, assuming my sweatshirt would explain my presence. She looked at me blankly, introduced herself as what I heard as "The Supe" (though I wasn't certain until I had heard several others use it), and continued her encoded message, now including me in her sweeping glares. She then dismissed the others and directed me to follow, outlining my duties as she flew from place to place with me trailing like a piece of toilet paper stuck to her shoe. There were apparently no ropes, just a few loose ends. I would "sell paper." The bingo players purchase a book of differently colored game sheets upon arrival, but I, hoping to breed a little more greed, would walk around and offer additional sheets with even luckier numbers. The jackpot games with the largest payoffs are played on sheets not included in the packet, so selling those would be one of my biggest duties. Selling paper is the lowest status task, as it involves a lot of walking and very little money handling. Every newcomer is steered in this direction.
The other Twain teacher there was Coach Brown, a man famous among the staff but personally unknown to me. His job was to sell the packages of bingo sheets as the players arrived. His enormous girth was enclosed in a cage that barely contained him. He looked like the footballs he loves so dearly, though his seam went the other way. An enormous black belt, clearly stolen from a Santa Claus suit, glistened against his tan, polyester, pants. He never acknowledged me, or anyone else, but silently dispensed the packets as instructed by the players. "One from the top and one from the bottom" or "Make sure there's a I-29 on the top sheet" or "Choose a real lucky one for me tonight" which would cause him to rub his hands over the stack and select a packet from somewhere in the middle. His assignment at Twain is apparently quite similar. He supervises what's called the IH room. IH stands for "in-house", which is where unruly students are stored for a day or two rather than being suspended. Some students spend weeks there. The district is obsessed with suspension rates, and hiding people in this room, under the supervision of a man approaching retirement who spends his day scrupulously reading the local paper, sports magazines, and coaching journals, is deemed good community relations. One teacher told me that he shares his love of fine literature with his charges by reading to them from Penthouse, a magazine which happens to have artistic photographs to accompany its robust fiction, penetrating analysis, and droll cartoons. I wasn't sure if I was being teased. Coach Brown is at bingo nearly every Thursday when there is no sports activity, so he is immensely popular among the teachers, who dread his impending retirement.
There were seven additional workers there tonight. Two of them were paid employees of the sponsors, responsible for counting, wrapping, and hiding the amazing sums of money moving through the room. The other four, other than Coach Brown, were volunteers from other organizations raising money. I was struck by the realization that when I was a scout we boosted our cash flow with garage sales, car washes, and recycling projects. Here, a group of adults had accepted responsibility. Where were the beneficiaries of this largesse? Cruising, playing video games, watching movies? Another example of the topsy-turvy accountability distribution around us today.
I put on an apron, waved my paper in the air, and made several two and three dollar sales. Most of my view was the tops of heads, as eyes were strapped to hand-held electronic poker and slot machines. The stares were intent, veins like embossed Christmas cards, watching to see if the toy made them a winner. I designed a comfortable route though the increasingly crowded aisles. On each circuit I passed a couple perched precisely in the middle of the room. Was this their favorite spot, staked like a California gold claim in 1849 and defended to the death? The man certainly looked the part, with a Walter Huston "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" beard that continued upward and circumnavigated most of his skull. Hollow cheeks and constantly moving lips pointed to jaws without teeth. Two scrawny sticks looking like discarded chicken legs sagged from a dirty flannel shirt with only slightly more substance than the arm it enclosed. His lady, every bit as emaciated, wore a once-beige sleeveless dress so oversized that the armholes left more uncovered than the dress hid. The gray thatch on her head appeared to have been trimmed with a weed whacker. They each cuddled a large Styrofoam coffee topped with a glistening oil slick. Cigarettes drooped from canyons in their lips, removed only to be extinguished and replaced. The cigarettes remained impaled whether they spoke or sipped. The centerpiece of their table, an ashtray camouflaged by butts when I first noticed them, became the focus of a gradually increasing circumference of debris. I felt the first surge of pity. They looked like the homeless seen on TV shows, though not as well fed. Is this what they had imagined when they first got together forty years ago? When they were young and vibrant did they picture themselves fondling foul coffee and chain-smoking in a chilly, friendless room? I'm sure there's another story there, but I am writing a journal, not a novel.
I had tried to dismiss the fantastic tales before arriving, but I was seeing what I had been told. Never had I thought of bingo before this experience, but if I had I would have assumed that people came here to play bingo. As I promenaded promoting near-instant happiness, I realized I was wrong. An even more instantaneous form of gratification was available, and proving far more popular than my offering. It seemed that bingo was the loss-leader, drawing the suckers in, but the big money was made on an item called pull-tabs. A pull-tab is a paper slot-machine. Five little tabs are pulled revealing whether the card is a winner. Clearly more thought went into the product than the name. Nearly every card was tossed aside immediately. I would have supposed the players, eager to savor every moment of suspense, would release the tabs one at a time, but nearly everyone had mastered the art so thoroughly that a mere brush of the hand removed the tabs and exposed whether bliss was theirs.
Pull tab sales was the high status job. A petite shopping cart (built, symbolically on a wheelchair frame) was pushed through the narrow aisles dispensing magic. The customers, much like those in a five-star restaurant, signaled discreetly and were waited on with infinite deference. A lot of money was spent on these. An awful lot. Over a case of the fifty cent tabs and nearly two of the one dollar tabs, with two thousand tabs per case, were sold. If I were a math teacher I would probably be compelled to calculate the total. As it was, I was in shock. All the money that moved went in one direction. The number of winning tickets per box was printed on the side, with $1000 in prizes per case, and I know enough statistics to realize that the more you play, the more the odds are against you. It is possible to be lucky and succeed early, but over the long run, there's no way to be beat those odds.
As I traveled through the room, I observed a wide variety of humanity, none of it particulary attractive. One especially adamant player appeared at first to be a multi-colored Egyptian pyramid but eventually coalesced into the form of a woman. She spent most of at least five hours pulling those little tabs. She had accumulated a formidable waste pile when I arrived. On every tour of the room the magician would unload another shipment and she would open without stopping, merely slowing a bit during the actual bingo games. There were thirty gallon trash bags taped to the end of the table to receive the detritus of the evening, and she more than filled one of these with her discarded tabs. I spoke to her pusher. "How much did she spend?" He looked at me blankly and when I repeated myself he said "Who? Oh, her, oh, I don't know...didn't notice." She was wearing clothes that would have covered a bull walrus, but on her were stretched so tightly that several of the seams had burst. Through one of these canyons, a tourniquet that had once been a bra was barely visible, perceptible only because of the trench it created. Stockings with equally gaping apertures feebly attempted to cover her legs. She played silently, never looking up, never moving. Her signal was a wave of a card, which generated the dumping of another stack. At the end of the night, when she rose to depart, I saw she was wearing pink, once fuzzy, slippers. She could not lift her feet but slid them forward, a trudging shuffle that looked as if was ascending a steep slope. I could not help but wonder if her pride was equally battered. I had not seen her win anything but the one and five dollar prizes that were immediately redeemed for additional pull-tabs. She disappeared into the darkness; my empathy followed. Where was she going? How could she afford to spend, what, $1000, here? To what kind of life was she returning?
At 7:00, a paunchy man strolled to the stage, removed a cigarette, and mumbled the rules and regulations into a microphone dangling from the ceiling. Everyone gave him the same attention serious travelers give stewards when describing safety procedures. After this obligatory speech, he flipped a switch and a box of striped ping-pong balls leapt to life. They bubbled until one was sucked up a tube and presented to the crowd. Silence fell. After several numbers were called, the room began to vibrate, and even I sensed the tension. They began with simple five-in-a-row-affairs that produced quick winners. But then came the first jackpot game, and suddenly I was busy. My sheets cost but a quarter, and the suspense and anticipation was enveloping even me. Ladies dug deeply into their purses to find another coin to complete the buy, while others, impatient, waved and called. I examined the enormous quantities of garbage which constituted the contents of these frequently massive bags. Last semester I had a class with a fellow who had been a blackjack dealer in Vegas until ATMs were installed. He couldn't live with himself after watching people lose not only everything they had but everything they could borrow. Though the loose change would not bankrupt anyone, I felt despondent that these ladies, who clearly could spend this money more effectively, were forking over their last cents for one additional chance at the jackpot. Would I see them on the news as having been evicted for non-payment of rent, or removed in body-bags because their heat had been turned off?
The night progressed to a series of games in which the object was to make odd little shapes on the sheet. They made a cross, a beer mug, a diamond. Two $500 prizes had been won. The final $1000 prize was split between three disappointed players, and the room emptied immediately. I turned in my money, placed my apron in the closet, and went out to tidy the room. As promised, I had witnessed humanity at its worst. It wasn't certain though, to whom we were referring. These players appeared to be victims, nearly submerged by a flood so huge and swift they couldn't be sure which direction offered solace and hope. But the perpetrators of this game, separating these desperate, lonely, and bleak individuals from their minuscule reservoirs of cash, seemed just as miserable. I'm sure I shuffled into the room with the same air as my pull-tab champion.
At the corner table was a woman I hadn't noticed earlier. A large, shapeless blob sat behind a statue of Buddha, whom she resembled. Her face looked like a crustless melted marshmallow, ready to drip, inflated and gooey, puffy and dense as air. She was getting up with the help of a cane, using it as a catapult to launch herself from the chair. I approached her to offer assistance, but she shook her cane at me and said "The next bus doesn't come for almost an hour. I'm in no hurry to get out of here." I smiled the polite smile I had been using all night and nodded in silent assent. "Broke my back--that's why I use this. They thought I'd never walk again, and I don't much, not as quick as I used to be, but I can get up myself and I still can get around. Here I am. Proves my point, I would say! I was electrocuted, you know, thrown sixteen feet--broke in three places! but it didn't cut my spinal cord, just squashed it, that's why I can get around with the help of this." She waved her cane like a rapier "It was over twenty years ago, September, September 12, 1972 in fact, at 2:30 in the afternoon, you know I remember that day like it was yesterday, it's one of the strangest things, I remember what I was wearing, what I had for lunch, but I don't remember touching that damn coffee pot or flying at all, just suddenly I'm on my back and some guy in a security uniform is looking in my face; now I don't like men that close unless we're making love, and I can tell you we sure as hell weren't making love right then, and then they tried to strap me on a stretcher, and I told them I was fine, but I hurt all over, and I couldn't imagine why. They kept reassuring me that I would be okay, and I was getting angry, I mean, of course I would be okay, what the hell were they talking about? I wanted to get back to my desk and I tried to get up, but I couldn't move. It was the damnedst thing." She smiled at me, and I smiled back, looking for a way to politely escape. "So I finally agreed to let them take me and check me out. The amazing thing is that they said it was my fault, those big companies can hire all the lawyers and make me look stupid and twist what I said every which way, and they got the jury to agree."
She speared the chair opposite her with the cane. "I can't stand for long. Bet your dogs are barking after walking around here all night. Here, sit down. You know, you see those big settlements on TV, but us little people never see that dough. They have all those professional liars who say whatever they're told to say and I just sat there and said 'It wasn't my fault. I was plugging in a coffee pot and next thing I know I'm on the way to the hospital, and I didn't get out for almost a year. At least they paid for that, but it happened while I was at work, so I guess they had to, but I showed them; they said I was going to spend the rest of my life on my ass--they never thought I would graduate from college, but I did, and I walked across that stage, grabbed that damn diploma, and held it up high" the cane circled her head, and I flinched as it came despairingly near "but those fuckin' lawyers, excuse my French, but they make me so mad in their fancy suits, and they then get in the courtroom and are more scared than I am, I mean, was I their first case or something, they just stood there and looked stupid and they still get paid and I get nothing! How the hell can they help anyone? And the doctors would never, ever be there to see, though they should have, well at least the therapist, she did help me and not give up on me. It wasn't a total loss, since my comp helped pay for tuition, and I did get a little money. But they all said I wouldn't be able to, told me to just give up, like lots of other people have told me, but when I decide on something, there's no stopping me, I just go until I get what I want."