Last Tuesday night, Laura Logue was at the bingo. But that's not unusual. She's been there every Tuesday, at the bingo hall right next to...
TRENTON, N.J. — Last Tuesday night, Laura Logue was at the bingo. But that’s not unusual. She’s been there every Tuesday, at the bingo hall right next to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. In fact, she’s been there 43 years, downstairs, where they used to let you smoke while you played, and where her friends still gather: her granddaughter, her neighbors, the whole loyal lot.
“I just won a whopping $13,” she’ll tell you in a voice raspy from too many cigarettes.
She’s 83 years old, her hearing is iffy, and you have to shout to get your ideas across.
“You wanna save money?” she asks, red-ink dauber in hand, as the voice of the bingo caller, who is upstairs, reads the next number over a loudspeaker. Logue pauses, lets her rasp sink in: “Don’t take up bingo.”
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But this Tuesday will be different. Logue and her friends will be looking for something to do. The bingo hall will fall quiet and dark, a victim of changing times.
The end, Logue knew, was inevitable.
“It used to be crowded,” she says, as the voice of the bingo caller fills the hall.
“It was a good bingo,” she tells you. “Sometimes it was hard to get a seat. So many people would come.”
Logue gapes out over the bingo basement. Chair after chair — table after table — is empty.
There are a lot of empty bingo tables at a lot of bingo halls across New Jersey.
In New Jersey, bingo revenues have dropped $7.7 million in the past four years, says Jeff Lamm, spokesman for the state Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the state’s Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission.
Lamm blames the decline on a fall-off in disposable income. Bingo games, he says, are probably as much a place to socialize as an opportunity to win money.
Dave Dubnanski, Holy Trinity’s vice president, remembers the glory days of bingo: Big crowds, big cash, big profit.
Those were the days before slot machines, before Atlantic City took off and seniors — those bingo stalwarts — abandoned church basements for the promise of more lucrative one-armed bandits. A state smoking ban and game regulations switch — swapping popular lap boards, where players could change their numbers if they didn’t like ’em, to paper “specials,” where numbers were set for the night — didn’t help either, he says.
“The perception was it was bringing in money but when you look at the overhead and the state of New Jersey’s cut, there was a minimal amount of profit or no profit at all,” he says.
Still, Dubnanski — who’s been calling bingo the past year — is going to miss it.
“It’s a culture,” he says. “With bingo, people are in this comfort zone.”
Upstairs, where the money gets counted, Michael Martynenko, 83, in brown sweater with brown checkered shirt, opens the cash box. Born in Ukraine, Martynenko survived World War II Germany and fled to the United States — to Trenton — in 1949.
Above his head, a chart on the wall shows bingo attendance steadily sinking.
“I don’t like,” he says, when asked of the game’s imminent end.
His son, Mike Martynenko, 56, helps keep track of the profits.
“Years ago it used to be $300 a night; $600 to $700, that would be a high night. Now, it’s $50 to $100 a night, if that,” he says.
This year, the church will make a little more than $3,000 on bingo, he says. The past several years, it was $6,000. Go back 10 years, it was easily $20,000 or more.
“It’s really dwindled,” he says. “Attendance is down. If we go below 50 players, we’re in trouble.”
On the bingo floor upstairs, Mary Lee Leszczuk sells admissions. There are 44 players tonight, she tells you.
“We used to have 200,” she says. “It’s sad. We’ve lost a lot.”
A poor man’s casino, she calls the game. Still, Leszczuk wishes it didn’t have to end.
“There’s a certain feeling at this bingo … ” she says. “But I’m a relative newcomer. I’ve only been coming 17 years.”
Mary Ann Robinson has been coming 43 — since the doors first opened in 1964. She tapes her paper game boards together, to make it easier to check the numbers all at once.
The big jackpot — $250 — has been hers only twice.
“It’s luck,” she says.
Shirley Phillips has been coming 20 years with her friend Barbara Zimmerman. After this week, when the last bingo number is called at Holy Trinity, she plans to go to Tuesday night bingo at St. Raphael-Holy Angels parish in Hamilton instead.
“We’re not gonna stop going,” she says. “This is our addiction. Not drugs or booze but bingo.”
In the basement, Jo Anne Kreinakker sits at a corner table with her friends. Their voices chatter through the hall.
“This is our social life,” she says. “This is our corner bar.”
How long have they been coming?
“Years plus,” says Theresa Hawryluk. “That’s years I’m talking about. Not two. Not three. Not 10 years.”
Rose Zerrenner worked the bingo since she was 15, since her mom, Mary Scabarozi, started the game back in the ’60s.
“We’d walk around, sell food all night long,” she recalls. “I’ve been here since we opened. My whole life’s been in this church.”
Truck driver Joe Vassey spends $25 a night and has been coming 15 years.
“I used to come here with my grandmother and mom, 30 years ago, and watch them play,” he muses, the memory playing in his mind. “I’ll miss it.”
Over the loudspeaker, caller Jean Halko keeps a slow, deliberate pace.
“You find yourself daydreaming,” she says as the numbers echo throughout the hall.
Somewhere, someone shouts the word that ends the game.
“That’s a bingo,” Halko says.