Clouds of cigarette smoke wafted over dozens of long tables in the smoker’s section of Ben White Bingo on a recent Tuesday evening.
A sense of bewilderment can wash over newbies as they walk into another world with its own secret language. “Last of the Whoppers! Hi-Ho Silver!” employees called out periodically as they sold additional games to bingo players. The serious ones hauled their own bingo bags packed with an arsenal of colorful daubers ready to mark paper bingo sheets.
In the shadow of the rumbling Highway 71, the bingo parlour is among about a dozen that often get overlooked on endless lists ranking the city’s top hot spots. Although some local bars embrace the old-school game by adding contemporary twists like free shots or pooping chickens, at classic bingo halls like this it can feel like stepping back in time.
While playing there meant a family night out for some, others got down to bingo business. The sprawling room grew quiet and players silenced phones as the caller began the evening’s games. With a cigarette in one hand and a green dauber in the other, a woman in a red T-shirt concentrated on the caller’s announcements, making sure she didn’t miss anything. Focus. B-11. Dab. Pick up speed. I-17. Dab.
Big money was on the line, after all, with games worth between $400-$700. “Bingo!” said an older woman who surrounded herself with three bingo computer screens, bingo sheets and a pink, green and red dauber. “I’m about to come give you a hug and grab some of that luck,” said a man sitting at the table across from her. “It looks like someone threw darts at my screen.”
A chorus of rips echoed through the hall as players tore out used sheets in their bingo booklets, revealing a clean sheet and another chance. “Three Whoppers left!” an employee yelled as she made her rounds across the smoking and non-smoking sections.
“OK, we’ve got some birthday shoutouts,” the caller announced. Cheers erupted from the mix of seniors, young families and middle-aged Austinites. It was also customer appreciation day, and the players broke out in applause when they learned that the evening’s free dinner of pork tenderloin, stuffing and green beans might become a regular offering.
As the evening’s first series of bingo games drew to a close, winners and losers hit the snack bar before another round of late-night playing.“Don’t forget to get your Lickety Quick and Texas Bug Zapper!” the caller shouted from his elevated seating area overlooking the full house of players hoping luck would be on their side that night.
Austin Snapshots, an occasional short feature, highlights stories from unconventional spots in the city. For this first installment, we see what it’s like to play at one of Austin’s bingo halls. Tips on where to check out next? Contact email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
2101 W. Ben White Blvd. 512-440-7475, benwhitebingo.com. Open daily. Call time starts at 7:15 p.m.