Monday Night/A Loser’s Game

So senior citizens are doing it a lot, apparently.

With enough frequency and wrinkled reckless abandon that someone thought a Public Service Announcement had to be made. To let them know that the “Golden Years” didn’t have to include STDs.

Enough that both my parents, sneaking up on 60, seem to know all about it, via Fox or CNN or no thanks I’m very much done with that thought process.

And SURPRISE, my production company was having trouble getting enough “talent” for the nationally-broadcast spot. I mean, what self-respecting elderly gent doesn’t want to be in a commercial telling his peers to be careful and use contraceptive when he hobble-sneaks off with a lucky filly as the local middle schoolers come in to sing in the TV room? Most, is the answer.

So I get a call early Tuesday morning, just about the second I sit down with a yawn. Now, I’d sort of asked for this; I had made it clear how hold-the-desk-to-keep-from-falling funny I thought this spot was going to be, and how much I’d love to be on set for the shoot. The phone rings and I get an unusually cheerful producer on the phone letting me know that we were low on talent for the upcoming shoot. 

“Yikes. Casting didn’t go too well?”

“Nah, hard to find old people with a sense of humor.”

“Mmm. What can I do for you this morning? The bosses aren’t in yet, but-“

“Called for you.”

“Oh, alrighty, what can I help with?”

“Casting.”

“Casting?”

“Yeah, tonight.”

“Oh, ok, cool… alright, where am I going for the session?”

“Bingo.”

“No, WHERE am I going for this?”

“To Bingo, Rob.”

And so it was that I found myself at 8pm that very night, gripping the steering wheel in the parking lot outside a rather popular bingo game in East Los Angeles, a stack of casting flyers on the seat next to me advertising for “feisty and vivacious seniors.” I was meant to infiltrate the game, spy out the lively-looking coffin fodder (the older and more “diverse” the better I’d been told) and see if I could convince them this commercial would be fun.

After middle school, I was fairly certain I would never experience the feeling again, but lo and behold, as I walked into the large, tiled, buzzing-halogen-lit room and every pair of sunken eyes looked straight at me, I not only saw no seat to sit in, but no one who would want me at their table. I hid the flyers behind my back immediately, and in a sort of shock, ambled to what seemed to be the front desk.

The man there was nice enough to agree to let me advertise for the commercial, but he warned me, there weren’t too many seniors there. I smiled because duh old people and bingo. I then realized he wasnt smiling, stopped smiling and turned around. And there weren’t. The serious, dead-eyed-stares were coming mostly from 35-60 year olds, very seriously hunched over their bingo boards. I managed to find a table in the back with very few people and picked up a cup of coffee. I don’t really drink coffee after 10 am. I put some powdered Coffeemate in there. Don’t need/like Coffeemate. I was doing a lot of things I didn’t usually do tonight. People eventually stopped staring, and I got a chance to look around.

It was the gambling crowd. Think slot-machine addicts in the Vegas airport. Think the largest change purse you’ve ever seen attached to a hip. Think odd wrinkles, six empty styrofoam cups, and a gift for mumbling without saying words. Life seemed to have given most of these people a decent thrashing. Most of them were still in their work clothes, be it scrubs, food service uniforms or the signature floral dress of public school librarians. They all shared this glum half-smile, like they were daring the bingo caller to call their numbers.

Bingo is a loser’s game. I don’t mean “loser” as in what the bully called you and your friends, but “loser” as in you spend almost all of your time losing and there isn’t really a way to win. If, by astronomical odds you’re the one who does win, no one is happy for you. You’ve won the game and lost all good will. There is a sense of community around the losers, the people who never win and can gripe together. In fact, that was the main sense of camaraderie I saw. When “bingo” was called, there is a collective groan and people commiserate over the numbers they needed to win. It’s a little contest on the side. People will laugh and smile and point at their cards and say “this close!”

After a while, I forced myself to walk around and talk to a few people between games. I handed out the flyers, and not a single one wanted to hear what the project was about. They saw the money we offered, took the paper, and mumbled something about easy money. Or not being old enough. Or about how their cousin was Wes Anderson. I got to my quota of 3 hopefuls and got the hell out.

After all, I was playing a loser’s game myself, and it was way more fun to lose and leave with some good will intact.