My love for the game grew when one night, bored by spending yet another evening with my non-gamblaholic family, I convinced my parents to drop me off at a nearby church to indulge in a little four corners. One night became two, and soon I was the only bingo regular with all my teeth.
While I can no longer play weekly games (Stupid life! Always getting in the way!), I still have an affinity for bingo. There’s something about a basket full of balls, a neon-colored dauber (a penlike stamp that marks the called Bingo numbers), and a room filled with octogenarians that gets me every time. I want to find the best places in San Francisco to rekindle my love of the game, and hopefully score a blackout or two.
It’s a chilly Thursday evening in San Francisco, and the Knockout is flooded with its usual assortment of drunken hipsters. It’s time for Bingotopia, and I’ve come to win. The tagline for this game should be, “Not your grandma’s bingo, and also, she’s embarrassed by your silly-ass antics.” Or it could just be, “DURNK BGNIO.”
The Knockout gives you one bingo card per drink purchase. Drinks average about $7 so it’s not a bad deal, but it’s worth noting that Bingotopia is about the experience and not the prizes. If you’re hoping to rake in some cash or high-value prizes, I’d advise you to go elsewhere. Winners get stuff like pirate kits, giant plastic rings, and Mad Libs games. But bingo isn’t about the prizes; it’s about the glory. Let’s do this.
I nurse my Moscow Mule and protectively hover over my card until the game starts. The caller, Yule Be Sorry, is a bit sassy for my taste. But as the evening and alcohol consumption continue apace, I warm up to him and find myself yelling along with the crowd when favorite numbers are called, the most glorious being O-69. We’re all 12 years old.
Because we’re in a bar and drunken people are involved, Bingotopia is not the most efficient game night. There’s also a 15-minute break between rounds, which means fast and furious drink consumption. More drinks mean more cards, which means more chances to win plastic dinosaur toys. By now I’m not sure if I’m actually closing the correct bingo windows, but who cares? More cards, please! I’m having a grand old time with my friends, and when one of us accidentally calls bingo when we have none (clinical term: “premature e-bingo-lation”), we fall into a pile of giggles and hugs. Any sober person within 50 feet would be fully justified in offing us, execution-style.
Bingotopia is fun, but I’m craving a more authentic experience. I’m talking a church rec room, neon pink daubers, and a room full of eyes peering through a medicated haze at the multiple cards in front of them. You know, the real deal.
I meet my friends Mark and Allen in Parkmerced at the entrance of St. Gregory Armenian Church on Wednesday night. The church is ground zero as far as grown-up bingo in the Bay Area is concerned. Its game night, dubbed Brotherhood Way Bingo, happens on Wednesday and Thursday nights and is a fundraiser for the church. There are several other locations where real-deal fundraiser bingo is played in San Francisco, including Army Street Bingo and various church and schools. If you’re in the market, you can find a game every night of the week.
We enter St. Gregory Church and are directed to a table where about six men in business casual greet us. They eye us suspiciously and one asks, “Is this your first time here?” We nod eagerly. The leader informs us that there’s a minimum $35 buy-in, which gets us six packs of bingo sheets (each sheet contains 12 games and there are 19 sheets per pack), dinner, coffee, donuts, and a bingo dauber in the color of our choice (score!). The organizers also interest us in some side games, but because we don’t understand half of what they’re saying (hardcore bingo is confusing!) and because they don’t seem too excited to explain it, we each buy in. True gamblers.
We collect our free dinners of sausage, rice pilaf, and salad. We eat quickly because we don’t want to be caught with our pants down when the game begins. Looking around, it appears that everyone else has these crazy-looking machines we’ve never seen before. Mark leans over and asks a nearby lady about hers; she explains that it is a machine into which you program all your cards, so that when a number is called, it checks your cards for you. Magic! It even tells you when you bingo!
When the game starts, I quickly learn it’s the only way to go. As the caller starts with the numbers, I try to daub all 72 games at once. Two games in and I feel like my forearm is going to fall off. My hand is flying so fast that it can only be seen as a blur; truly, it’s like I’m trying to service an entire football team at once. By the fourth game, I’ve broken a full sweat and can only work half the cards. I look over at the other tables and see people kicking back, eating sausages, and leisurely entering numbers into their magic machines. I’d take the time to curse them but I don’t have a hand to spare. By the time we reach the end of the final game, it’s nearing 10 p.m. and if I’ve gotten a bingo, I’ll never know because I can’t keep up with my cards. Major bummer. I’ll be back, and next time I’ll be using a machine. Watch out, world.
I’m having fun, but I’m like Goldilocks: one bingo offers too little, the other too much, and I’m craving something that’s just right. I want real bingo, but I want it mixed with a party, preferably run by the sexiest nuns in town, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The sisters are not a religious order, but rather a group of truly excellent people who dress in drag as the coolest nuns you’ll ever meet. They’re the city’s sassiest, savviest nonprofit fundraising juggernaut, and declare their bingo mission (it actually says that under the header “Our Bingo Mission”) is to “Have fun, raise a few eyebrows and lots of money to help others!” I’m into it! Plus, these ladies know a thing or two about glitter application, and I have mad respect for that. I know bingo with the sisters will be an unrivaled experience, and so I show up on a Saturday night at the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness. Waiting in line, the atmosphere is jubilant and, at the risk of sounding like the cheesy asshole I am, electric.
We’re ushered into an auditorium on the second floor of the building and plied with two bingo cards, snacks, and beverages. This is next-level bingo. The drinks, the entertainment, and the prizes are all top-notch. Can you say porn? And how! Even drunk, I take my bingo seriously, and so when my four corners game results in a win, I jump up, spill my drink all over the table and yell out “BUNGO!” The sisters decide that “BUNGO” is close enough to bingo and let me have it. Bless them. My reward? A $150 cash prize, which when presented with the option, I donate on the spot (do it unless you’re greedy! Or a freelancer! Oh, wait…), and a bag of goodies, including mucho porn. Hot!
There’s no match for the rush of winning a game of bingo. In this moment, I know why people lose their homes, their families, and their self-respect to the delicious clutches of addiction. I mean, what a rush! If winning wasn’t enough of a thrill, you can be titillated in other ways, namely spankings from the sisters. A certain shit-talker at my table loudly complains about not winning any prizes and he’s rewarded with a spanking from one of the sisters. A sexy spanking. When bingo slows down for a moment, a chorus of people starts chanting, “Free shit! Free shit!” until the sisters start tossing crap (more porn!) into the audience. Keep the games coming; I could do this all night. B-I-N-G-O, bitches!
Bingotopia at the Knockout is played every Thursday evening, and starts not exactly at 7:30 p.m. One free card per drink, with drinks about $7. Brotherhood Way Bingo proceeds benefit St. Gregory Armenian Church – Wednesdays and Thursdays, first game at 7:15 p.m.; 825 Brotherhood Way, S.F. (415) 584-7991; $35 minimum buy-in; includes coffee, dinner, and parking. Sisters Bingo is $30 and you can buy tickets at the door or online before the event.