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A little dab’ll do ya
It’s 7:30 p.m. on a clear, chilly Monday night and outside Cowan Plaza Bingo Hall in the west end of St. John’s, you’d be hard pressed to find a parking spot.
Inside the glass doors of the hall — about the size of a small gymnasium — underneath bright fluorescent lights, dozens of people, mostly women, sit at the more than 100 tables lined from wall to wall.
Each table is blanketed with a dizzying array of paper game sheets. Laid neatly alongside them are each player’s brightly coloured ink dabbers — a minimum of two apiece.
A half-dozen people are lined up in the middle aisle to purchase bingo sheets at the counter, while others sit waiting, munching on bags of chips from the canteen and having a chat before the game starts.
It’s not Vegas, and there’s no alcohol served, but for these folks, bingo is intoxicating enough. It’s serious business for those who are chasing the escalating jackpot, which reaches close to $8,000. For others, it’s just a fun night out with friends.
In the far right-hand corner, at a table near the back wall tucked behind a column, Frankie Murphy sits with her friend, Maureen.
They’ve been here since 6:45 p.m. and have just finished a game of cards — Scat. Now, they’re gearing up for bingo. Murphy spreads out sheets, takes a bright green dabber from her dabber carrying case and blots in the middle free square on each of the sheets.
She’s been doing it for 20 years, sitting in the same seat each night.
“My husband’s cheque goes in the bank to pay the bills. Mine goes direct deposit to Cowan Plaza,” the 76-year-old said, erupting into laughter.
“I love coming here. The staff are so nice and I’ve met so many nice people over the years.”
She’s never won a jackpot. Once, she won $1,400, and another time she won $1,000.
“But it all went back to bingo again,” she said, laughing. “But it’s all for the fun of it.”
Murphy can remember the days when bingo halls were filled with cigarette smoke and games were played on wooden slider cards. When they switched to paper sheets, she was able to play up to 30 games at a time.
“It stops you from getting Alzheimer’s. It’s good for the brain, so they say,” she said. “Although, I’ve got to wonder about my brain. All I see in the nighttime when I go to bed is bingo balls.
“I even woke up one night yelling ‘Bingo!’ I was waiting for B1.”
Suddenly, the murmur of voices that had filled the room turns to silence as the bingo machine starts tumbling balls and 17-year-old Shawn Parsons calls the first number.
With dabbers clenched tightly and eyes fixed intently on their game sheets, the players scan and dab with the cool efficiency of assembly workers. Without missing a beat, in the 10-second span between called numbers, they rip open Nevada tickets that are sold by a handful of male staffers working the room.
“I needs one,” a woman at another table is overheard telling her friends, indicating she was one number away from having bingo, often referred to as being “on the hitch.”
“Come on, 48.”
A few numbers later, a faint call of “Bingo” is heard from another corner of the room.
“Goddamn,” the woman who had been close to a win said, ripping the top layer of sheets away to get ready for another game.
Many of the faces are familiar to Lorelei Best.
"All I see in the nighttime when I go to bed is bingo balls." — Frankie Murphy
She has been manager of Cowan Plaza Bingo for about 2 ½ years. It’s a non-profit organization associated with seven charities. In all, she has worked at the hall for the last 15 ½ years. Before that, she spent many nights there as a player.
“I love the people here,” she said. “It’s a great place to be.”
Depending on the weather and the time of year, about 170 people fill the hall every night. There are more than 100 regulars — a few dozen who come every night, and others who come a few nights a week.
But Best admits it’s not like it used to be. She said three-quarters of their customers are seniors, as internet games and Netflix keep many younger people home.
“Many people who like to come out are dying off,” she said, adding that when they lose a player they observe a moment of silence. “We lost six of our regulars in December alone. … We’re trying to think of ways to attract younger people.”
Bingo is deeply entrenched in this province’s history. In past years, there were enormous jackpots to be had each night, but new regulations have tamed the winnings.
But Best said for most who play, it’s not about the money.
“This is their social thing and a chance to get out and be with their friends,” she said. “They can’t wait until 5:30 p.m. to get in the car and come here. We have customers in the parking lot, waiting for us to open.”
There are special bingo events, with parties and dinners, including on St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve. The staff do all they can to make players feel welcome.
“I love getting involved with everyone here,” said Adrian Hayward, who has worked at the hall for close to 25 years. “They’re all like family to me now.”
That’s one of the big reasons Murphy keeps coming back.
She has three grown daughters, two who live in British Columbia, along with two teenage grandchildren, but she said it’s nice to have friends who care, too.
“When I’m late or miss a scattered night, they’re phoning me, ‘Where you to?” she said, smiling. “They worry about you, and that’s a nice feeling.”