Nine men, two with beards, glammed-out in more make-up than a band of prostitutes, twirling in nun outfits like delicate tranny swans -- it can mean one of two things: either I'm having my recurring bearded-nun dream or Gay Bingo is at it again.
Having seen sparse turnouts at every event I've attended in Charlotte -- with the exception of the welcome-back-the-Panthers bus party and the G-Love concert -- I was surprised nearly 800 people showed up for the RAIN (Regional Aids Interfaith Network) fund-raiser. At the first gay bingo night in 2000, the goal was to raise $3,000. Now in its seventh and final season, the organization has raised more than $600,000 during its six bingo nights a year. There are only two more nights (one on April 7 and another May 5) before organizers say gay bingo goes away forever.
For uptight Charlotteans, gay bingo comes with a disclaimer: "This isn't your grandma's bingo." Each night has its own theme and intermittent themed performances throughout the night. (The dancing nuns were for Sound of Music bingo). Other rules: A straight line can never win, numbers are called at a maddening pace and everyone in the building must celebrate all callings of O-69. If you don't stand up, scream and spin around, the sassy host, Shelita Hamm, will single you out for ridicule.
Shelita, with her '50s beehive and black, plastic-framed glasses, can be cruel. She rattled off sassy one-liners all night long. Shelita told one woman she resembled Janet Reno. To another Ballantyne lady who didn't rejoice in an O-69, Shelita sassed, "Can't you see her taking up two spaces at the Harris Teeter -- in her Capri pants and high heels? I know your kind, Shannon. Sit down and put that condo up for sale." Shelita also ridiculed people for false claims of bingo, which gave me an idea.
I decided to proclaim a fake bingo for a chance to interact with Shelita, but my ploy was foiled by a BVD (Bingo Verifying Diva) who must have been blinded by his/her excessive eye shadow. The Diva declared my phony bingo claim as legit and I won $100.69 (they really like that number). The Diva asked how much of the winnings I would like to give back to AIDS. Considering I got into Gay Bingo for free and cheated, I gave it all back instead of going on a Toys "R" Us shopping spree.
Where can a homophobe enjoy a game of heterosexual bingo in Charlotte? That's a question that drove me to a bingo hall open seven nights a week called Eastway Beach Bingo. Beach? According to Mapquest, the ocean is 196.14 miles from Eastway Beach Bingo.
The North Carolina Crime Control and Public Safety Web site defines "beach" bingo as a legal game of bingo in which prize values do not exceed $10. If prizes are between $10 and $50, the establishment is committing a class 2 misdemeanor. More than $50, and it's a felony. (Bet you didn't think it was possible to commit a bingo felony.)
If Gay Bingo's motto is "This isn't your Grandma's Bingo," Eastway's is (according to its answering machine message): "If you have nothing to do, please come out and join us." A golden sales pitch if I've ever heard one. The answering machine also boasted the hall's ten on-site security cameras.
Eastway's late-night bingo starts at 12:45am, so I showed up for a Sunday wee-hour game a couple of weekends ago. Apparently, bingo sells big in this town. Every table in the long bunker-like rectangular building was taken except for one in the corner. With no windows, and overhead beam lighting set to a wattage just below "tanning bed," the atmosphere had that creepy feeling of a place existing without a discriminating space or time.
Eastway must have been where the clichéd modifier "smoky" first became attached to "bingo hall." A constant smoke cloud crawled below the beam lights. One woman was actually wearing a surgical mask. I assumed it was because of the nicotine-poisoned air, but she may have been a surgeon on a bingo break. Six yellow smiley faces were posted around the room -- some had the word smile next to them. No one listened to the smiley faces. In total silence, the players maneuvered their dobbers like automotons. I tried to shake things up. Just after sitting down, the woman behind me called bingo and I high-fived her.
Twenty-three rules were posted on a big yellow sign, none having to do with the actual rules of the game. Rule No. 2: "Don't harass the bingo callers." One bingo caller told me she and her colleagues get harassed every night. "They don't like it if you don't call their numbers," she said.
Toni, one of the callers who looked like she's never left the bingo hall, told me she's been involved in bingo all her life, following her parents lead.
"So you're a bingo junkie?" I asked her.
She shook her head vehemently. "No! I never play. I'm no junkie," she said.
Rule No. 3: "No lucky oils or perfumes." "It's not fair to players with bad sinuses or stuff like that," Toni told me.
"What if the person was wearing an excessive amount of oils and perfumes?" I asked.
"Well, there's nothing we can do to stop that."
Toni has seen all sorts of lucky charms patrolling the hall: dolls, elephant figurines, even live crickets (none of the rules on the big board outlawed crickets).
The late-night bingo didn't actually start until 1:45am and the bingo staff told me it doesn't usually end until 4am. A pack of ten games is only $1 during normal hours and $2 for late night. If you're looking for a fun, cheap thing to do late at night with a few friends, beach bingo could be the perfect dive hangout.