Bingo makes even strange places feel like home

On the grid

October 24, 2008 

At Gold Cache Bingo on Fireweed Lane, Gabby Gregory explained that his luck came from two palm-sized figurines he found years ago inside boxes of Red Rose Tea. One was shaped like an owl, the other a monkey in a dress.

His driving cap, crocheted of red, white and blue yarn, was lucky, too. As were his bingo daubers made in the likenesses of Elvis and a leprechaun that said, "Kiss me, I'm Irish."

The grey-eyed retired fisherman, with his plaid shirt, suspenders, and a bracelet of baleen and bone, traveled in from Igiugig, a village of 50 near Lake Iliamna, for the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention.

"I'll most likely spend my time in here," he joked. "I'm a bingo-holic."

Outside the bingo hall Wednesday night, traffic noise washed across Midtown's cold concrete, the fluorescent mini-marts and the office buildings that cut black shapes into the sky. Inside, under the fake spider webs, plastic goblins and Halloween banners, were kuspuks and kerchiefs and greetings in Yupik. Gregory waved to a sister, a cousin, and a handful of other relations seated down the way. He was far from his village but there, with a stack of bingo sheets, he felt at home.

After long days at AFN meetings about politics and fuel shortages, the city's bingo halls are busy stages for reunions. Generations mingle. Old friends find each other. Everybody tries their luck for 50 cents a sheet.

Steven Borcherding, Gold Cache's general manager, has traveled the state visiting tiny village bingo games in far-flung high school gyms and multipurpose rooms.

"It's like soccer or football," he said. "Wherever you go, you know it's the same. Bingo is bingo. It's a very familiar thing to do. It's a little bit of home in the big city."

Bingo doesn't have the best reputation. Some people criticize elders for using their fixed monthly income to gamble. There are stories about people going into debt to get their bingo fix. Borcherding counters that most people spend the same amount every time they come. It gets older people out of the house. Socializing and watching numbers keeps them sharp. It's a lot better than going to a bar, he argues.

And, once in a while, there's a windfall.

Alice Zackar, also in from Iguigig, stacked her sheets at a nearby table. At 76, she's a bingo nut, often staying for the late-night session everybody calls "rama." Wednesday she wielded a dauber with her daughter, Marie Zackar. Marie usually doesn't play; she just gives her mother a ride. But it was a special occasion because of AFN.

"So far there is probably more than 10 people in here we know," she said.

Recently Alice had her luckiest night ever, winning $2,000. She spent it mainly on food to bring back to the village, her daughter said.

Aside from bingo, conversations at Gold Cache were about shopping, trips to Wal-mart in particular, for diapers and canned milk and rice. Everybody hoped they'd take home a little extra cash, something to ease the costs at home that keep going up.

Over at another table Sheryl Stepetin played with her mother, Jennie Webster, in from Akutan, and her uncle Thomas Stepetin, an Akutan fisherman who recently moved to Anchorage for health reasons.

"If you want to talk to anybody you go to bingo and meet 'em," Webster said.

"I've run into relatives here I don't even know," Sheryl Stepetin said.

Thomas got to holler "Bingo" recently and took home $300.

"About what he put in," his sister said.

And then things went quiet. The game had started. People shuffled into their seats with plates of chili nachos and apple pie. A television flashed a picture of a bingo ball plucked from the hopper.

"G-46," said a voice on the intercom.

Over at his table, Gregory ran his dauber over his sheets, letting the ink kiss selected frames. He hadn't won in a long time.

Why keep coming?

"Killing the time, maybe," he said. And seeing friends. Bingo, it seemed, was just part of life.

"Sometime you win," he said. "Sometime you don't."

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