friends · Library · The Good Life

Untrustworthy Numbers

Digits switch places

Flip, reverse, spin, hide, and dance

Caller barks, time drains…

Summer, 2017

Let’s do something, we decided. Desultory ideas were offered. Dinner? A concert?

Summer shines as cherished down time from challenging demands at school, work, and exacting logistical management of home and family schedules. We don’t often get together in the summer, preferring to flow where the days take us, knowing this time, this pace, are so short-lived. The idea to do something this week took hold, resolve hardened, and a plan began to emerge.

We settled on bingo. The local library was chairing an evening of bingo as part of the summer reading program — it was going to be free fun, very low-key, and doable.

I sent in my quick, happy reply to the idea and signed up on-line for an event that promised frivolous, lighthearted summer fun. Play time among books — so perfect!

Then I thought about it.

Numbers and I are not natural friends. While I loved the optimism, the hard-charging enthusiasm of addition and multiplication, I loathed miserly, pessimistic subtraction and division. Logic and word problems were fun puzzles, but calculus was a confounding waste of my time. Statistics and market research were luscious romps and accounting outright torture.

What had I gotten myself into?

Bingo? I have never played bingo in my life. Isn’t bingo for church basement-playing crones, intent on slamming down whiskey, gobbling candy, walloping cards with furious skill, and raking in winnings with tremulous claws? What makes this fun?

Objections hollered warnings, yanked hard on my arms, did their best arguing, but still I found myself hurrying into the library before the six o’clock deadline for entry to the high-pressure, no stakes game.

Summer, Many Years Back

There are 120 buttons on the desk-wide panel, tiny typed labels beside each one. The buttons flare fury when a telephone call comes in for the person corresponding to that button, that number that an outsider uses to reach out and touch someone with their voice. This summer job will do much to feed the gaping maw of college tuition, so I press buttons firmly when they flash, provide swift, polite responses, and jot messages for the person behind the button. Stick the message in the correct slot above my desk, answer the next call.

Two flashes are the limit before the cherished caller must be assisted.

Three flashes are tolerated with grim, tight lips of the others in the support staff pen. How do they know what’s happening over here? They just do.

When the board goes bonkers with panicked lights blazing urgently, the immaculate boss appears, vital business set aside to watch me juggle the distressed callers who bark garbled words and hang up before I can scribble down the entire epistle for the intended individual now standing beside my boss, impatient for their pink piece of paper.

Three bewildering days into the job and I am starting to feel like I can do this job for the next nine weeks before I go back to college. New neuronal pathways are forming in my brain. When a button flashes— with its barely audible buzz — I spot it, note the location, keep the buttons in order of oldest and stalest to newest and freshest so I answer in quick hierarchy, jotting and jamming notes into message slots with astounding speed and accuracy.

Four days into the job and I am now connecting names and faces with the blazing buttons. This large group within behemoth corporation is responsible for communications, public relations, and marketing materials. The people are well-seasoned, highly skilled professionals in suits and ties, affable and engaging with the young college kid who holds their telephone fate in trembling, amateur hands.

Friday afternoon arrives. I am savoring the thrill of a robust paycheck and anticipating going out with my friends.

My boss asks someone to take over the call director/telephone panel for a few minutes. I surrender the operation to sweet, petite, trembling Dawn. My boss walks me into her austere, well-appointed office suite, chatting amiably about the weather.

Door firmly closed behind us, she describes what has been brought to her attention about my performance. Voice low and careful, she confides that sometimes messages are garbled blurts of transposed, useless number jots. She hastens to add that most of the time, all is well and I handle eruptions of flashing lights competently. The errors are erratic: sometimes simple transpositions and others complex, tricky things. Gently, she explains I must solve this problem.

Even my green kid self knows that I can’t be fired. I am the daughter of a valued employee. What’s more, our group vice president is entranced with how much I look like his beloved wife when they met in college (we were introduced when his peer dragged him out from behind lush office foliage where he’d been lurking to stare at me — sweet in a slightly creepy way).

It is suggested that there might be other opportunities better suited for me within behemoth, but I shake my head no. I like this job and the people enough to solve this.

Over the next week, I do solve it. I focus hard on each call. I learn to repeat numbers after the caller, tapping a dot under each number. When I discover tangles, I fix them firmly. Hear, repeat and check, and make legible — dozens of times a day. I wish that I’d learned to do this in grade school; so much pain and frustration would have been avoided!

I recognize that my issues are sporadic, at their worst when the buttons are flashing urgently and I feel pressured to perform. This responds to being methodical, breathing slowly and deeply, and doing the best that I can do, whatever the results turn out to be.

The summer flows. I love how fast the day goes, how wonderful it is to be in a solid rhythm with flashing buttons, careful messages, money going into the bank, and friendly coworkers. What’s more, I have a new ability for keeping numbers in order.

Summer, 2017 — Bingo Time

We assemble in the bright, airy, high-ceilinged reference room. It is an affable, friendly group, mainly women, but a few scattered men and teenagers. The game is stunningly simple.

We fill in one card at a time. The head of events spins the happy colored balls, pulls one out with jokes and chatter, then proclaims the letter and the number on the ball. She calls out the letter/number combination slowly, clearly enunciating each one, repeating the information several times before moving on to the next ball, again with commentary, jokes, and observations about the intent players in front of her.

At a long, wide table scattered with lollipops, snacks, candy, I learn about serious bingo from devoted players who do frequent fierce games held in dodgy, cramped church basements and other gatherings. There are complex games with intricate patterns played on multiple cards. Players insist on absolute silence, drinking hard, and playing fast and well. Equipment is specialized for swift, accurate marking. Players have to pay to play. They develop elaborate strategies for how and when to take a break, somehow finding pleasure in the cozy, companionable fug of competition, yearning to win big or small, mainly just hoping to win something for once in their lives.

Last night was fun.

I struggled very occasionally with the letter and number combinations, but used my hard-won, but seldom-used neuronal pathways to keep the numbers straight and the combinations true. What’s more, there was ample time to talk, laugh, make new friends, and share news.

However, I was up against my limits.

One card is good. Simple patterns of rows and occasional corners is fantastic. Any more than that and I’d be right back to my first day in flashing telephone hell. Don’t even get me started on daubers or multiple cards on a large sheet of paper….I can’t face knowing any more about bingo madness.

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