Bingo was every Saturday night. It was held in Gallo Hall in the basement of Sacred Heart School (named after Father John Gallo, the pastor and founder of our Italian parish in 1912). It was a necessary evil for raising money for our elementary school. The Catholic tradition of Bingo goes back to the Gospel story of the Roman centurions throwing dice to win the robe of Jesus during his crucifixion. Of course gambling is a curse. Look what happened to Richard Burton in the movie, The Robe and of course in real life – he won and lost Elizabeth Taylor twice. He got his revenge though in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by killing off their imaginary son.
Interestingly none of our parishioners attended Bingo. The puritanical Protestant non-denominational “white trash” of Newburgh made the Bingo rounds each week at the various Catholic Church basements. There were only a few Blacks in attendance sprinkled around the Whites like jimmies on a vanilla ice cream cone. It was a strange brew of witches in multi-colored kerchiefs hiding their toilet paper-sized pink hair curlers just put in at the beauty parlor in preparation for the next day Sunday services at their heathen places of worship. Each sorceress with a jungle red lipstick stained cigarette dangling from her lips set up altars of talismans and good luck charms. An impish troll-like demon was seemingly the god of the games. These devotees purchased multiple cards for each round; this is how the church made its money. Every lady had at least 20 cards spread out before them in precise military line up. Armed with a red ink pad, their eagle-like eyes ran up and down each card, like an Italian customs official stamping out with an authoritative thud the appropriate numeral, hoping to win and shout out – Bingo!
Nicotine primordial, gray clouds hovered on the ceiling of Gallo Hall; eventually it got so bad, the parish had a special charcoal filter machine put in to suck the gaseous vapors out. The Bingo Caller was always a male, dressed in Eisenhower Era sack suit and narrow black rep tie. He presided like a high priest behind a long cafeteria lunch table set up on the stage which would be re-set the next morning for the overflow adult attendees from the 9 a.m. Sunday’s Children’s Mass held in our church across the street. The seventy five numbered ping pong-like balls would whirl and whoosh and careen around in a clear Lucite box propelled by hot air blast sounding like my mother’s Sunbeam hairdryer. After pressing a foot lever on the floor, one ball would be sucked out of the box, up a clear vacuum tube and placed in a tray that looked like a huge Tupperware deviled egg holder. The device lit up the number on a marquee for all to see the number called. You won by completing a line up or down, or across or diagonally. This was the basic play for the first cash prize. The second prize for a higher amount was the Round Robin filling the outside square all around the card. The third and last was Full Card. The Maenads of Dionysius would then rip up cards with a frenzy and buy a whole new set – more money for us indigent Italian poor orphan babies
Groans of laughter, salacious mooing and hissing would accompany each pull of a bingo ball. They were a fanatical and superstitious bunch outdoing the Pentecostals in speaking in tongues. They would scream out the most vulgar comments at each bingo call. Each one had a ritualistic mantra:
G-1 Baker’s Bun!
I-23 Thee and me!
N-4 Knock on the Door!
G-28 Over weight!
O-54 Clean the floor!
Whenever 69 Either way up! was called the banshees would go wild. It wasn’t for a few years later that I knew what that particular salacious chant was all about. In between calls there was a code of silence, deadly serious stuff, more serious than the transubstantiation.
Onan – According to the Old Testament, after Godhad killed Onan’s older brother Er, Judah asked Onan to have sex with Tamar , Er’s widow, so that the offspring could be declared Er’s heir. Onan had sex with Tamar, but performed coitus interruptus each time, spilling his “seed” on the ground, so that there would not be any offspring which he could not claim as his own. The passage states that this displeased God, who killed him.
Joey’s mother was in charge of the kitchen at Bingo, selling food to the famished harridans which provided additional income. She arrived in late afternoon to start the making of the coffee in a huge industrial chrome coffee maker that looked like something out of The Bride of Frankenstein. She also hovered over boiling and steaming cauldrons of Pepto Bimsol-bright Hot Dogs. Joey helped his mother every Saturday night so I not too altruistically volunteered. We helped her unpack the frankfurter rolls, jelly doughnuts and cinnamon buns dropped off by Luna Bakery. We stocked the restaurant sized refrigerator with gallons of milk delivered by Crowley Dairy up the block.
Once the games started, Joey and I would roam up and down the aisles of Gallo Hall pushing a metal hospital cart with a small urn of coffee on it, a metal bowl filled with tepid water where the frankfurters sloshed around, and a turquoise blue, Melamine tray of mixed baked goods. I wore a white apron with deep pockets containing lots of coins to make change for each transaction. It was like feeding red meat to hungry lions at the zoo and tossing fish at seals at the aquarium. They were a voracious lot. The women would accost me and grab me and make all sorts of remarks and predictions. It was all in good fun and I gave their sexual banter right back to them!
Hey cutie, is the coffee hot as you? – “Hotter!”
Put lots of cream in sugar. – “All you want, Maame!”
Nice buns! - “Cream filled.”
What ya hidin’ under that apron, sweetie? – “Me to know and you to find out!”
Got any Italian sausage for Momma? – “Sweet or Hot?”
Naughty boy, you need to be spanked. - “Don’t ya know it!
You’re gonna be a star, someday baby.” – “The Greatest!”
They loved tipping me and putting the money down into my pants pocket as I was sla
thering their hot dog with neon bright looking yellow mustard. “This is for you honey, don’t tell your mother.”
Sacred Heart School Kitchen
(not much has changed!)
Joey and I were done when we ran out of food. We counted up our tips to compare but I always lied to him since I got a lot more. It took his mother awhile to clean up the kitchen, so we had an hour or so to hang out… I suggested to Joey we go explore until it was time to leave. The back stairs led directly up to the main floor classrooms. All of the lights were turned off, it was exciting to see the school so dark and spooky, and the only sounds were the Bingo and catcalls echoing up from below. We went down the green and gray checkered linoleum tile hallway till we stumbled into the Kindergarten Room. The mercury vapor street light coming through the venetian blinds cast a weird bluish-green light that made us look like vampires and cast sharp shadows onto the black chalk board from the trees from the garden facing Route 9W outside.
We prowled around the room like Zombies, flipping through a dog-eared Highlights magazine; squeezing a stray broken stuffed animal that yelped out a tiny cry and we silently tossed a red and blue ball back and forth till I finally sank it with a flourish into the toy chest. We looked through the drawers of the teacher’s desk hoping to find money but only to find crayons, colored tissue and construction paper. There was a set of alphabet blocks on the shelf under the blackboard so we put them on the desk and tried to make up words like automobile, vegetable and biology. I scrambled the blocks once more and I playfully spelled out: DICK and JANE.
From the Gallo Hall below we heard cackling-
B-62 Turn the Screw!
I slid into one of the tiny child kindergarten desks, barely fitting in so my legs splayed out in front of me like Goldilocks in Baby Bear’s chair. I motioned Joey to sidle into the desk next to me. We both stared at the blocks watching the shadows play on the blackboard behind it. Slowly using my leg locked onto one of the feet of his desk, I pulled him closer to me. The desk made a dull moaning noise as the hard rubber coasters groaned across the floor, leaving a black trail on the linoleum. I reached over and undid his pants. I leaned over to the desk and re-arranged the blocks, making new words as we continued reciprocally in tandem:
COME AND SEE.
Our desks got closer, metal to metal; the cuff of my dungarees got stuck between the two wood writing desk tops. The orgasmic cries from the weird Bingo sisters of the Bacchus were getting closer now.
I-43 Down on your knees!
The blocks seemed to move on their own like an Ouija Board spelling out our fate:.
COME AND SEE.
Even though breathing heavily and almost in unison, we made not a sound.
N-54 Clean the floor!
Our ears pricked up like nervous deer in the woods, alert to any hunter who may discoverer us.
G-64 Red Raw!
COME AND SEE SPOT.
O-69 My God!
From Gallo Hall, an orgasmic cry rose up…
I could tell from the excited voice that one of my ladies that I waited on had won the final big cash jackpot of the night. Joey’s leg spasmodically hit the desk and the blocks fell off crashing loudly onto the hard linoleum floor as he shot out across the darkness onto the blackboard.
“Hey Joey! You guys up there? It’s time to go home.” Startled, I got up, almost tripping on my pants legs, pulling the cuff from under the desk, ripping them, as I grabbed a handkerchief out of my back pocket, stumbling over to erase the stain off the chalk board. Being a gentleman, I offered my handkerchief to Joey. He ran downstairs and I quickly started to follow, putting the blocks away. As I was bending over, I noticed my black pocket comb had fallen out of my pants. I parted my hair and put it back in my pocket with my soiled handkerchief folded around it.
Before leaving, I breathlessly ran over and congratulated Miss Lucy, the winner and she gave me a dollar tip out of her haul. Joey’s mother drove us home. I almost banged into the garbage cans as I made my way to the little patch of woods behind our backyard. The wind seemed to make the trees move towards me and reach out like an old Disney cartoon as I buried my handkerchief with the rest of my secret stash.
I used the basement entrance and went up to the bathroom. I closed the door first and then turned on the light. As I was washing my hands I looked up into the mirror and saw a curious stiff cowlick that I must have gotten when I quickly combed my hair. I rubbed it out with a towel. I panicked. Had anyone seen it? I pulled my flannel pajamas off the hook on the back of the door and started to change.
I went up to bed in shame but also with a strange feeling of elation, like the lady who won the final game of Bingo. I had a hard time falling asleep, but once I did I had terrible dreams of being torn apart by the Bingo Women, like Sebastian Venerable from the movie Suddenly Last Summer that I had just seen where Elisabeth Taylor wore a skin tight pure white bathing suit revealing her heaving chest as she screamed in abject horror as Katharine Hepburn cackled.
I woke up the next morning. My brother and father had already gotten up and were downstairs. “Anthony, it’s time for mass, you better hurry up and get dressed and get your ass down here!” my mother lovingly yelled up. I tossed off my blanket. There down below was a white chalk stain I must have gotten after I cleaned off the blackboard and used my handkerchief to wipe off. It looked like K2 with a snowy peak. Suddenly I remembered a catechism lesson one of the nuns used to explain Original Sin. “Your soul is like a glass milk bottle. When you are pure you can see right through it – clean. But when you commit a mortal sin, the bottle clouds up, leaving a film that is hard to cleanse away like putrid rancid milk.”
I was going to Hell. I spit on it and rubbed and rubbed till the stain came off – Absolvo Te.
I ran to the closet, put on my Sunday suit, Chinese laundered starched white shirt, tie and shined shoes, skidded down the staircase, slammed the front door behind me and jumped into our pink and gray Rambler. My mother in a huff handed me my collection envelope and off we went to the 9am Children’s Mass. When they passed the basket, guiltily I also threw in the dollar that Miss Lucy had slowly stuck in my front pocket.
I continued to volunteer for many more Saturday nights, got to know the Bingo Ladies very well and looked forward to seeing them. Joey and I graduated from Kindergarten to the 1st Grade classroom to 4th Grade, 6th Grade, right up to the 8th Grade! I always had a clean handkerchief….