September 05, 2005

bang the drum all day

In honor of Labor Day, I'm kicking off a series chronicling some of the more interesting jobs I've held. And there have been a few. My inspiration for the series is Blown Sideways Through Life, a fabulous one-woman show written and performed by Claudia Shear. (Some of you may remember her as the chick whole stole Monica's identify on an early episode of Friends.) The book is available on, in case you're interested. Shear also performed it on PBS' Great Performances so if you can get your hands on a VHS/DVD or a rerun, please check it out!

First up: B-I-N-G-O!

When I was about 12 years old until the age of 16, I worked the weekly BINGO game at the local church. No, I wasn't the person who called the numbers or handed out the BINGO boards. Instead, I was among the gaggle of young girls who worked in the kitchen fetching coffee, soda, hot dogs and pizza for the aging crowd.

The kitchen girls arrived at 6:00pm, a solid hour before the actual event began. In that time, we'd make sure the hot dog water was boiling, the pizza oven was preheated, the coffee was percolating and all supplementary materials were stocked and ready to go.

Despite our early arrival time, the hall was already buzzing with activity. The doors opened at 5:30 so the BINGO diehards came early to stake out their regular spots and assemble their boards, chips, ink stamper things and their various and sundry good-luck charms in intricate patterns. The lucky charms were often those garish trolls with the Einstein-like hair or the prizes that came in a cereal box or Happy Meal. I never saw anything so run-of-the-mill as an actual rabbit's foot or four-leaf clover. These women prayed to the gods of General Mills and McDonalds for good fortune.

Before the game actually started, the customers came into the kitchen to make their purchases. Once the game got underway, we had to brave the smoke-filled air and load up trays and bring the coffee, tea, soda, etc. to them.

It was a risky business, let me tell you. We had to take great care not to advertise our wares while the caller was yelling out a number. One ill-timed "COFFEE!" would solicit violent shushing and deadly glares from the assembly. I once yelled "SODA!" in tandem with the caller's "B 12!" and my ass was swiftly handed to me by a bunch of old biddies. I skulked back to the kitchen and refused to go back out on the floor until my shame and embarrassment subsided.

You know, for a game that took place in the basement of a Catholic church, the participants were less than Christian-like. In addition to the aforementioned nasty "Shaddaps!" we were also privy to some hard-core greed and envy. When someone yelled "BINGO!" a less-than-magnanimous groan arose from the crowd. They tsked, sighed and muttered as they waved magnetic wands over their boards to snatch up all the chips and make way for a new game. If some poor sap made a mistake with her chip-laying/ink-dabbing, the crowd would actually cheer as the caller announced, "No BINGO!"

What a bunch of nasty, dusty-beavered, old bitches they were.

However, there were a few regulars that we had come to know and love. For example, the wee Scottish lady that came into the kitchen like clockwork each week and said, "One tea, please." When she handed over her money, she'd inform us of our tip by saying, "Take a dime." But with her accent it sounded more like, "Take a dame." Naturally, we imitated this EVERY week right after she left the kitchen. We were shocked -- SHOCKED, I tell you -- the week she came in and said, "Take a quarter." We were pleased with the increased profit margin but that phrase wasn't nearly as easy to imitate, even with my superior Scottish mimicry abilities.

Then there was the chubby "Two Diet Tabs!" fella. Every week, he'd walk into the kitchen, thrust two fingers in the air and place the order for his soda of choice. Unlike the Take a Dime Lady, this guy was Jersey all the way -- with a lisp -- so his request sounded more like: "Two Doy-et Taaaaaaaabth!" Again, the minute he was out of earshot, we'd reenact the exchange.

I distinctly remember Two Doy-et Taaaaaaaabth's hands. They looked jaundiced because of all the nicotine stains and he positively reeked of smoke. The minute he walked into the kitchen, we could smell him. His fingernails were all brown and crusty-looking so we were always careful to not make any contact when handing him his change. I admit that I take the occasional puff on a cigarette but memories of this man's hands will forever prevent me from developing a full-blown habit. Nicotine-schmicotine. My vanity can defeat addiction, any day.

In the last 45 minutes of the evening, things slowed down as interest in food and caffeinated drinks started to wane (I'm assuming because of issues with insomnia and poor bladder control). However, it was too early to close up shop so we'd sit around chatting (quietly, of course, or else the old bitch brigade would come into the kitchen and tear us a collective new one).

At one point during my BINGO tenure, I worked with my best friend and my younger sister. The combination of the three of us mixed with downtime yielded one result… MISCHIEF. One night, we got tired of BSing (at a low volume) so we did what comes naturally while working in the basement of a Catholic church -- we threw wet paper towels at each other and the ceiling.

The ceiling was REALLY high so it became quite the competition as we tried to scale the monumental height with enough velocity and force to make the paper towel cling to the masonry. An added obstacle was the system of heating and plumbing pipes blocking the ceiling. We squealed (quietly) with delight when one of our soggy missiles wrapped itself around the pipes and valves. And, somehow, we managed to keep things to a dull roar when I finally made contact with the ceiling.

Years later, I was in the kitchen visiting my father as he helped out with an Ash Wednesday fish and chips dinner. I looked up and sure enough, our handiwork remained intact.

You know, I think defacing church property, more so than carpet munching, will be the deciding factor in my banishment to Hell. Well, that plus the time I babysat two kids, ages 7 and 4, and taught them how to make prank calls and send pizzas to their neighbors. FYI, if you tell the pizza place you want the pie well done, they always believe the order is legit. Of course, this was before Caller ID had to come in and fuck things up…

Up next in the series: My stint as a janitor. Oh sorry... "custodial engineer."