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Help: Charity on 52nd Street
game. Nothing free. By Jeffrey Barg
by Candace diCarlo
in the air, the one word seems to have a bit of trouble making its
way through the dense cigarette smoke that fills the room. The stale haze,
so thick that all of the giant halls objects seem to have slightly blurred
and uncertain edges, puts the entire building into a carcinogenic time
warp. Four rows of identical booths run up and down the great hall, with
tired, worn-down wood countertops and slightly bent-out-of-shape cushioned
metal chairs occupied by women and men, young and oldalthough the great
majority are elderly womenall of whom also seem a bit tired and bent
out of shape. But for today, being out of the house and among friends
is enough to raise their spirits. And for a woman named Thelma, sitting
four seats from the far end of the third row, its more than enough, because
she just effortlessly picked her voice up from the table and pushed it
happily into the smoke-filled room, saying with sass the one word that
shes been waiting to say since she sat down, just two short hours ago.
Tucked away just
off the main drag of culturally vibrant but economically depressed West
Philadelphia, Market Hall Bingo does not appear, at first glance, to be
a locus of the communitys culture. Outside, along 52nd Street, lines
of trafficvehicular and humanmove fast when in a hurry but take it easy
when looking to make a little conversation or a little business. Gold-colored
plaques sunk into the sidewalk and strongly reminiscent of the stars along
Hollywood Boulevard proudly proclaim 52nd Street: West Phillys Main
Street. The street is not a lazy loitering ground where-everybody-knows-your-name,
but neither is it a fast-as-you-can anonymous thoroughfare. It is a crucial
artery of the city, where dollar-store owners and servers at greasy-spoon
diners and baby strollers and corner-sitting card-players and sidewalk
bootleg-movie vendors and neighborhood somebodies and busybodies and nobodies
all holler, grumble, and laugh in perfectly pitched harmony.
is a neighborhood where people care about and talk to their neighbors.
Drugs and crime are rarely overwhelming, but can sometimes grow debilitatingly
strong here, and neighbors need to keep each other informed as a basic
skill of survival. Luckily for the community, that cautiously friendly
care exists not just in times of crisis but in day-to-day conversations.
In addition to
the standard neighborhood soundtrack, the Market-Frankford El periodically
shrieks overhead, with passengers constantly arriving and departing. Amid
all this activity and commotion, the nondescript facade of Market Hall
between 52nd and 53rd on Market is hardly noticeable to anyone not looking
for it. But just as Market Street doesnt seem to pay any special attention
to the bingo games that go on for 12 hours a day, inside the Hall, the
outside world fades into the background as a woman sitting at the front
on a throne of aluminum and plywood captures the attention of dozens of
nothing free, declares the number caller at the start of the game. With
that, the rules are laid out, and seconds later, she is calling the numbers
fast and furious. Many more rules exist, such as the seven different ways
to win, but those are understood by the regulars, who give quick explanations
to the newbies.
The caller recites
the numbers into her microphone almost mechanically, giving each call
the exact same tone and vocal inflection. Around the room, the players
work frantically to keep up. This bingo is not just a game of called numbers;
this is a test of skill and stamina.
Any B, she
begins a new game, indicating that players can take any B as a free space.
G-54. B-7. I-18.
The more skilled
players, the ones who have been playing the longest, are usually detectable
by the number of boards they choose to play. Games cost as little as 25
cents for six cardswith each card containing two separate playing boards.
The most skilled players will play up to 12 cards at once, filling up
their entire tabletops. They need two hands, a great wad of bingo chips,
and near-superhuman skill to check each board for each number called,
lay out the appropriate chips, and then see if they have won any of the
seven possible ways.
Through and between
the games, the entire room rumbles with a constant, low chatter. People
talk mostly to either their neighbors or themselves, drifting in and out
of conversations just as they would walking along 52nd Street.
When a soft-spoken
girl says Bingo but is not heard immediately, other, more aggressive
voices rise up in her defense.
She called Bingo!
Did you get paid, girl? She better get paid.
To the newbies
around them, the regulars offer help and instructions on the unwritten
rules of Market Hall bingo. Just leave your money up there, and theyll
take away as you go. You can be playing two more cards, you know. Yeah,
you better get ahead of the numbers, because sometimes, she just start
And after theyve
been at it for a while, the regulars walk around to say hello to everyone.
Most of the names they know, but even those they dont still get a friendly,
How you doing?
If regulars dont
know someone, they stop to find out. Just being newsy, you know? explains
Kim, a bingo regular on a short break, before she continues her rounds
to greet each and every one of the 80 people playing bingo one Friday
In a conference
room off to the side of the hall with a long wooden table and comfortable,
swivel-seats, Pamela Williams needs to instruct guests as to which chairs
are broken and should not be used. Shes the executive director of the
West Philadelphia Free School Community, the non-profit charity organization
that runs Market Hall Bingo, and she helps to oversee the distribution
of funds that come in from the game back into community programs.
to bring families together, she says, stressing the word families
with a kind of pleading importance. Once we get them going, we can set
up programs where families mentor other families, and eventually, you
can galvanize a community. And were talking extended families, not just
husband and wife. All kinds of familiessingle-parent families, biracial
families, single-sex familiesas long as it feels like home.
While some bingo
players come to support the charity organization, most are there for the
game. Your basic bingo players dont know about the charity behind it
all, but the regulars are a part of the community, Williams says. Really,
they are the charity.
In her view,
the charity involved is not the bounty won from a lucky bingo card; its
the healthy nourishment and fulfillment reaped from interacting with members
of a great, extended family. Its not even the money that gets them here,
she says. Its recreationthey come to see people. People know they can
come here for a support group. They come for the fun, for the excitement.
They come just to be newsy.
As each winning
board is confirmed, rarely does a player scream out with joy. Rather,
the winner stays seated and enjoys a quiet, personal moment of victory,
perhaps exchanging words with someone seated nearby and slightly masking
a grin while moving onto the next game and becoming once again just another
player caught up in the constant flurry of action. The cash prizes awarded
are a bonus, but as with life passing on 52nd Street, no luck is reliable
enough to count on for too long. Instead, the players rely on each other
because they know that they can and they know that they must.
Barg is a senior history major from Philadelphia.
column | Sept/Oct Contents | Gazette
Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 8/24/01