in a second-floor caf, i'm sit-ting watching bingo players do their thing. An older man with tired eyes and long dreads stares at his board, complaining about the numbers not falling his way, while across from him a player with a Santa Claus beard plasters his hand to his red forehead in frustration.This could be just any bingo night, but it's not.
Tonight's players -- many of whom are battling mental, health and cash problems -- likely wouldn't be welcome at other bingo halls.
For an hour and a half on this Wednesday night, 14 members of 160 Richmond -- a drop-in center and shelter just west of Church -- are glued to their game of kidney-bean bingo. The shelter's a little strapped for dough, so the handy red beans have been used as chips since the first event on Christmas Eve.
As the second game begins, the talk is about who's going to win the prize, a bounty even more valued than the pair of $5 McDonald's gift certificates given in the previous game.
"I-21," barks Ray, the caller and front-line worker.
All heads drop and all eyes focus downward as players plant their kidney beans on their tiny blue cards.
It's as quiet as a library in this smoke-filled room with National Geographic posters hanging on stained, yellow walls.
The only noise slicing through the warm, dense air is the screeching of the gold wheel Ray cranks to spin the balls.
I have to hold back my laughter. This is hilarious. It's too quiet. I'd bet bingo nights at a senior citizens' home are more raucous, and probably rougher than this.
With rocker hair and fridge-wide shoulders, one player looks like he could kick my ass.
I make the serious mistake of interrupting him by tap- ping his shoulder and asking if he feels like he's got a shot at winning.
"Huh," he grunts, and with wide eyes shoots me a don't-f'n-bug-me-when-I'm-playing look, taking a few nasal breaths.
My liver quivers. "Ah, sorry, man," I say. Then he hunches back over his cards.
As eight more numbers are called, the young woman across from me can almost taste victory. "I'm close, I'm close," she tells her "honey" as her leg furiously twitches. "I just need one more."
But to no avail.
"N-39," calls Ray.
Gary turns to Ray and asks, "Does it have to be in one line?"
"Bingo," Gary politely says, then shuffles up to the table in his grey construction socks so Ray can check his card.
"We have a winner," baritones Ray like a circus announcer, handing Gary his prize -- a small-king pack of smokes.
Back at his seat, a huge grin pierces Gary's brown beard as he savours his victory. "I feel good, good, good," he tells me.