Roark, who grew up in Houston, has been calling games at the Bingo Barn in Bryan for two years. He will graduate in December from Texas A&M University with a degree in political science.
I was a college sophomore looking for a summer job when I read in the student newspaper that the Bingo Barn was hiring. I laughed, thinking, “No way a bingo hall is hiring. I’ve got to check this out.” Two weeks later, I was hired to work the register. After that, I was put in charge of the pull tabs—these are tickets used for a separate game, almost like a scratch-off—and within a few months I’d started calling.
I’d never stepped foot in a bingo hall before, so it took a lot of getting used to—learning the rules, getting over the stage fright. As a caller, you direct everyone in the hall, doing math in your head to keep track of what game you’re on, how much it’s worth, who’s won and if they’ve been paid, all at lightning pace. And then there are the superstitions. You have people who will set up a table with elephant figurines, pictures of their grandkids, those little naked trolls—anything to bring good luck. Others come and touch you before a game. I’ve had my butt grabbed a few times for luck, and one lady even anointed my hand with oil from her church. At first it seemed ridiculous. But these are people who are playing with their money—and the customer is always right. So I do what I can to make them happy.
It is mostly women players, about 90 percent. A handful of them come seven days a week. When people learn what I do, they think, “Oh, you work with a bunch of blue hairs,” but it really isn’t that way anymore. There’s a range of ages: grandmas, yes, but also families, college students. It’s a diverse group. And with all different kinds of voices too, which is one of the challenges you face as a caller: You have to really keep your ears open for when people shout “bingo!” There’s the meek and mild voices, or older ladies who can’t yell as loud, and then there’s the people who scare the bejesus out of you by screaming at the top of their lungs. We have one guy who starts jumping and hollering if he wins, and everybody in the building knows it, he’s so loud. It’s quite a scene when he comes in.
If somebody hollers bingo and stops the game, one of the floor workers will walk over and read out the serial number at the bottom of the person’s card. I’ll type this number into my computer, which shows whether it’s a valid bingo or not. We’re high-tech that way. If the number shows green, it’s good. If it shows red, then the person missed it. If there’s a blank, it means that the number hasn’t actually been called yet, which is kind of embarrassing for the player. We don’t make a thing of it, though. We just keep going. There are two sessions a day, at 1:15 p.m. and at 3 p.m., and we play fifteen regular games a session. You pay $10 for a pack of game cards, and each game is worth $100. There’s also an early-bird game, worth $50, and two jackpot games, worth $250 and $700.
We play speed bingo. Unlike pattern bingo, in which the first person to make an X wins, speed bingo is a blackout: You want to be the first person to get all 24 numbers on one card. It’s real fast, about a ball per second. You can play on paper or by tapping one of our computer screens, but the key is that you have to call bingo before the next number comes out. In other words, if you need, say, G52 and you’re sitting there waiting for G52, and G52 comes out, if you don’t holler bingo before the next number is announced, then you’ve missed it. There’s no going back, your bingo is no good. So if somebody is sleeping on their bingo, they’ll get plenty upset. It can get a bit cutthroat.
People start cursing and yelling at the caller when they aren’t winning. It’s like being at a casino. If you’re playing blackjack and you’re not winning any money, who do you blame? The card dealer. So they’ll think I’m cheating or doing something shady. But then the next day they’ll come in and hit a $200 game. There’s just no way to cheat in bingo, doesn’t matter what people say. The balls are in a sealed chamber, being blown around by a fan, and when they come out of the chute for me to pick up, there’s a camera right on them that shows the number on several TV screens in the hall. It’s impossible for me to slip the balls out or change them. Now, sometimes I’ll make a mistake, like drop a ball or place one in the wrong slot. People will get agitated, and that’s when you’ve got to keep the game moving: Correct the mistake, and regardless of how loud they get, start calling the next few balls. They’ll stop real quick because they don’t want to miss those numbers.
Winning is about whoever is lucky that day. It’s random. About a year or so ago, one of our regular patrons—she’s a lady in a wheelchair—bought $1 worth of pull tabs, and she won the $500 prize. We went up to verify it, and then I looked over and saw that she was crying, with people around consoling her. Come to find out, she was crying because she could finally afford a bus ticket to Ohio to spend the summer with her family. It was really touching, and for me, being the one who kind of made that possible—I didn’t have a direct hand, obviously, but being there and knowing that I was a part of it, that made me happy.
Bingo is as close to a casino as Texas will ever get right now, and I think that’s why it’s so popular. It’s fun and relatively cheap. A lot of people ask me how it’s possible that we’re operating when it is pretty much gambling. How is it legal in Texas? The answer is that it’s charitable bingo. We’re overseen by the Texas Lottery Commission, and all the money we make in a given day, after the employees get paid and after the utilities and the rent, goes to whatever charity we’re playing for that day. We play for mostly local charities, like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Brazos Valley.
I thought I’d be working at a bingo hall for just a couple months. But here it is, two years later, and I’m still here. My friends and family laughed about it at first, but now a bunch of them have played bingo themselves. I’ve learned a lot about running a business, about dealing with all types of temperaments, about counting large sums of money. Once I graduate and start looking for a more permanent line of work, I’ll be putting “bingo caller” on my résumé. Hopefully it won’t be a laughing point.