BINGO! – Pam Zerba

My mother-in-law was an undercover bingo inspector for the state of Wisconsin. This was in the 1970s, when Wisconsin legalized bingo. I don’t remember the details of the law, but I think that only churches or other non-profits were allowed to have games.
There were a lot of people in Wisconsin who were convinced that there were hordes of criminals, lurking by the Illinois border, ready to descend on the pure people of Wisconsin, and corrupt our innocent bingo. So the state hired people like my mother-in-law to play bingo, and while they were playing, keep an eye out for mischief. It was a great job. The state paid her, reimbursed her for the cost of her bingo cards, and let her keep any winnings.
When she told me about it, she was very excited, and proud of herself. I choked back my laugher, but did mention that it was too bad that “What’s My Line?” was no longer on TV. She gave me a sidelong glance, decided I wasn’t making fun of her, and said she’d thought the same thing.
Betty hadn’t graduated from high school, and was always self-conscious about her lack of formal education. She’d worked from time to time, when the family needed money, cleaning offices late at night, mostly. This was the first real job she’d had, and she was dead serious about it.
Over the next few months I’d ask her how it was going. Did she ever see anybody cheating? Oh, not obviously. There was the church where a group of women sat at a table with a big flower arrangement, and shooed away other people who wanted to sit with them. They seemed to be whispering into the flower arrangement, and they won an awful lot. She reported them to her boss. Sometimes my father-in-law would go with her, but that was a mistake. He was a loud, aggressive guy, and he would keep elbowing her, pointing out possible cheaters, telling her that she should stop games. She wasn’t supposed to actually reveal her secret identity unless money was about to be paid in a game where an egregious mistake had been made. She only had to do that once. I don’t remember the details, but I think the bingo caller picked a second ball without mixing them up, and Betty had to call a halt.
Eventually her cover was blown, and she became a supervisor. She’d go to churches or non-profits before games started to watch them set up, and give them advice on what to do. To her enormous pride, the Milwaukee Journal ran a feature story about her.
Wisconsin legalized casino gambling on Native American land, and at that point having intense supervision of church bingo seemed pretty silly, so her job ended. She was sorry, but realistic. When people were playing table games for thousands of dollars down the street, what was the point of worrying about church ladies whispering into flower arrangements for $100? Too bad the state couldn’t hire her to inspect the casinos.
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