Learning the lingo of bingo

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 16,2012

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Bingo has its own lingo. If you know what a "postage stamp," "six-pack," "Indian star" and "three the hard way" mean, you spend way too much time playing the game.

I learned this last week when I attended my first bingo game on the rez.

I had always been curious about the little bingo halls that dot Chinle Chapter, but because I wasn't sure how legal they were I didn't think they were appropriate hangouts for a high school teacher's wife.

Recently, I was invited to a game that supported a cause I believe in, and since it was for charity, I assumed it was legal. However, I've since gotten conflicting reports about that, so just to ensure nobody gets in trouble (including me), I've changed a few names and details.

I assumed I knew how to play bingo. When I was growing up, before kids would just plug into their iPods and tune out their parents on long car rides, my family had a "traveler's bingo" game where you could cross out squares if you saw, say, a fire truck or a Virginia license plate. In case that isn't dating me enough, the winner got an ice cream cone at the next Howard Johnson's.

Then, as a bored young single at my first job in Brigham City, Utah, I occasionally attended my church's weekly game to support the youth group or the women's auxiliary.

Seconds after walking into the Chinle game, I realized I was a rank amateur. It was like a 6-year-old who had taken a few ballet lessons was thrust into a professional production of "Swan Lake."

In the clapboard, dirt-floored bingo hall, the atmosphere was party-like. A homemade wood stove perfumed the air with juniper smoke. Kids played tag between the long folding tables, followed by a little black puppy, and elders clutched their cards, impatiently waiting for the calls.

I finally found a seat across from two women about my age. To protect the guilty, I'll call them "Millie" and "Tillie."

I seemed to be the only person in the whole room who had not brought supplies, other than money for the game. Everyone had cute, handmade cloth bags placed on the table in front of them.

It had not occurred to me you needed to bring stuff to bingo. I bought the $20 pack of cards to play all night, and took out a pen to cross out the squares when they called one of my numbers.

I flashed a friendly smile at Millie and Tillie. They appraised me critically. Tillie said something to Millie in Navajo that must have meant, "Shall we help this clueless bilagáana?"

Millie said something back that probably meant, "OK, but let's let her squirm a while first."

I looked at my thick stack of cards. In Brigham City, I had sometimes daringly played two cards at once. At this game, people were taking glue sticks out of their cloth bags and gluing together six, nine or 12 cards to play at the same time.

Millie reached across the table and glued six of my cards together. Tillie handed me what I later found out was called a "dabber." It's an instrument made specifically for marking bingo cards with one punch, basically a bottle of ink with a round stamp at one end.

The cloth bingo bags people had brought included several outer pockets for dabbers of different colors. In case one ran out? In case they got bored of one color? In case one dabber was unlucky? That, I never found out.

Anyway, my dabber was blue. I never would have survived crossing out squares with my pen because it takes way too long.

Though I'm not sure why, I've always considered myself a person with good eye-hand coordination. I'm lousy at sports, but I play a mean fiddle, and somewhere in Fort Collins, Colo., if they haven't taken it to the dump, is a Ms. PacMan machine that still lists Cindy Y's score as the one to beat.

I soon discovered, however, that I am absolutely hopeless at bingo.

When the caller said a number, I scanned my six sheets as quickly as I could and dabbed furiously, and still fell woefully behind.

Meanwhile, the Navajos seemed to think the caller was calling way too slow. They impatiently pounded their dabbers on the tables to hurry her along.

To compound matters, this was not your ordinary bingo, where you can shout "Bingo!" if you get a complete line. You had to watch for patterns like "postage stamp" (four squares covered in one corner), "four directions" (one square in the middle of each outside line) and "three the hard way" (three lines covered without including the free space in the center of the card).

For the first time in my life, I knew what it must feel like to be a person of normal intelligence burdened with a debilitating learning disability that makes everybody assume you're stupid.

If not for Millie, I might as well have just paid my $20 and left. She was somehow watching all nine of her cards and my six as well. After every call, she would dab all the spaces I missed.

It was she who noticed I had a postage stamp bingo, and called it out for me. I gave her the chocolate dog in the little Valentine's basket I won, even though it was the only decent candy in there.

I then provided everyone with a good laugh when it was my turn to draw a bingo ball out of the basket to see who won a cake.

"Ninety-nine!" I yelled, causing a burst of inexplicable hilarity.

Millie finally explained to me that bingo numbers only go up to 75, so it must have been a 66.

Over the course of the evening, I observed the contents of people's cloth bags so I would know what to bring if I ever played bingo again. They contain:

1. As many dabbers as you can possibly afford, each a different color.

2. A bag of Hot Cheetos.

3. A bottle of water, or perhaps some less benign liquid.

4. A glue stick for gluing cards together (so you can keep track of them better, I suppose).

5. Scissors for cutting apart the cards that remained blank after a game. Apparently the etiquette is to give these back to the family who is running the bingo hall, so they can re-sell them.

6. A tin of snuff (optional). ("To stay awake?" I asked Tillie. "For luck," she replied. She had also placed a penny on the table beside her cards, explaining that she had found it on the way in, so it must be lucky.)

Anyway, for an evening during which I felt incredibly stupid, it was pretty fun. I went home with a big chocolate cake I'm still picking at, and a stuffed monkey, if anyone wants one. I could have bought both for a lot less than $20, but it was for a good cause.

Tillie was having an off night, but on her way out, she scooped up the black puppy. The owner told her she was welcome to it if she wanted it.

"You should name it 'Bingo,'" I offered. "You know, 'B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-O'?"

Tillie looked at me like I was not only stupid but from some other planet. I guess she never went to summer camp.

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