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Those who pack the District’s bingo halls do everything possible

to seduce Lady Luck. D.C. bingo queen Vanessa Woodland does everything possible to curse her.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

The Wednesday-night charity bingo game at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family generally lasts for a pleasant two hours, carried along by friendly banter and good spirits. But on this Wednesday night in July, there’s some tension in the hall. Vanessa Woodland, the most dominant and loudest player in the room, hasn’t hit yet. And when this bingo champion is having a bad night, it’s best to stay out of her way.

One elderly gentleman, a bingo regular, forgets this rule and manages to annoy Woodland.

“Why you keep looking at my titties?” the 40-year-old Woodland asks him, loud enough for everyone in the church’s first-floor social hall to ponder the question. “You know you can’t touch them.”

He laughs, embarrassed, and mutters something under his breath, further increasing her exasperation. “I’m gonna kick the shit out of you. You are one irritating senior citizen,” says Woodland.

Most of the people in the church are now looking in Woodland’s direction. Knowing she has an audience, she soon sets in on one of the ushers: Vladimir, a young man from Lviv with rock-star ambitions. “You irritating as hell. You driving me crazy,” she tells him.

Vladimir responds, “You like me, don’t you?”

“These damn people are crazy,” Woodland sputters, and then begins calling him “Flatmoor.” As their sparring continues, half the room is snickering. The caller, interrupted from his N’s and G’s, looks in her direction.

Sitting on a stage in front of the hall, bingo callers act as both referees and MCs. They move the action along at their own chosen pace, and they start new games when they’re ready. When Woodland is in the room, though, she becomes a co-caller of sorts, leading the chorus of jeers when callers make a mistake, never hesitating to tell them whose schedule they should be following.

One night, the caller is ready to restart the games after the intermission, but a table of card players near Woodland is trying to finish up one more hand.

“Hold on—wait ’til they finish playing cards,” she orders.

The young caller looks around, uncertain how to proceed, and then decides that if Woodland is telling him to hold on, he’d better wait until she gives the all-clear.

Silence generally prevails during a bingo game, at least until controversy strikes. Local callers are perpetually urging the crowd to be quiet; one even asks players to turn off their cell phones before the games begin.

Woodland pays no heed to such proprieties. She talks whenever she wants, at whatever volume she chooses, and most of her comments are greeted with either peals of laughter or trash-talking.

“You’re miserable. You are miserable,” she yells at one man, whom she calls the Mayor of Bingo, during a card-game dispute. “It’s ’cause all his girlfriends are getting married.”

“Talk, talk, talk, talk,” she grouses as she listens to a group of women quietly discussing a television program. “That shit irritates me.”

She also holds sway over the ushers, who roam the halls and verify winning bingo sheets. They also sell $1 cards for the special games, which are mixed in between the regular games and have bigger prizes. One of her frequent targets is Mike Gross, a recruiter for the National Guard who works the floor at St. Martin’s Roman Catholic Church, another of Woodland’s regular haunts.

One night, Woodland takes three bingo sheets from Gross but refuses to pay for them. “C’mon, man, give me my money,” he pleads with her. “You can’t keep running on credit.” She pulls out a big stack of bills to show him she’s good for the money, but then puts it back in her purse and laughs.

“Why you giving me such a hard time?” he implores.

Woodland laughs again: “He’s stupid.”

Some of the ushers have taken to calling her the Bingo Queen. She prefers a more modern moniker: “I’m the Bingo Bitch.”

Bingo is an orderly game, with precise and nearly universal routines. A ball pops up into the caller’s desk. A number—say, “B-13″—will be called, and the number will light up on the huge, electronic screen at the front of the room. The players, most of whom are playing between six and 12 cards for regular games, will scan the “B” column of their five-by-five grids, looking for the number 13.

At some churches, regular games are played on cardboard mats; players slide red plastic windows over the numbers as they find them. At others, regular games are played on thin sheets of newsprint, each containing three bingo grids; players mark off each called number with a brightly colored bingo marker.

Bingo-hall markers are not the dull Marks-A-Lot varieties found in Office Depot. These markers are shaped like bears and Christmas trees and Santa Clauses. There are Speedo-wearing fat men and tuxedo-wearing cats and jack-o’-lanterns and volcanic eruptions whose lava turns into bright green bubble-gum-scented ink when you remove their tops.

After a pause—usually 10 to 15 seconds, which is inevitably too long for some players and not long enough for others—a new ball will pop up, and a new number will be called. Each number prompts a frenzy among bingo players, scrambling to mark their cards. Look around the hall and you’ll see only slight variations on the theme: Some enter the marks softly; others wield their markers like sledgehammers, soaking the newsprint with ink and staining the folding tables below. All players are locked in on their cards, paying careful attention lest they miss a number. Because bingo must be called immediately, if they miss a number, they might miss the jackpot.

Now look at Woodland. Sometimes she is eating a half-smoke. Other times she’s up at the concession stand, getting more sugar for her coffee. Or maybe she’s outside, taking an impromptu smoke break. If a game looks promising, she might run her finger up and down a bingo board, concentrating in short spells. Always, she is talking. Rarely during regular games will you find her marking her cards in any way.

Early in her bingo career, Woodland realized that she no longer needed to use normal marking devices to spot winners during regular games. And so she stopped.

Newcomers marvel at her skill—”Damn, look at her. She don’t mark her boards.” Her friends tell breathless tales of her exploits: “We can be playing blackout somewhere [where all 25 squares must be marked off to win], and they already called out 20 numbers, and she can come back and get caught up,” says Lisa Cobbs. “Yeah, she’s a good bingo player.”

Being “good” at bingo, though, is a bittersweet skill. For even if you can successfully monitor 80 or 100 bingo boards, your odds on each individual board don’t change. You can’t steal a bingo pot by bluffing your neighbors, and no amount of mental wizardry can change the numbers on your boards.

This, though, is what it means to be “good” at bingo: In local churches, regular bingo can be made in five different ways: a vertical line, a horizontal line, a diagonal line, four corners, or a postage stamp (a square of four numbers in any one corner). A single bingo board therefore has 17 possible winning combinations. Playing 15 boards, her minimum, Woodland is confronted by 360 numbers (not counting the free center spaces) and 255 possible winning combinations. She’ll sometimes play up to 15 newsprint sheets, which means 45 bingo grids and a staggering 765 winning combinations. Many regulars play this many boards, but hardly any do so without the aid of a marker.

“Vanessa don’t forget nothing, unless she wants to,” says her mother, Leola Reed.

And by keeping her cards blank, Woodland adheres to the bingo-hall superstition that your neighbors have the power to jinx possible winning numbers.

“It’s more comfortable for me,” she says, explaining that she memorizes her numbers. “If I went up to get me a soda and you took one of my boards, I’ll tell you which board you took.”

A bingo regular she calls Drunk Jimmy once took two of her boards while she was away from her seat. She noticed immediately and began hectoring him to return them. Finally, she went to get the security officers, identifying her boards by their corner numbers.

“Then when he gave me the boards back, he said, ‘I’m going to hell, ain’t I?’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘You sure are.’”

Woodland says there are two or three other D.C. bingo players who have the same ability, and all the regulars have tales of absurdly talented Maryland players who play 50 boards or more without using markers. But when I ask which players in the District are her equals, Woodland reconsiders. “I don’t know who. To be truthful, I ain’t never seen no one do it. I seen people play as many boards as me, but I ain’t never seen anyone do it like I do.”

So is she the best bingo player in town? “I don’t know nobody that can touch me.”

Which is why, if you ask a random D.C. bingo player to guide you to a championship-caliber player, odds are you’ll be pointed in Woodland’s direction. “She can play some bingo,” one woman exclaims. “I can’t keep up with all that.”

Woodland, though, professes to be unimpressed with her own skills. “I just want to win, I don’t give a damn.

I talked to people who said, ‘I ain’t never win,’” and I said, ‘Ooh, I would never come back.’ Why would you keep going?”

The first night she played bingo, an impudent 18-year-old girl tagging along to Our Lady of Perpetual Hope with a friend’s mother, she won a $1,500 blackout game. She loved playing, and she especially loved winning. Soon, she was playing several times a week, spending $25 a night. “I didn’t have no kids or nothin’, so I went to bingo. I kept winning, too.”

None of her five siblings were interested in the game, and her mother disapproved. “I was never interested in no bingo,” says Reed. “That’s a sin—you’re not supposed to gamble in no Catholic church. I don’t like it, but I can’t stop it.”

Woodland’s 16-year-old son, Kevin Adams, a junior at Cardozo High, is intrigued by the game, but he isn’t yet old enough to legally enter D.C. bingo halls. (You must be 18.) And her husband, Calvin Woodland Jr., doesn’t have much time for bingo. A well-respected assistant director of constituent services for D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, Calvin Woodland also moonlights as a drug counselor. They’ve been friends since she was 5—they grew up across the street from each other in Anacostia’s Woodland Terrace housing projects—and after years of off-and-on dating, they finally married in 1997.

Woodland’s nonbingo passion is her profession: cutting hair. After experimenting on neighborhood children in her early teens, she started working as a haircutter’s apprentice when she was 16. She’s followed her boss, William Jackson, as his stores have changed names and locations: The House That Jak Built, at 12th and F Streets NW; Jak & Co. Hairdressers, first in Chinatown, now on the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 1st Street NW.

Jackson, a gruff, wiry man who collects antique cars and curses incessantly, thought Woodland was a wild little girl, and he took her under his wing.

“She’s a pain in my ass, to be honest,” says Jackson. “When I met her, she was brash—she was not a nice person. She just did not have any social skills.”

“I was a bad little girl,” Woodland concurs. “He calmed me down. I thought he was mean when I first met him. He used to suspend me, but I wouldn’t care—I’d just come back to work anyhow.”

“I told you she was a brash little unsociable asshole,” Jackson interjects.

Within a few years, she had finished a program in cosmetology at the now-defunct D.C. Beauty Academy and had become a full-fledged hairdresser for Jackson. At the same time, her bingo game was rocking. She began playing every night of the week and attending two or three Maryland day games as well.

She spent up to $80 at every game, up to $800 a week.

The District proved fertile turf for her habit. Mondays she could play at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope in Anacostia, Tuesdays at Holy Comforter on East Capitol Street or Church of the Nativity on Georgia Avenue, Wednesdays at the Ukrainian Shrine in Brookland, Thursdays at St. Gabriel’s in Petworth or the Church of the Incarnation on Eastern Avenue, Fridays and Saturdays at St. Martin’s on North Capitol Street.

At most D.C. bingo halls, the standard game pays $100, specials pay between $125 and $200, and blackout specials pay either $500 or $1,000. Of course, if more than one player wins, the pot is split. The biggest-money blackout game is usually last, and no one leaves early.

For decades, local Catholic churches have milked the cash cow that is the bingo circuit. In 2000, according to the D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board, St. Martin’s netted $128,413.50 through bingo, which helps pay for computer classes, after-school programs, food and clothes

drives, and seven different 12-step groups. Bingo-sheet sales at the Ukrainian church helped build a new second-floor chapel, and future receipts will stock it with icons. D.C.’s nine currently licensed charitable bingo games netted more than $646,000 on gross receipts of more than $2.5 million in 2000; St. Martin’s was tops in both categories.

Woodland represents the District’s bingo demographic. The crowd that crams into Nativity and Holy Comforter and the rest consists overwhelmingly of African-American women. There is a small coterie of regulars who are Dominican, plus a few Hispanics. The Ukrainian game occasionally draws Catholic University students or elderly church members of Eastern European extraction. Typical crowds number between 125 and 175, with the handle increasing in the winter. Most churches report that the crowds used to be bigger; younger generations have failed to take the seats of aging bingo vets.

The game itself, of course, is a national pastime: In 2000, Americans wagered $4.2 billion on charitable bingo games and another $4 billion on small-stakes Indian gaming (primarily bingo and raffles), according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, a New York consulting company that specializes in gambling and entertainment.

Woodland, like the senior citizens who flank her in church basements, is part of D.C.’s bingo yesteryear. Before the passage of a 1980 lottery referendum, bingo was illegal in the District, so bingo fanatics like Woodland journeyed to Maryland every day for their fix.

The Maryland bingo halls made it easy: Free chartered buses would pick up bingo players in the District and ferry them to the big-money fire halls, American Legion buildings, and professional bingo parlors of P.G. County. Woodland became part of the tight-knit, hard-core group of bingo nomads and won the admiration of her compatriots with her knack for tracking numbers. She was quickly beset by offers to pitch in with “hush partners” (short for hustle partners, according to Woodland), parties to a popular pooling arrangement in which die-hard players team up and share at least a portion of their pots. “And they all be wanting to be mine, and I say nuh-uh,” she says. “They say, ‘Vanessa, I want to be splitting with her,’ and I say nuh-uh.” (Woodland now has two regular hush partners.)

She has tried and rejected other forms of gambling. She doesn’t like casinos, and she claims she grew bored with the high-stakes games of tonk she used to attend. (Two-dollar-ante games of tonk, a fast-moving card game in the rummy family, sprout up before the bingo starts at every local bingo night; Woodland often participates.)

Bingo, though, hasn’t lost its appeal, especially because she keeps winning. A few years ago, she won blackout specials three times in two consecutive weekends, earning $1,500. Last year, she won a $2,500 megabingo blackout at the Ukrainian game. (Megabingo, held after intermission at the Ukrainian game, connects players from bingo games around the country via satellite to compete for large pots.)

One night at the Ukrainian Shrine, she tells me she made $700 that same afternoon at a different bingo game, having won four separate pots. I ask why she would play again after such a successful day session.

“‘Cause that mean your streak is on.”

But doesn’t it ever get boring?

“I’m bored right now.”

So why keep coming?

“To win. ‘Cause I need the money.”

Surely, I say, there must be a more effective way of making money than playing bingo.

“Probably,” she says. She thinks some more, then exhales cigarette smoke. “Bingo is my only outlet—from working, cooking, cleaning. You know how some people go to the gym?”

The bingo literati have scores of hints for winning at bingo, but they certainly don’t recommend playing the game by memory, as Woodland does. Instead, their advice mostly focuses on ways to defeat the poor odds that keep bingo players in the red and churches in the black.

Self-help bingo books are fairly limited and scarcely scientific. Roger Snowden’s 1979 Bingo!: Winning Is the Name of the Game offers not only bingo hints, but also “a fast look at mystical roads to good fortune,” such as pyramidology and astrology.

“Strip down and take a good look at yourself in the mirror,” Snowden urges his readers. “If you are pleased with what you see—and your body is surging with energy, then proceed with this book—if not, lay it aside for a couple of months and concentrate on making friends with yourself.”

After debunking the “totally misleading” stereotype of poorly educated, elderly female bingo players, Snowden comes out with some of his winning strategies: Find the games with the biggest purses, never bet more than you could win in the lowest-stakes game of the night, always put your biggest investment in the high-stakes games, and so on.

According to Snowden, bingo is a physical and mental challenge. Winners “are loaded with energy and ready to go. This is very tough to do if you’re overweight and your muscle tone is lousy.” (Woodland disagrees: “I don’t believe that—I work out every day, but I don’t win every day.”)

And “winning at Bingo, or at any game of chance, requires the same ‘intention of winning’—the same total effort that Vince Lombardi injected into his Green Bay Packers,” according to Snowden.

“Now, what about the people who think they’re gonna win but they don’t? What do you say to that?” Woodland wants to know. “I go in there all the time saying I’m gonna win, but I don’t.”

Snowden also urges even his physically and mentally fit readers to “beef up your Vitamin B Complex intake prior to any serious capital risk decisions,” to nourish a strong heart and calm nerves.

Avery Cardoza’s 1991 The Basics of Winning Bingo, a slim offering from the Gambling Research Institute, promises to show readers “how to play and win in one easy sitting.” The “Winning Approaches,” however, don’t offer much to the enterprising bingomaniac. “There are many approaches one could take to try to turn the odds of the game in one’s favor,” Cardoza writes, “but basically it boils down to the fact that one needs to catch the right card…”

“Exactly,” Woodland concurs. “Now that’s what I believe.”

Like Woodland, D.C.’s regulars are mostly resigned to the fact that bingo is a game of chance, a random spinning of the roulette wheel, a lottery. Virtually every regular player also plays the lottery religiously—winning numbers are usually announced before the games start or at intermission. Most regulars also buy handfuls of the $1 break-open paper slots that are hawked at every bingo game.

Unlike those who win the lottery, bingo winners aren’t anonymous truckers in Wisconsin or a group of friends in Iowa. Bingo winners are tangibly in front of you, at the next table over. You can watch your friend walk away from a game carrying a stack of bills. Perhaps it is this proximity that has always caused such an intense devotion to the game. Indeed, the idea of bingo “addiction” has existed since the organized game’s earliest days. Edwin Lowe, a traveling salesman who in 1929 discovered a game at a rural Georgia carnival in which called numbers were marked with beans, later remembered that the players “were practically addicted to it. The pitchman wanted to close up, but…the players simply wouldn’t budge.”

Lowe, who also popularized Yahtzee, brought “beano” back to New York City, where it met with the ardent approval of his friends. When one of Lowe’s friends, in her excitement at a winning card, accidentally stuttered, “B-B-B-B-Bingo!” the modern bingo age began. The game quickly spread, as churches and community organizations discovered its saving-grace potential as a fundraiser.

The game’s rainmaking magic claimed its first casualty: Columbia University math professor Carl Leffler. When Lowe’s original set of playing cards proved insufficient for large-scale church fundraisers, Leffler was commissioned to create 6,000 unique bingo cards. It was a computerless age, and the task cost the professor his sanity. “When it was over the old man didn’t make sense anymore,” Lowe would later say.

As the game’s popularity soared, the idea of bingo addiction persisted: A 1957 issue of the New York Times Magazine described middle-aged women “afflicted with ‘bingoitis’—they can’t get enough….Obviously, there are many women who could not get along without their weekly bingo.”

And the stigma endures to this day, even in the relatively low-stakes District games. “They’re addicted to it,” says Anita Brown, an occasional player. “They’re like people who eat too much, or shopaholics, or alcoholics.”

One seven-day-a-week regular who has played bingo up and down the Eastern seaboard—in New Jersey and Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina—says bingo is relaxing recreation, but she also says she can’t stop.

“Trust me: People who do it like I do, it’s an addiction. We’re addicted to bingo. If I stay home and don’t go out for bingo, I’m frustrated, I’m upset, I don’t feel good.”

Sometimes she takes a bus to afternoon games in Delaware, gets back to Washington around 6 p.m., and heads straight to another game. Her family, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t understand her hobby.

“Oh, they talk about me behind my back,” she says. “‘She’s at bingo’—like an alcoholic—’she needs to go to AA. She needs help.’”

She then pulls from her purse a battered booklet in which she’s meticulously recorded her monthly winnings from the past three years. In 1999, according to this booklet, her winnings totaled $9,777. In 2000, she made $6,747. Last year was a good one: She averaged more than $1,000 in monthly prizes, at one point running off a DiMaggio-esque streak of 16 consecutive winning days.

“I don’t expect to win every night,” she admits, “but when I come into a hall, my secret is I claim it. I claim the game. I say I’m gonna do it, and I do.”

It sounds good, until I find out that she usually spends at least $60 a night playing bingo. That’s something in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year—which means she is actually losing several thousand dollars a year playing bingo.

Woodland knows all the regulars, and she’s heard the talk of bingo addiction. “I felt that way before. Like, ‘Damn, I want to go to bingo.’” Within the past year, however, she decided to cut down on her habit. “You know how you just telling yourself you got to control something? I used to live for it. But it’s a new year. I still go, but not like before. I just got my mind together, cooled off.” Now, she says, she limits herself to four nights a week: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

A smoker for the past three years, Woodland has struggled with addictions other than bingo. “I know I am [addicted to nicotine]. I’m not in denial,” she says. Her mentor, Jackson, is trying to quit smoking, and one day in the salon, she accosts him: “Jak, give me some of that medicine to make me stop smoking.” Her assistant, Yashica Jackson, tells Woodland she’ll need to go to a class in addition to taking pills. “I ain’t going to no class, shit,” Woodland decides. “I asked this woman—I said, “What made you stop [smoking]?” and she said, ‘God put this desire in me,’” she mimics, in a husky, quivering voice. “I said, ‘Shit, why ain’t He give me none yet?’”

“‘Cause He ain’t ready yet,” her assistant opines.

A few minutes later, Woodland says she’s thinking about going to bingo tonight, to pull down some extra cash for a designer pocketbook she’s been eyeing. It’s a Tuesday.

There is a regular refrain of bingo dissatisfaction, and Woodland is its loudest mouthpiece: The callers are either malicious crooks or witless fools, the venues are terrible, the ushers are malingerers, the pots are too small, the newcomers are uncouth and horribly lucky. And if she isn’t winning, the refrain crescendos.

On a recent Friday night at St. Martin’s, Woodland wins two regular games, pocketing a bit less than $200 after she settles with her partners. The next night, at St. Martin’s again, starts normally. The first of the month has brought a large crowd, which will swell the prizes for the winner-take-all and 50/50 games. Some players are eating fish dinners, fried chicken, and slices of sweet-potato and blueberry pie, and others are playing the low-stakes early-bird games. Woodland, meanwhile, is calmly gluing her sheets together for the first special of the night—the winner-take-all, letter-H special.

But Woodland’s mood quickly sours when the game starts. Her boards prove unlucky, and a green player wins $602 on the letter H. The woman commits an unpardonable sin in the eyes of bingo-hall regulars. Waving her sheet in the air, she yells, “Bam! Bingo! Bam!”

Woodland shakes her head in disgust. “Now that’s when you haven’t done nothing before. I mean, really!” she says.

Regular bingo players maintain their equilibrium even when they win. They calmly intone “Bingo,” raise their hands, and wait for one of the ushers to come verify their winning cards. The veterans will razz their friends about their clothes, their card-playing abilities, and their love lives. Celebrating after a bingo victory, though, is rare. “You know I don’t scream,” Woodland says. She’s right: When she wins, she shows little emotion, calling out “Bingo” just loud enough to stop the action.

“Give me one, David,” Woodland yells to the usher, buying a card for an upcoming special game. She looks at her cards. “Now look at this shit.” A player wins the 50/50 round robin, in which participants must form a “small picture frame” consisting of the eight numbers that border the center space. The caller announces that the victor has won $209. “Two-oh-nine?” Woodland says in disbelief. “It should be more than that.

“This is so irritating,” Woodland sputters, as her bad luck continues. “Damn. Shit. This is terrible. Damn, I need to win. Please let me win. That bitch is gonna kill me,” she concludes, turning on the middle-aged gentleman caller.

Bingo callers must be a thick-skinned and quick-witted lot, because they’re constantly belittled and mocked by frustrated players. Bad numbers are blamed not on the fates, but on the person who calls them out. After nearly every call, someone will be grumbling, “This man just hates me,” or “Don’t you keep B-in’ and O-in’,” or “What am I gonna do with that man?”

The caller at St. Gabriel’s plays cards with the bingo players before the games begin. The young floppy-haired caller at the Ukrainian church says he wishes he could be out on the floor trying his luck. And the Friday-night caller at St. Martin’s doesn’t particularly care for the game. One of the most charismatic local callers, Ferrell Randall from the Tuesday-night game at Nativity, began a yearlong bingo vacation last summer. He first announced that the Nativity game would cease in his absence. “But the father came the next week and said, ‘Oh no, like children need shoes, my children need this bingo game,’”one regular told me.

At St. Martin’s, Woodland’s luck hasn’t improved, and a group of players she doesn’t know goes on a winning streak. One calls bingo. “Oh, whatever,” Woodland snarls. “These damn new people keep winning. You can tell by the way they holler—they be all hyper.”

Another wins. “Why don’t you let some regular people win?” Woodland mutters. “You all are getting on my nerves.”

And a third. “See, we got a lot of new people because it’s the first of the month, so they get their welfare checks and come on out,” Woodland concludes, sotto voce. “You won’t see ’em here next week. There’s only about eight I don’t know—the ones who keep winning.”

The bingo regulars all know each other—if not by name, then at least by home court. One of the winners “don’t come down here much, she sure don’t,” Woodland tells me. “She go to Nativity.” Sometimes, bingo games feel more like family reunions than gambling gatherings: Players discuss their friends and families; birthdays are announced; the crowd sings.

Woodland stops Gross and gets three cards for the double-postage-stamp special. “Here you go, baby,” Gross says. “And stop trying to say it all sexy, you little bitch,” she answers.

“These are the worst numbers I ever heard,” she says during the next game. Bingo is called. “Now who the hell is that? OK, I’m gonna get mad now. Oh, Lord. This shit is terrible. This shit is ridiculous. David, give me something,” she says to one of the other ushers. “Give me an X or something. Give me an X and a blackout.”

The ushers, unlike the vast majority of the players, are almost always church members. David Richardson, who belongs to St. Martin’s, works the floor there on Fridays and Saturdays, and also works Tuesdays at Nativity, where his niece goes to school. “I’ve been here since I was 16, so I’m used to it now,” he says. The ushers are crucial to a night’s success. If one falls sick, the players raise a ruckus. Recently, when St. Gabriel’s was short-staffed (with only two ushers), Woodland took it upon herself to verify a neighbor’s winning card. As players shouted about how unprofessional the game was becoming and the caller and the head usher exchanged pointed comments, Woodland sat back down, saying, “That’s a goddamn shame.”

We’ve reached the big blackout finale at St. Martin’s. Because this is the first Saturday of the month, the prize will be $1,000. Woodland has now spent $74 and has nothing to show for it. “I ain’t never been not set up in a bingo in my life,” she says dejectedly. (A player is “set” when one more number will make her the winner.) “This is miserable. Damn, I hate this place,” she says, although St. Martin’s is her favorite place to play. As the 57th number is called, Woodland, knowing it’s too late for her to make a comeback, crumples up her 10 sheets and stands up to leave. “Terrible,” she says.

The pre-Thanksgiving game at St. Gabriel’s is special for two reasons: The Thursday-night game goes on hiatus for the next two weeks, and tonight, instead of $5 door prizes, the church will be giving away five 16-pound turkeys. The women around me exchange greetings: How was your week? How’s everyone doing? Did you see that Michael Jackson program?

My neighbor, Alberta Merriwether, says hi to what seems like half the 130 people in the room. A pre-K teacher who plays just once a week, she gives me the nonfanatic’s reasons for playing bingo: “For me, it’s strictly recreation. I like the socializing aspect of it, because people are friendlier in here. If I came just to win, I’d have stopped years ago,” she says.

The woman at the end of the table has laid out her cardboard bingo cards over an empty 4-foot area, trying to save Woodland’s place. But the game is about to start, and she reluctantly takes her boards away, wondering where Woodland is. Another player, apparently unaware of what she’s doing, takes that seat. The game starts.

Woodland appears 20 minutes late, toting a half-smoke, 15 bingo boards, and a frown. “I’ll call y’all when I’m not coming,” she huffs, trying to make her boards fit into the condensed area she’s left with. She’s also irritated that there won’t be a game the week after Thanksgiving. “Now what holiday is on the 29th?” she wants to know. Mild-mannered Merriwether says, “It was quiet ’til you got here.”

Woodland replies by singing, “I just got to be me.” Merriwether snorts, “You are one sick girl.”

I tell her that her friends were worried when she was late.

“These aren’t my damn friends—these are my bingo associates. Ain’t none of them my damn friends, ’cause when they win, they’re not giving me any. They’re here to gamble and win money, just like me.” Then she tries to convince me that one of her “associates” is an outpatient from St. Elizabeths.

I ask her again why she still plays, and today she replies, “To support the church.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.