Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fast Food Bingo

There's a moment in Fever Pitch, a movie that still makes me tear up, when Jimmy Fallon, who major league obsesses about everything Boston Red Sox, explains to Drew Barrymore, his girlfriend, the power of his passionate commitment to a baseball team.

"Have you ever been committed to anything this long in your life?" he asks her in a tone meant to wound.

That scene popped into my head today as I sat in a McDonald's in Boynton Beach with Miguel and Maya, my brother, my father and stepmother, and 20 other senior citizens, playing Bingo at 9:15 in the morning.

Last night, an hour or so after the kids and I arrived in Florida, I was on the phone with my father, who turns 80 in about two weeks.

"You want to take the kids to play Bingo?" I asked him. "At McDonald's?"

"Sure," he said.

"Dad, if they are going to eat at McDonald's," I said, "It's your treat."

He laughed. "No problem," he said.

I have no problem with Bingo, a game I haven't played since high school, but the thought of mingling with the breakfast crowd at a fast food joint was not how I imagined starting my "vacation" in the Sunshine State. Then, again, we're here to honor my father and stepmother as they begin their ninth decades, so I'll go with the flow.

We arrived at McDonald's moments before show time. There were two handicapped spots, but one car was parked in between both of them.

"Mr. Cotler's taking up two spaces," my father said. He dropped us off and parked around the corner, which isn't easy for him because he uses a walker in public and an electric scooter at home.

Once my father got inside, he brought Maya and me two bingo cards and another two for Miguel. He also dropped off his two at our table while he went in line to order breakfast for the kids. Miguel and Maya each opted for the sausage McMuffin.

So there I was trying to keep track of four bingo cards while Eleanore, the bingo caller and McDonad's greeter, a retired preschool teacher pushing at least 80, treated us to some good old fashioned hospitality and a floor show, and rapidly called out the numbers like an auctioneer on speed.

At one point my father interrupted her. "Eleanore, why was Harry at the doctor's yesterday?"

"You saw Harry (her husband)?" Then she lifted her hand and bent her ring finger. "It's his finger. He hurt it playing softball. He comes into the house, carrying his finger and moving slowly, and gently places it down on the table, and later on his pillow before bed. You'd think he really'd hurt himself."

She was hilarious. When my father introduced us, she said, "I've got a son, too, but he's not good looking like you," which I thought was flattering until I heard her say it again to my brother fifteen minutes later. I think she says that to all the guys, that senior flirt.

If you called out, "Bingo," but were mistaken, she blew a bicycle horn. If you really pissed her off, and she was joking the whole morning, she pulled out a New Year's Eve noisemaker, also known to Jews as a gragger.

For the record, I won four regular games. My rewards? Winners get their McDonald's game cards punched and earn free coffees or sandwiches. I let them punch out my father's card. He won four or five times himself, earning some "evil" stares and musings from Eleanore about our family's monopoly.

The final game of the morning is the cover-all, where you have to cover the entire bingo board, earning yourself five punches on the game card, which holds only five spots. So winning the cover-all effectively guarantees the victor a free drink or sandwich.

I know, I know, the excitement was palpable.

I just knew I was going to win the cover-all, as I did nearly 40 years ago when I last played Bingo. I was in high school and had gone with my paternal grandparents to their weekly bingo session with two or three of my first cousins. As the cover-all game started then, I kept clapping my hands together at the palms and calling out the letter and number I needed.

"O-71," I clapped, and invariably the letter and number I wanted came up until I finally shouted, "Bingo."

My prize then was $50, which my grandmother insisted I split with her because she'd paid the two or three dollars for my bingo cards. In the car ride home, one of my cousins asked me what I was going to do with my winnings. It was late August, so I said, "Buy some school clothes."

My grandmother gave me the $25 back and said, "Here, I was going to give you money for school anyway."

Today I did not chant or clap or invoke my late grandmother's name (she died in 1988), but I just knew I was going to win. And I did. As did an elder two tables away from us, but we both got our five punches, which means my father will probably never have to pay for another meal at McDonald's. And he doesn't even eat there, for he's on a special diet, so he brought along a peanut butter sandwich, crusts trimmed away, and two rice cakes.

My father later told me that he and Joyce have been going to that McDonald's with their same group of friends for at least 15 years. Eleanore has been a caller for eighteen. Not to get too Cheers on anyone, but I could easily see why they keep going. It is a family where everyone does know your name. And Eleanore still feels special and useful, and makes everyone feel special, even before she passes out cookies from the blue tin. And senior citizens, whose bones creak and their minds wander, get to be winners on a bingo board every Wednesday.

Life changes and people die. But this group counts on each other to be there, and most of them have committed themselves to seeing each other every Wednesday morning, rain, shine, or minor aches and pains. At one point, the store manager proudly displayed three photos of her second and newest grandchild. She beamed with pride as everyone gazed at the pictures.

On the way home from dinner tonight, Miguel said, "When are we going to play Bingo again? I liked Eleanore."

"I liked the horns," Maya added.

Bingo at McDonald's crosses the generations and warms the hearts of the ageless.

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