Thursday, September 28, 2006

The BINGO in BingoProf

Why such a ridiculous moniker? It almost sounds like a CB-radio call sign - "Breaker, breaker....this is Bingoprof...there's a bear at mile marker 78...what's your twenty?" But that's not where "bingoprof" comes from.

You see, aside from being a tenured full professor at an elite East Coast liberal arts college (with an international reputation in my completely obscure field), I also run a BINGO hall. For more than a decade I have been deeply involved in what I am told is the fourth or fifth largest BINGO game in the state of Connecticut. As a volunteer for my Orthodox synagogue's fundraiser, I've moved up through the ranks from floor caller to paper seller to BINGO caller to the ultimate position of Member-In-Charge. As MIC, I am the sole responsible figurehead to liaison with the state's Division of Special Revenue. I am the one who assures that the game is run cleanly. I am the one who engages in customer relations. I count the money, or supervise the person who does so, and I fill out and submit all the paperwork required by the state for a non-profit BINGO fundraiser. I am in charge.
And last night, I hit rock bottom. I got bitch-slapped by an irate customer (the bitch-slapper in question is the woman in yellow). Not once, but twice. And had her lucky BINGO charm thrown at me. If I knew the customer's name, I'd be swearing out an assault charge this morning with the West Hartford police.
Every week my synagogue runs a state-sanctioned BINGO session. Every Wednesday a minimum of 120 people (none of them congregation members) walk through our doors and come into our banquet hall to play the most mind-numbingly stupid form of gambling I have ever encountered. The numbers are rather impressive: on an average night we will give away approximately $3500 over the course of about 25 games. That ain't Foxwoods money, but it is not an insignificant amount, either. The key here is that we will take in about $4500, all cash, leaving us with a gross profit of about $1000. 52 times a year. You do the math. For a synagogue with an approximate annual operating budget of a quarter of a million dollars, you can see that without weekly BINGO, the synagogue would be in dire straits.
Last night wasn't an average night. It was the end of the month, so there were fewer of our typically urban patrons from all walks of life. Without that paycheck, the end of the month means fewer people have expendable income to fritter away on 2-1/2 hours of BINGO. And for the first hour, everything was running smoothly - the paper counts and cash registers were right on the money, everyone seemed happy. And then the drama began.
One of our games is a progressive jackpot. Beginning at $125, each week that fails to produce a winner (a cover-all game in 53 balls called or less) adds another $125 to the jackpot. After ball 53, we give out a $100 consolation prize to the first cover-all winner. If no one wins the game in 16 weeks (and for some obscure mathematical reason, covering a 24-space BINGO card made up of 75 random numbers in 53 called balls is quite difficult), we have what we call "a $2000 night," for when the progressive reaches $2000, the state requires us to give it away to the first person who gets a cover-all, no matter how many balls it takes. On a $2000 night, we will usually have at least 250 players, because the word gets out and the customers come out of the woodwork, and that taxes our staff of volunteers. $2000 nights are crazy.
But last night was only Week 3 in the cycle. A measely $375. I was talking to my friend and fellow volunteer (she calls the second half of the session) at the back of the hall when a customer started screaming at the floor caller who came to verify her win. I looked up. The screen said 54 balls had been called. And on the floor, there was a customer screaming that she had BINGOed on the 53rd number.
Now this has happened before. One time a guy called BINGO too late, and lost out on $875. He had gotten BINGO on the 53rd number, but didn't see it until the 54th ball was called. I had to give him the consolation prize only. Once the caller calls that 54th ball, it is all over. He took the consolation prize like a man. I felt sorry for him.
But this time we had a screaming woman. I went over to her table. I looked around. She screamed she had BINGOed in 53 numbers. I took a second to size up the situation. Usually, the customers will tell me if there is a problem. No one around her would back up her story. I raised my voice to overwhelm her screaming. "If you don't quit screaming, I will throw you out. If you let me verify your card, I will pay you $100." She continued to scream even more vociferously with the lamest threat available to a disgruntled customer: "I'll call the state." So I trumped her. "Here's a phone, lady. Call them right now. You got BINGO in 54 numbers." Of course by now the entire soap opera has transfixed every other player. They live for these little dramas. (One time an elderly congregant was driving out of our parking lot after evening services and lost control of his automobile and slammed into 3 patrons' cars. That was a 45-minute saga, and the entire crowd came out to witness the carnage. Another time a customer went into an epileptic seizure. You can imagine.)
Seething, she finally calms down just enough for me to verify her winning card. The room is out of control with discussions. She is a winner, and it is clear that she won on the 54th ball, because the computer verifier shows that the 54th ball was her winning number. She is still screaming she won on a different number. Essentially, she is trying to cheat us (not uncommon - people try all sorts of tricks). I go get her $100 and place the 5 $20 bills on the table beside her play sheets. "Congratulations." She is still fuming loudly. "You are cheating me." Like I care. All I want to do is run a clean game.
Now I try to calm down the crowd so we can move on. She won't shut up. By this time (probably a 10-minute delay), I have given her 2 warnings that if she doesn't shut up, I will eject her from the game. We try to resume. She still is fulminating loudly. So I walk up to her table, grab her paper and crumple it up, and tell her she is thrown out. Now her daughter intervenes. "Please let us stay, she is my mother." "Will you calm her down?" The daughter seems nice, they both swear to calm down, mommy is crying, the crowd is another hubub, so I return her paper, and after another 2 minutes of calming the crowd, we finally resume.
But I have made a decision - this woman will be banned from returning. As MIC, I have the authority at my discretion to eject or ban anyone from the game. She tried to cheat, and she disrupted the game for 15 minutes. So at the end of the session, I do what any casino floor person would do - I pull out my camera phone and take her picture. I need a picture to make sure that my sellers never let her back into the hall. So when the last game ends, I stand up to inform her that she has been barred from ever returning. She stands up and comes toward me.
"Why did you take my picture?" she snarls with a fevered look in her eyes.
"My name is RK and I am the member-in-charge." She knows what is coming.
"My name is Carmen [garbled]" she yells at me, fury written in her face.
I repeat in a louder voice: "My name is RK and I am member-in-charge. You are banned from this BINGO hall. You can never-"
At that point, I get bitch-slapped. It wasn't much. It was just her way of letting me know she disagreed with my call.
Of course, I never saw it coming. Without raising my hand, I am now even more vociferous: "You are out of here; you can never come back."
Slap number two - more a half-punch. I reach for her arm to try to restrain another hit, and then the nice daughter comes between us. Apparently, daughter knows mommy's style. And the departing crowd of customers are mesmerized.
Separated now by a table, I repeat myself against her objections: "You are outta here. Don't ever come back." Now she throws her BINGO lucky charm at me, easily deflected by my arm. "I'll be back, with the state." "Whatever...goodbye."
So there it is. I've got 100 witnesses to my Jerry Springer moment. I can hardly wait for the next phase of this saga - a call from the state after the customer in yellow complains that I cheated her. Maybe then I will have her name and can swear out an assault charge.
And now, off to my elite East Coast liberal arts college to teach my classes...
Just call me BingoProf.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Happiest Day

I am back to Hartford from a glorious end to a wonderful summer: a trip to Minnesota where I danced the night away at my son's and daughter-in-law's wedding (thanks Rita for the great photo), and deposited my youngest daughter at Carleton College. I also got to see Johan Santana pitch, attended the Minnesota State Fair, and went to a 90th birthday party for my beloved aunt in Duluth. It was a tremendous time.

At the wedding, I gave the following talk to the newlyweds:

Tonight, with the pride of an ecstatic father, I want to tell you my version of how this joyous and blessed marriage all came about. Sam and Jill may think that they found each other by chance and mutual attraction, but I am here to tell you tonight that there was a greater power at work. From my perspective, the story begins long before either of these two wonderful souls ever met, and the die was cast even before they were gleams in Mike’s or my eyes. For the story begins with the fact that all the parents of this wonderful couple are Minnesotans. For me, this is a story of keeping it all in the family, the chosen people….not the Jews, but the Chosen Frozen.

My firstborn son Sam was born in Philadelphia. Sam lived his early years in New Hampshire, but then spent the rest of his formative years in Connecticut. Like his siblings, his entire life was spent on the East Coast and specifically the strange puritanical environment of New England.

But there was no rooting for the Boston Red Sox, The New York Giants, or any of the other teams of the East Coast in our house. Our house was a virtual Minnesota, a shrine to the Promised Land of 10,000 Lakes. We taught our children that we could be a light unto the nations, and bring a little bit of Upper Midwestern warmth and civility to a neurotic East Coast world. Seperated by thousands of miles, the Kiener family has lived all its life with two Holy Lands, and as a family we have lived together for short periods of time in both of them. Yes, we all lived in Jerusalem for a glorious 8-month period, and we have also lived here in the Twin Cities. We’ve lived through terrorist bombings and Middle Eastern crises, and through blizzards and tornado warnings. The Kieners are a family which knows its heritage.

As a family, we were living in a New England double-diaspora, but in our home we preserved the cherished love for all things Minnesota. With reverence I would show my children a 1987 Homer Hanky, with precisely the same reverence as I would show them a Talmudic volume. To this day in my house is a partially repaired wall in Sam’s room from a dark day in history – January 17, 1999 – when Sam kicked a hole in the wall with his humongous foot as he suffered through the overtime loss of the Vikings to the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC Championship.

Every summer family vacation was to one place and one place only. For the East Coast Kieners, the Twin Cities was Zion and the Metrodome was our Temple. My children are just as familiar with the Migdal Shalom skyscraper in Tel Aviv as they are with the Foshay Tower. Three of my 4 children have gone or will soon go to college in Minnesota, and even Isaac, who is now a senior at Trinity College where I work, knows that sweetened carbonated beverage is called…pop.

Sam was the first to make the pilgrimage back to Minnesota, having chosen from a myriad of options to attend Macalester College. And it was at Macalester that the next part of the plan came to fruition. After a few abortive college relationships, Sam and Jill found each other. I first met Jill on one of my frequent visits to Minnesota – the joke around my brother’s neighborhood is that I always seem to be freeloading at his house in Eden Prairie. And from the first moment I met Jill, I knew that Sam had found what we Ashkenazi Jews call in Yiddish his beshert – his intended one. I stand before you all tonight and salute my parental counterparts Pam and Mike for the values they have implanted in their daughter Jill. She is an absolutely awesome human being who is singularly warm and easy-going, whose compassion and integrity knows no bounds. I am ecstatic with pride and delight to welcome her into my family and tribe, and I am equally honored to embrace and be embraced by her wonderful family. Jill, I now have to tell you that you are my favorite Kiener kid and I love you the most, and the other kids are pond scum. Welcome to the nuthouse.

Tonight is the fulfillment of a great dream that every parent has for every one of his or her children. According to the Talmud, that great repository of ancient Jewish wisdom, no Jew is complete without a marital partner. My eldest son, now a complete Jew and a complete Minnesotan, was married not long ago in a synagogue in Minneapolis under a beautiful Huppah made by Jill’s mother Pam. What Jewish father would not break down in tears over the enormity of this beautiful shared simcha – this overwhelming joyous event?

In Bollywood movies, which I have come to love and which Jill and I have shared in viewing, there is no more joyous moment than the wedding scene. Dancing and music are the key to celebrating the joining of families and traditions. Tonight, I am overwhelmed with joy to behold this gathering of family and friends to celebrate this momentous occasion. To Jill and Sam I have only this to say, from the book of Numbers, the blessing of Aaron to the children of Israel, which has now become the parental blessing upon their children:

ישמך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה
ישמך אלהים כשרה רבקה רחל ולאה
יברכך ה' וישמרך
יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחנך
ישא ה' פניו אליך, וישם לך שלום

May God make you like Efraim and Menasseh
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord shine his countenance upon you be gracious to you
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace

And to our shared dual heritage, I paraphrase the ancient wish of all those who remember their lost home: “Next Year in Jerusalem…Next year in Minnesota!”