After I was laid off from my job as a technical writer at Sun Microsystems in 2004, I started but soon abandoned a blog called Outsourced, Off-shored. This story is from that blog. In the east coast where I’d grown up and in the midwest where I’d raised my children none of the churches I attended had Bingo nights. But, as I found out one night after I got laid off at fifty-nine from the job that had brought me to the San Francisco Bay area in 1989, many churches and other types of organizations are still using Bingo nights as fund raisers.
Posted by Roseanne T. Sullivan to Outsourced, Off-shored at 3/2/2004
A large permanent sign on the corner of the fence around the church parking lot announces: Bingo Monday Nights in big red letters. The name of the parish and the Mass and Confession times are in smaller black letters below.
I decided to volunteer to help at the parish Bingo for the first time that Monday night, because I couldn’t concentrate on any of the things I had to do at home. I had expected a call for a second interview for a job at Santa Clara county by Sunday night, but no call came. The wife of one of the County Commissioners had told me about the opening, so I thought having that connection would help my chances.
It was a writing position, and although I hadn’t any directly related experience, I thought my many years as a technical writer in the computer industry and my M.A. emphasis writing might impress the manager, and that he might agree my skills were transferable.
Monday noon I had gone shopping for a tape recorder to use for interviewing subjects for articles I was planning to start writing again as a freelancer for notoriously low- or no-paying Catholic publications. As long as I had the time, I was planning to write more about the things I really cared about. And if I got the county job, my work day would be limited, as it had not been at Sun, and so I’d be more free to do freelance writing at home in the evenings. That, at least, was the plan.
At the store, I picked up last Thursday’s paper, which was lying around on a counter, and I found that Santa Clara county would be laying off twenty-one hundred people. The commissioner in whose office the position is open was quoted in his role as the current chair of the Board of Supervisors. And he spoke about how they were going to have to spread the pain around to the various county agencies.
“Aha,” I thought, “maybe that’s why I didn’t hear anything. They may not be able to fill that position now.”
Just before I left the house in the evening on my way over to the church hall to help at Bingo, I saw an email from a Sun tech writing group manager that I know from another division than the one that laid me off. She thanked me for sending my resume and promised to look it over. Couldn’t be more noncommittal than that. I’d heard that Sun managers weren’t hiring people laid off in any of the last seven rounds of layoffs. Even though the official line was that layoffs were under the guise of needed staff reductions, and that hiring managers were encouraged to hire from those who had been let go, the reality was that being one of the laid off workers put your qualifications in the shade.
Every time I had made it past one of the layoffs, I joked I was glad I was a survivor, like one on the TV show by that name, but after the seventh layoff my new joke was I’d been voted off the island.
The parking lot was full of bingo-players’ cars. I parked on the street and made my way into the low-roofed utilitarian and rickety parish hall, which was probably built in the 1970s, and was not aging well. The hall stood behind the much more attractive small Italianate basilica-style church, whose cornerstone had been laid in 1920.
The games had already begun. In a big room with a polished wood floor surrounded by bleachers that had done double duty as a basketball court before the school had closed, long rows of tables were lined with bingo players. Many of them seemed to be regulars; they were equipped with translucent bingo daubers of varied colors, and cups and plates full of snacks. Some set up special stands for multiple bingo cards they played at the same time.
On the way in, I noticed Brother Lude wearing a carpenter’s apron over his black shirt and pants, and, as usual he was wearing his Roman collar. Brother runs the Catechism program in the former school building and puts his hand to almost everything else around the parish, except the sacraments. He works the Bingo Night every week with help from parishioners, and he’s so popular with everyone that when he graduated from the diocesan Institute for Leadership in Ministry, Bingo was shut down for the first Monday night in anyone’s memory, and all the players and volunteers went to the Cathedral to cheer Brother Ludie when he got his certificate from the bishop.
As you can imagine, a lot of jokes are made about his name, but when I looked it up, Lude turned out to be a popular name in Malta, where his family originated. It’s a variant of Louis.
And his name sadly kind of fits the jokes. He’s a flirt, with both sexes. Women and men almost universally seem to be attracted to his swarthy face and his good head of curly black hair. I soon figured out he was selling tickets based on his charm. “Oh Brother Ludie, come over here. I want to buy my tickets from you. You bring me luck.”
To keep my mind off my dislike of the outrageously flirtatious religious brother and the sinking feeling I had about my job hunt, I sold Wild Tic Tacs and Popeyes for $1 each, hawking them up and down the crowded rows of tables, between the rounds of bingo. Tic Tacs and Popeyes are pull-tabs. If you get the right symbols to line up, you win whatever amount of money is stamped on the hidden area that is revealed when you pull the tab away.
A snack bar set up on a card table between bleachers did a good business in hot dogs, nachos, cookies, candy bars, and soft drinks. What looked like pieces from a leftover birthday sheet cake, with thick, yellow frosting roses, unnaturally green frosting leaves, and white piping, were presented on paper desert plates, covered in Saran Wrap, and to my mild surprise the pieces of leftover cake were selling briskly.
As one might expect from the sedentary nature of this form of recreation, and the high calorie snacks, most of the players were overweight. Not that I should talk. Technical writing, which I’d been doing since 1985, is another sedentary occupation.
Two of the women working the snack bar were from the Italian Mass. I thought I could tell they were Italian speakers by the better cut of their clothes, and their hair styles. Italians born in this country often don’t have the same style sense as immigrants from the old country.
I introduced myself to one of the snack bar helpers, whose told me her name is Rosa. I asked if she is Italiano. Rosa corrected me nicely, saying, “Italiana.”
“Oh! Si! Si!” I exaggerated as I pounded my forehead. I had taken one semester of Italian before my one trip to Italy at the end of 1999, and I knew the difference, but I get flustered. I have a smattering of several languages, besides English and Latin, in order of fluency, French, Spanish, and Italian, and when I get flustered I forget everything I know. Or I answer in the wrong language. I was relieved that at least I didn’t say, “Oui! oui!” instead of “Si! Si!”
The parish schedules Mass in Italian once a week because the parish was first created in 1906 as a mission to serve the many poor Italian immigrants who lived in the neighborhood. At first, of course, the Masses at the mission church were in Latin, but after the Second Vatican Council the Latin was replaced with English and Italian.
Even though most of the younger generation Italian-Americans moved away, many of the septuagenarian, octogenarian—and some even-older Italians—who are still around attend the Italian Mass every week. And some come back from other neighborhoods around the South San Francisco Bay.
Some workers in the “Silicon Valley” high-tech industry along with many lawyers and other professionals have also been attracted to the neighborhood as I was by the number of well-kept, moderately priced Victorians and Craftsman-era bungalows and the chance to live in a mostly safe, pleasant neighborhood near the city’s downtown, but you don’t see the professionals at Catholic diocesan churches like this one, except for the odd exceptions like myself.
At some point, a missionary order of priests had come to serve the parish. The neighborhood’s changing demographics brought in Mexicans, Filipinos, and others from many varied national and economic backgrounds who own homes or rent. Spanish Masses and Spanish catechism classes were added to the schedule.
I noticed some of the Filipinos who volunteer for everything were around—they attend the English Masses—but I didn’t see any Latinos at the bingo.
Then I ran into Lolly, who I know because we both sing in the Italian choir. I’d joined in 2002 soon after I moved to the neighborhood, since I thought it would be a good way to improve my Italian and to get to know my neighbors. Lolly is a second generation Italiana in her late 60s, and she doesn’t speak Italian. I told her, “I just asked Rosa if she was an Italian guy!”
Lolly replied distractedly but pleasantly enough I should stick to English to stay out of trouble.
She was watching Brother Ludie sell pull-tabs, and she was toying with a silver ring with ten raised beads on it on the third finger of her left hand. I knew it’s a rosary ring, because I have one in gold just like that. The ten beads are to help you keep track of the ten Hail Marys in a decade of the rosary. Another time when we were comparing our rings after the Vietnamese choir director gave the gold one to me and other choir members on Mother’s Day, she had told me that Brother Ludie had given her silver rosary ring to her after her husband died, and she didn’t want to replace it with a gold one.
Helpers arrive at 5:30 every Monday, and the bingo doesn’t close down until around 10, so it’s a long evening. On a break from hawking pull tabs, I picked up a newspaper called the Bingo Bugle, North America’s Casino and Gaming Newspaper, Bay Area edition.
The Bingo Bugle lists all the locations for Bingo around the area, from American Legion posts to Cache Creek Indian Bingo to First Samoan Congregational Church. First Samoan? Interesting. Later I found that Samoans are one of the many ethnic groups the Bay Area is home to.
An ad for the Italian Men’s Club Bingo promised “The Best Gourmet Food in Bingoland.”
The paper was illustrated with many photos of gamers. One woman smiled back over her shoulder at the camera, and the caption told us that her name is Louise, and she plays bingo in Salinas nine times a week.
I told another one of the other volunteers, “There’s a woman here in the Bugle who plays bingo nine times a week.” She said, “Some of them here do that. Then they don’t have enough to pay their rent.”
A full page ad touted the 16th Annual Bingo Bugle World Championship Bingo Tournament and Gaming Cruise, starting at only $1,823. A column titled “Bugle Cruise News” told the story of one Edith Stults of Braintree, Massachusetts, who for years dreamed of taking the cruise but “felt that with a house to keep up and property to maintain, it was an expense she simply could not manage.” But Edith was sure that one day her chance would come. And it did. She’ll be going on this year’s cruise. “How did she do it? ‘Simple; I sold the house!'”
More Wisdom from Bingoland
Another column called “Bingo by Bessie” has a logo with a woman’s head, shoulders, and cleavage showing above her black and white shirt. Bingo numbers are floating around the cartoon woman’s thick, wavy, black head of hair. Bessie seems to be a philosopher of sorts.
“I see God has spoken again to a prominent minister of the Church. It now seems certain that Bush will be our next president or so says the chosen one. This news could really come in handy when it comes to saving money. If it’s all settled there is no need to contribute to the campaign fund of anyone. No need for any of the candidates to get out on the road. . . . Now if God said it, it must be true. . . . ”
Bessie continued, “I ask God for money a lot, like when the utility bills come due, or when I am playing Bingo or the slots, or when I vote for someone I really want to be elected.”
(Why Bessie would need money while voting is anybody’s guess. But probably she meant she asked for her candidate to win.)
“Sometimes God tells me to help others when I can hardly take care of my own needs, and I try to obey Him. I have heard that you get back tenfold, and so far God owes me millions in tenfolds.”
(Note to Bessie, maybe you would be able to take better care of yourself and others if you didn’t gamble money away?)
Bessie closed the column by saying that she didn’t believe the minister was right that the next election is “a done deal.”
“Sometimes I think, [sic] it is possible to mistake feelings for inspiration. I’ve done it. Like the time I was playing bunco and I thought God wanted me to roll the dice one more time.”
I don’t think she was trying to be funny with that last line, but I just had to laugh. Speaking of laughs, here is a meme from the Bingo Bugle World Championship Bingo Tournament and Gaming Cruise Facebook page. I think it says it all.
When I came back from selling my last four pack of Popeyes, I spoke for a minute with another Italian-American volunteer, Jo Amato, an 83 year old dynamo. She told me she only missed one week of bingo in thirty years, and that was after her husband Joe died three weeks ago. When I blurted out to Jo that I was feeling like a dope pusher, she gave me a big uncomprehending smile and edged away.
But no, really, I don’t think I can make myself go help out again there.
Another of the volunteers, Pat, a stocky greying blond guy in his 50s, one of the few Irish-Americans I’ve met at the church, had showed me how to sell the Wild Tic Tacs and count the money. He too seemed distracted. Without looking away from where Brother Ludie was playing the players, he told me that the bingo brings in $3,000 a week.
This way of making money to run the church plant and to pay the salaries is convenient for the pastor, Father Louis de Alteriis, a Brazilian with Italian forebears, who says in the pulpit, “I doh-ne like to ask for money.” One day, when Father de Alteriis was processing into the church for Mass, I was startled to see a gold bracelet poking out of the sleeve of his chasuble. This is a weird parish, I was starting to think at that point. Now I know for sure. Maybe it’s not weird, but if it’s normal, I don’t know what happened to the Church I thought I was coming back to. But that’s a whole other story.
My main point though is, isn’t it obvious that Bingo is the wrong way to fund a parish?
This weekly bingo probably started innocently enough. That’s how it generally goes with moral decision making. We start with small rationalizations and once the slightly wrong thing gets established in our thinking and gets structured in our routines, then the slightly wrong thing inevitably starts to grow familiar and accepted, and whatever expansions into more-wrong things that are associated with it also get covered under the initial rationalization. The original goal is lost sight of, and the enormity of the current evil is not seen because it has become a part of what we are used to, like the proverbial elephant in the living room.
What would Jesus do? People are asking these days. The question is an old one, by the way. Author Stephen Prothero in American Jesus noted that in 1897, the year my old Victorian house was built, a writer called Charles Monroe Sheldon wrote a book called In His Steps: “What Would Jesus do?”
I can state with certainty that Jesus wouldn’t be using his charisma to push pull tabs and bingo cards to addicted blue collar workers and retirees to raise money for his ministry.
When I had been trying out a lot of Protestant denominations on what turned out to be my way back to the Catholic Church, I learned that preachers aren’t ashamed of asking for money. They quote St. Paul, “The worker is worthy of his hire,” along with another verse from the Old Testament that says oxen should not be muzzled while they push the treadmill to grind the grain.
The general run of the mill Catholic tends not perform any religious observance unless it is binding under pain of sin. Since tithing is voluntary these days, that means it is not practiced by most Catholics. And most Catholics seem to have forgotten or were never taught that the precepts of the Church still apply, including this one, that Catholics must contribute to the support of the church.
Immigrant families used to give sacrificially, and from their sacrifices many beautiful dignified churches were built in Massachusetts where I grew up. And the generosity continued even to the next generation. I remember that my blue-collar family in the 50s used to put $1 in the collection plate, when $1 was the minimum hourly wage. And so I was appalled one Sunday when I attended Mass at a church in an upscale Bay Area neighborhood in the 1990s in an undignified church that looked like a motel from the outside and had folding chairs on the inside, to find out that even the well-to-do were still mostly donating dollar bills. After Mass, I asked an usher I knew to help me get change from the collection basket. “You can just give me a $10 bill and I’ll put this twenty in,” I told him. He scoffed, “It’s going to be hard to find a ten in this basket full of dollars.” And he was right, it took him a while.
Today, Tuesday morning, I opened yesterday’s mail. All my speculations about the reason I hadn’t heard from the county about the job would have been laid to rest if I’d looked at the mail when it first came yesterday. A letter from the man who’d interviewed me informed me that they had identified a number of other candidates who were a better match for the position than I am.
I was on the way out to daily Mass when I opened the letter, and I had to come back in the house to try to compose myself. The comfortable mental picture I painted about myself in that job flooded over me, and I had a hard time stopping my tears. I remembered how my Irish relatives in Boston always said that a government job is the best. It would have been temporary, but for the next nine months, as I had dreamed, I would have an interesting job, a respectable role in the community that I now call home, a two mile commute, a chance to learn about the county and to meet people and get more grounded. I looked forward hopefully to working in an office that was well-managed with a clear chain of command.
I had to continue to cry and pray through that loss in front of the Blessed Sacrament after Mass today.
With all the uncertainty about my future, all I can do is say, Jesus I put my trust in you.