I spent Saturday evening working Bingo at our parish hall in Paxton. It’s our Knights of Columbus council’s biggest fundraiser, and is held nearly every Saturday. We start selling cards at 5:30, start calling numbers at 6:30, and usually wrap things up at about 9:15 or so.

Before we moved here, I used to chuckle at bumper stickers encouraging people to support Bingo to “keep grandma off the streets.” True, of the 55-60 or so people who show up regularly to play, 80-90% are female and the majority look to be at least 70 years old. And, yes, some do have names like “Mabel” and “Dorothy.”

But you know what? Bingo is great — and not just because of the money it raises for our charitable works in the parish. I’ve been on a Bingo team for a few years now, and the more times I work the more I come to realize the biggest value of these events: building the social capital of our community. In an age when people are increasingly isolated with their individual entertainments (see Robert Putnam’s classic “Bowling Alone“), Bingo brings people together.

The players start arriving well before 5pm, and many buy a light dinner from the kitchen staffed by ladies from our parish’s Council of Catholic Women. They eat, get caught up with each other, play cards, show off the latest pictures of their grandkids, etc, etc. Then we start selling Bingo cards, and they all line up. We joke around with the regulars, many of whom we know by name, and explain to the newcomers how our various games are played and which cards they’ll need. Sales slow down, and then at about 6pm we get a wave of players from the parish’s 5pm Mass. More talking and joking around, but this time it’s mostly parishioners. When sales slow again, the Knights take turns grabbing something to eat, and then the games begin at 6:30.

The social capital we’re building isn’t just for the Bingo players. What I like best about working Bingo is getting caught up with the other Knights on my team. Once the caller begins drawing and announcing numbers, and we’ve gotten the paperwork in order, there is a lot of downtime where we can talk quietly. These conversations get interrupted each time someone calls “Bingo!”, and we need to go check and pay off a winning card, but we still end up with a lot of time for just sitting around and talking. With each of us living in our own orbit, and so busy most of the time, I’ve grown to really look forward to these opportunities to hang out and get to know the other guys better.

It’s especially interesting when, on nights like last night, I was substituting on another team. I already knew the other three guys on that team, of course, but not as well as the guys on my own team. Talking with them, you discover an amazing range of life experiences. One example: the guy who grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, with chickens and goats and all other kinds of livestock — right there in the city (“Everybody had something back then. It was the only way you could eat, what with all the shortages and rationing.”) He’s retired now, and races homing pigeons. I found out all about how these races are done, how GPS systems are now used for tracking and timing, and much more. Fascinating conversation, and a window into a world I otherwise never would’ve gotten.

Also that night, I mentioned that we raise Icelandic sheep. One of the guys remarked that he spent a year on Iceland, in the military during the cold war, tracking Soviet planes. We talked about Iceland, and all the other exotic places he’d lived and visited. He also asked if we sell any of our goat meat, and I answered in the affirmative. “Good,” he said, “because it’s so hard to find anybody who sells goat. I tried buying a goat from somebody awhile back, but when he found out I was planning to butcher it, he refused to sell it to me.”

“He thought you wanted it as a pet?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Thought I was going to make it a member of my family or something. Doesn’t anybody eat goat meat anymore?”

“We do,” I said. “It’s delicious.”

And so it goes, all evening. When it’s over, and all the ladies have gone home, and the marked-up Bingo cards and food wrappers are thrown away, we Knights crack open a beer and turn on a baseball or basketball game, and catch a few minutes before heading home to our families.

Anyway, I don’t mean to get all philosophical about something as simple as Bingo — but I really do think it makes an enormous contribution to the social capital of our community and of our council. Awhile back, there was talk in the council of eliminating Bingo and replacing it with one big fundraising raffle each year, like some of the other community organizations do. I’m glad that proposal got voted down, and I think most everyone else is too.

Yes, it’s a bit of hassle to lose a Saturday evening every six weeks…or so I thought, when I first signed up. That’s the funny thing about volunteering time for a charitable organization. When you first agree to do it, it seems the primary motivation is a sense of duty. “I need to pull my weight. The other guys are doing it, so I should volunteer too.” But it doesn’t take long before you’re actually looking forward to your team’s turn to work, and spending time with the guys…and joking around with Mabel and Dorothy, as you keep them off the streets — and keep yourself from Bowling Alone.

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