On Wednesdays at The Hippo, it isn't your grandfather's bingo game - unless, of course, it is

At gay bar bingo, it takes all kinds

Maryland Journal


It takes, oh, 30 seconds to figure out that despite the generous sprinkling of white-haired ladies, this isn't exactly nursing-home bingo.

Here, women with eyebrow piercings sit next to bespectacled seniors and skinny men with spiky coiffures. The regulars have nicknames such as "Nursie-Nurse-Nurse" and "Mary-Kate and Ashley," and they all - octogenarians included - happily endure relentless mocking at the hands of the caller. Newcomers can't possibly follow all the inside jokes, which are frequently off-color and involve such matters as the bartender's legs and the theme song from Hawaii 5-0 - preferably bleated in a beer-enhanced wail. The poor saps who blurt out "bingo!" erroneously must wear an enormous, pointed, rainbow-striped hat that bears the message, "I'm a drunk. ... I don't got no bingo."

Ah, just another evening of old-fashioned family fun at The Hippo, a 34-year-old gay bar and club on West Eager Street. Wednesday has been bingo night here for more than three years, and the event routinely brings in a devoted and emphatically mixed crowd that's gay, straight, old, young, black, white and everything in between. They are drawn by the raunchy caller, the hope of winnings, the familial atmosphere and the feel-good bonus of knowing that the proceeds (a hefty $74,000 so far) are donated to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland and, starting in July, AIDS Action Baltimore.

"I don't know what people's perception of a gay bar is, but when you come here, it's not what you thought," says Roger Dimick, the general manager, who grew up going to bingo halls with his grandmothers and is the main brain and big mouth behind the antics. His 70-year-old mother, Shirley, usually comes, and she even has her own number - when G55 pops up, the crowd hollers her name. Like most of the jokes here, this one has a murky explanation that has to do with nickels and a power plant. Don't ask.

Shirley is out sick Wednesday, but other regulars start showing up just after 8 p.m. The $15 entrance fee, which buys 25 games, was waived for all moms in honor of Mother's Day, and Nursie-Nurse-Nurse, aka Nikita Davis, arrives in her hospital whites, mother in tow. Davis settles into her usual place across from Jimmy Lewatowski, a Baltimore hairdresser, his 68-year-old mother and her two friends who come each week and are collectively known as the Golden Girls.

"If someone takes our spot, we will kill them," says Lewatowski, known here as Jimmy Lou.

Other players sit at the bar, at transformed pool tables and in the so-called "loser room" in the back. The drag queen hostess, Andora Tetee, sweeps in a rhinestone-spangled gown.

Dimick uses a computer program to randomly pick numbers that are flashed across screens in both rooms. Promptly at 8:30, he snaps on his headset microphone - all the better to razz the crowd - and the games begin.

"How y'all doing," Dimick says. He greets Nursie-Nurse's mother, a bingo night newcomer. "A virgin mom!" he says. And the first number comes up. I25. Then B7. G55.

The crowd murmurs, "Shirley" (they are still in murmuring mode this early in the evening), and Dimick tells them that his mother is doing much better, thank you.

B13. B9. The cry goes up: "B9, B9, my tumor is benign."

B3. O62. And then - "Bingo!"

And so it goes. The night wears on; the smoke grows thicker. Dimick prattles on about anything that comes to mind: Viagra, American Idol or his cat, Sabrina, who recently broke a leg when she fell out a window.

B2. "Bless you!" G50, and ready or not, strains of the Hawaii 5-0 theme, topped with table-pounding, rise like a dying goose: "da nanana naaaa, da nanananaaaa."

The numbers keep flying. There are hoots and, mostly, groans. When someone in the loser room wins a round, the crowd starts up a chant to throw them out, using a term not usually uttered in front of grandmas.

B7. "Lesbian heaven!" G50. "Dadadadaadaaaaa ... "

Dorothy Weigman, a 71-year-old, white-haired mother of nine and grandma - a regular who is here with her son, his boyfriend, his boyfriend's mother, Weigman's granddaughter and the granddaughter's girlfriend - had insisted on bringing a flowered crockpot of barbecue for sandwiches, which she set by the door earlier in the evening.

"Let's hear it for the lady who made the barbecue," Dimick says. "She was naked during the preparation of that."

Weigman just shakes her head. Her son laughs until his face turns red.

Bingo, it turns out, is not for dummies. Players have to stay alert to keep up with the patterns in play (floating six-pack and myriad others with names too ribald to print) and the various "specials" and "instant" $1 cards. Inveterate players move fast, play multiple boards and cluck sympathetically at newbies, explaining that it takes a while to catch on - to the rules and the often inscrutable jokes.

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