At Cosmic Bingo, you'd better hope you don't scream "Bingo!" at the same time as someone else. Otherwise, you'll be ushered to the front of the room to compete in that most fearsome of tiebreakers: the dance-off. In this case, a dance-off that involves a lot of gyration and removal of clothing. Sure, there's a $100 prize at stake for inspiration, but the champion is selected by the arbitrary gauge of audience applause, and if you don't shake your ass hard enough, the MC will heckle you right back to your seat.
This is why, on a recent Friday night, I found myself with my hands in the air, screaming my fool head off. A white-haired, paunchy gentleman, locked in instant-death dance-off with two slim, doe-eyed young women, had just unbuttoned his shirt, stripped it off, and swung it helicopter-style over his head — all to the '90s dance remix of the folk song "Cotton Eye Joe." Naturally, this vision inspired middle-aged women wearing glow-stick bracelets to dance on tabletops and young couples to use the dark, smoky cafeteria-style room as a make-out opportunity.
Yeah, this ain't your grandma's bingo.
Ambiance: Jesus, this was the freakiest, funniest spectacle I've seen in a long time, and that means something coming from me. (I'm a spectacle connoisseur.)
The room in which said spectacle occurs, although obscured by the sparkling strobe lights and hazy cloud of cigarette smoke, was clearly a bingo hall. It boasted lots of space, rows of long tables, and chairs bolted to the ground. But that's about where the similarities ended between this boozy, booty-dancing scene and a typical monotonous bingo game. The caller was a sharp-tongued, hip-hop-playing MC who hurls jabs and one-liners down upon the audience from his makeshift balcony DJ booth. The old ladies who would typically be hunched over their bingo cards were dragging on cigarettes and boogying from the tabletops. There was an overabundance of the young and drunk. Glow sticks adorned everyone's faces, wrists, and necks, and neon paint was splattered over the faces of the die-hard Cosmic Bingo-ers (one curly-haired, sneaker-clad middle-aged woman had "69" painted in fluorescent letters on her arm). Disco balls flickered from the ceilings, strobe lights flashed every which way, and the whole dark, hazy atmosphere was enough to inspire instantaneous ass-shaking. Toss in a booming sound system, some throwback music ("Ice, Ice Baby," anyone?), two free drinks with the price of admission (just $10!), and we had ourselves a bingo party like nothing else on Earth.
Bingo: On the night I visited (Cosmic Bingo sessions take place every Friday at 10 and 11 p.m.), the hall was packed, and the crowd — a melting pot of ages and races — was clapping, drinking, and dancing in the aisles. Many didn't even pay attention when the MC first began yelling numbers over the background boom of throbbing rap music. In fact, a guy in a skullcap and a bespectacled girl with crimpy dark hair were so busily engaged in serious lip lock that they nearly missed the entire first round. My friend Beard was alternating between tossing back bourbon and dabbing sloppy, neon-green paint circles all over his bingo card. When a trance remix of Journey blared from the speakers, everyone in the hall joined in just in time to chorus the words "South Detroit," effectively drowning out the MC's call of "O-72." Shortly after, two girls tied for a bingo and were forced to compete in a dance-off — during which one girl (a slim brunet) was eliminated arbitrarily by the MC for not shaking her ass enough and the other girl (a big, curvy blond) was pitted against three random crowd members. When the MC played Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up," the four contestants exploded into a mass of slapping, writhing, humping flesh. The blond ultimately lost the dance-off and $100 prize, despite actually having had a bingo. But the music didn't stop, and the dancing didn't slow down: The entire crowd seamlessly morphed into a synchronized line dance, with Evelyn, a dark-haired Cosmic Bingo regular in glow-stick glasses, leading the pack in dipping and clapping.
The newbie: Mike, a young man with tattooed arms, an unsteady gait, and a very shiny shirt, was dancing all around the bar (or, at least, the makeshift place from which ladies were serving the free drinks).
"Hey," I said, "having fun?"
"Hell yeah," he said. "I'm here to dance. I'm a dancer." He busted a few more moves, which involved stepping, leaning, and shaking to the point where his jeans were about to wriggle right off his ass.
"You'd kill in the dance-off," I said. Of course, he'd actually have to get a bingo first.
"Yeah, it's my first time here. I like it 'cause they play hip-hop music. My boys called and said this is the best place to go for just $10. But I'm coverin' my bros." He pointed at a table a few feet away. "Those are all my peeps. I'm paying for every single one of them to be here."
"That's got to be expensive."
"I'm in debt settlement," he said, and gave me a heavy-lidded look. "C'mon now. I've got True Religion jeans on. Do you know what those are?"
"They go for $400 a pair. I've got Chucks on my feet and a Christian Audigier shirt on." He turned around and exposed the tag of his shirt for me to prove it. "I ain't no broke-ass motherfucker."
Please keep in mind I did not say he was.
"But this is great," he said, breaking into some more dance steps. "I like this bingo so much, I'm going to stay for the next round."
He stopped dancing and looked at me expectantly. To placate, I wiggled my hips twice.
"That was good," he praised. "For one second of dancing." Then he shook my hand warmly, collected his drinks, and dance-stepped back to his table.
Loser: Shirtless Gramps got the lion's share of the applause, but the MC was leaning toward contestant number two, a pretty little thing in tight clothing. It was never quite clear who won, and the subsequent blast of Kris Kross (oh, hello, 1992) and more spontaneous dancing distracted the entire audience. Personally, I'm pretty sure you can't ever beat the exposure of gray chest hair. It's solid gold in the dance-off department.
More numbers were called; the MC continued to EXaggeratedly EMPHasize (like a wrestling announcer might) the first syllable of every word; Beard further abused his neon dabbing marker (eventually green marks were made on a certain innocent bystanding nightlife columnist's skin); more dancing ensued. When someone called a false bingo, the MC led the crowd in a chorus of "Loser!" (Using your index finger and thumb to denote a hand-signed L was highly encouraged.)
The regular: Then, after the last match, the lights flashed back on. People kept dancing, but the magic was gone; the flicker of the overhead ceiling lights functioned as a jarring jolt back into reality. The smoky, neon party was over; we were back in a mundane casino. Evelyn and a few die-hards continued to dance, clinging to the last shreds of Friday-night fun.
"Have you ever won any of the bingo rounds?" I asked Evelyn when she slowed to a stop. "You know, the $100?"
"Oh, I've won three times before," Evelyn said. "But I don't come for that."
Yeah, no one does.