On the ‘itch

Or, the politics of bingo

Boredom generates habits meant to replace the feeling of purposelessness. Habits become ingrained and can take many forms. Most pastimes in Arviat revolve predominantly around hunting, sewing, attending church, socializing, and last, but not least, Bingo jackpots. People play bingo to entertain, fundraise, socialize but, ultimately, they play to win.

Isolation is a choice, especially when you live in a remote place where the sun is on vacation and the moon can feel like your only light in January. There is a legitimate argument here for why you would freeze your eyelashes off to walk to a friend’s place to play radio bingo in the dead of winter: self preservation. Anything to get the blood flowing. A racing heart when you’re “on the ‘itch” is one way of getting warmed up in these subzero temperatures. Some believe in good luck and the rest, determination. Whatever our beliefs, we all need something to do and be a part of.

Under the B, Boredom; Under the I, Isolation

Bingo rules in this town, and, not unlike rural Newfoundland, greatly influences the community calendar. My grandfather fashioned bingo stands for himself and my grandmother in Milltown, so they could sit comfortably at home and pass the time trying to win a bit of extra cash. I remember going to play car bingo with them up at the community legion, parked outside with a junk lunch in hand. In Hopeall this past summer, the neighbor’s children, home from away, collected their cards for the anticipated Monday night bingo. Arviarmiut certainly play to fill the time but the game feels so much bigger here. Bingo influences spending and controls destinies in a way that I’ve never seen before.

A few years ago, I was helping a local choir fundraise to attend the International Choral Festival in St. John’s. I put in a full day’s work with some friends selling bingo cards and Nevada tickets. This experience was eye opening to me as I witnessed the flock of people, the lack of control and the potential devastation that gambling invited. I was blown away. The amount of money pulled in over this one game of chance was obscene. People’s fingers speedily pulled Nevada tickets and as quick as the hundred dollars were paid out and money won it was turned back in to buy more. It was nothing I hadn’t already seen at lotto booths in the mall, but shocking to see in this context. The difference was that I knew exactly the consequences of such frivolous spending and personally who was going to be affected. These games and tickets have a tight grip on this small town of mostly unemployed Inuit.

The bingo frenzy and religious fervor that underlie so many tiny towns leaves me to wonder if the two are related in some strange way.

Those who resist the temptation to gamble are engaged in many other self-gratifying activities, like sewing, taking care of the children, going out on the land, or participating in other events. Those who play like radio bingo for its eccentric layout. There are the people who call in to ask for a repeat of what game they’re playing, or the false bingo call that throws listeners into a mild fury (or, usually, the rats laughing), and of course the ten-minute smoke break before the last game. I must admit, it is good fun, on the rare occasion I play.

The bingo frenzy and religious fervor that underlie so many tiny towns leaves me to wonder if the two are related in some strange way. People sit in their seats and listen to the alphanumeric sermon and pray to some higher power, hoping that this moment will be the one that frees them from their plight.

Under the N, Necessity

Paradoxically, some people gamble their grocery money away to be able to afford food. The desperation that seems to accompany the game is hard to ignore. People often sell personal possessions such as carvings, televisions and rifles to acquire money for the next gambling opportunity. Many tuck themselves away in sheds and play poker or frequent the local radio hall three nights a week to try their luck on Nevada and buy bingo cards, justifying it as a means to pay for the necessities.

In June, the Hamlet council organizes the bingo slots for the year by putting a call out to organizations or groups who not only need funding but who can validate that their earnings will be used for the benefit of the community. The recreation department, the food bank, and the search and rescue group are top priority and get the most slots, and rightly so.

Which is the lesser of two evils: taking away funding opportunities for groups that clearly bring people together and possibly save lives, or providing more ways for people to blow their money?

Some might view these bingo slots as feeding the problem of money mismanagement but I do see the dichotomy in it. The food bank needs the fundraising to feed over a hundred families each month, yet many people are without food because they are playing their food money away. Which is the lesser of two evils: taking away funding opportunities for groups that clearly bring people together and possibly save lives, or providing more ways for people to blow their money?

Usually, there is a five-thousand-dollar cap on the jackpot, but occasionally there will be a super big one. Recently, there was a twenty-thousand-dollar jackpot and the majority of people in town – even the usual non-players – made damn well sure that they got their forty-dollar cards, me included. People ignored their monthly budget in the hopes of striking it rich. The winner was begrudged the minute the phone started ringing through the radio.

Under the G, Gossip

You’ll always hear the banter post-bingo of who should have won (those who need it) as opposed to those who should not be playing in the first place (the employed and those who have already won). Interesting mindset. Then you’ll hear the rebuttal of the ‘undeserving winner,’ who stands firm in their belief that everyone is equally entitled to fortune, and so are they.

Bingo is not the stereotypical old ladies’ game. The younger ladies, surprisingly, think bingo is a good thing because as they earn their own money from their jobs it is something for them all to get together as “women” and do. Bingo, a rite of passage. Who would have thought?

Under the O, Outcry

Games are popular here, without a doubt, and not all games are gambling-based. Bingo’s purposes range from education, fundraising and leisure to a substitute for salary. Most people don’t mind the game and, in fact, love it as long as the bingo money is accounted for and used for what it was intended. In the past, there was a public outcry over the frequency of bingo nights which successfully reduced game nights from five to three a week. Priorities appear to be shifting in the right direction. People are recognizing the problems that can result and are disengaging if they feel they’ve lost control. Up here, people are more open to relying on chance, but I have to wonder. Is the notion of relying on the cosmos to pay bills a result of trusting in the cosmos, or has reliance on the game for well-being of any sort come out of trusting a persuasive power that was not native to this land in the first place?

…and Bingo was its name.

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