A Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker
An adoptee and would-be writer grapples with her working-class roots
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I worked bingo nights at the Trafford Polish Club Mondays and Wednesdays. I was 17 and my grandmother Ethel ran the kitchen. Ethel was bad-tempered and polka-loving, 230 pounds in a housedress and slippers.
“I don’t need to impress anybody,” Ethel said. “I don’t gussy up.”
Ethel shouted misery and joy, nothing in between. I’d been working for her since I was 12. None of Ethel’s seven other grandchildren would even consider it, such was the abuse, but I was proud of my endurance. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I thought of Ethel and her bingo cronies as characters. I liked characters. I liked money, too. I spent it on clothes and books and music, things my parents called extras.
None of Ethel’s seven other grandchildren would even consider it, such was the abuse, but I was proud of my endurance.
I was partial to black velvet knickers and fedoras I’d find at Goodwill, outfits I imagined Hemingway’s Lady Brett would wear in a Paris cafe.
“I don’t know where you came from,” Ethel said about my get-ups, about me.
I didn’t know, either, and I liked that. I was adopted and artsy, the ultimate teenage outsider in my working-class Pittsburgh family, constantly in a book. I called Emily Dickinson Emily and Walt Whitman Walt, which was also my father’s name. This only confused Ethel more.
“Walt says I am large and contain multitudes,” I said and Ethel said, “Lay off the ice cream then.”
I spent most of my bingo money at Walden Books in Monroeville Mall, where one day I stumbled upon Rod McKuen, a sap poet and songwriter, in the bargain bin. McKuen’s critically-bashed Listen to the Warm matched my own bashed-up heart. He seemed like a gateway, a one-way flight to Paris, but a year or so later, I’d go to college on scholarship and meet my first live poet, a man named X.J., who asked about my influences.
“I’ve read everything Rod McKuen has written,” I said. “I love Rod McKuen.”
“Rod McKuen,” X.J.said, “is tripe.”
X.J. had a big literary laugh, the kind that fills up hair follicles and makes people look away. I looked at his shoes. They looked expensive, like his scarf, like his initials, those two clanking cufflinks.
He was right, of course, but what did I know? Aside from hardback classics, poetry was hard to come by in Trafford. There was no Internet back in the 1980s. My family thought reading was a disease.
People like us, Ethel and me, working people, weren’t supposed to be writers.
X.J. confirmed what Ethel believed all along. People like us, Ethel and me, working people, weren’t supposed to be writers. To want to be a writer or an artist was a prideful thing, a willful thing. To want to be a writer was something only people who lived in New York or L.A. — people who could afford expensive shoes and scarves, people who, from the time they were fetuses, could sort good art from bad — should imagine for themselves.
“A place for everyone and everyone in a place,” Ethel said.
Ethel said, “Just who do you think you are?”
At 17, I wasn’t sure of any of this yet. I just had a feeling. Still, I liked Rod McKuen because he translated Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribund” into “Seasons in the Sun,” a song about dying young I played on repeat. I liked that McKuen looked like a writer in his sweaters and berets and that he was adopted, like me. He wrote a memoir about finding his birthfather and critics didn’t hate it too much. I snagged it from Walden’s and sneak-read it in Ethel’s Polish Club kitchen.
“You’re going to ruin your eyes,” Ethel said when she caught me reading. “You’ll get ideas.”
“Idle hands are devil’s playthings,” Ethel would say.
Then she’d hand me a bag of cheeseballs to fry.
Because we were family, Ethel paid me what she felt like, depending, but there were tips and everything was cash, wads of ones that, on a good night, made me feel stripper-rich.
I could pocket bills, but a lot of the senior citizens at bingo tipped in change and Ethel made me put the coins in a jar she tallied every night. She called change-tips “found money.”
Because we were family, Ethel paid me what she felt like.
Found money, Ethel claimed, was lucky and meant to be shared. She traded it for instant bingo tickets, the kind where you pull the paper flaps back to see if they spell out “Bingo” or the message “Sorry You Are Not An Instant Winner.”
Ethel and I were supposed to split the tickets and winnings 50/50, though I don’t remember ever agreeing to that. I think when Ethel hit she kept it secret. I’d win a dollar here or there but never enough to make back what was in the jar.
“You weren’t born lucky like me,” Ethel said more than once.
“Family is more important than money,” Ethel said as she doled my pay from her apron pocket. “Family is more important than anything. Remember that.”
And so I didn’t count my money until I got home, where I closed my bedroom door and spread it out on my bed and sorted it into piles and tried not to do the math when I knew my grandmother shorted me.
“Be grateful,” Ethel said. “People like you are never satisfied.”
I wasn’t satisfied, but most days I worked hard. I was raised to believe in work and family and I wanted my grandmother to love me even though I was adopted and uppity, Ethel’s word, and not family in the sense she invoked it.
“Your mother couldn’t have children of her own, so we got you,” Ethel said about my arrival in her life.
Ethel — old-school, first-generation American — believed in blood. I believed I could win her over anyway. I was used to the way she hit me with the wooden spoon she kept near the stove, the way she chased me around the Polish Club kitchen and pulled my long blonde hair. I figured we were close enough to be cruel to one another. It’s easy, maybe, to mistake cruelty for honesty and honesty for love.
It’s easy, maybe, to mistake cruelty for honesty and honesty for love.
“Who is not a love seeker?” Rod McKuen said, but for adopted people like him and me, people who grew up thinking of family as something that could be nulled and voided, something that could turn on us and send us back to whatever lost place we came from, so much depended upon being loveable, loved.
And so I tried to please my grandmother. I didn’t complain much. I started leaving my fedoras and knickers at home and wore jeans and flannels instead. I hid my books under the prep table and didn’t talk about my writer dreams. I was okay with the smell of grease and fish and with cleaning up whatever mess Ethel made.
I tolerated my grandmother’s creepy habit of eyeing up my boobs to see if they were growing. I turned when she made me turn left, then right, so she could get a good look.
“You been letting boys play with those?” she said until I curled into myself like one of the ingrown toenails I’d clip from Ethel’s feet because she couldn’t bend down to reach them herself.
Safe sex, Ethel said, meant never letting a boy get on top of you. Safe sex, Ethel said, meant staying away from boys, period.
At 17, I didn’t have a steady boyfriend and the few dates I’d gone on weren’t promising. I somehow decided boys found it irresistible when girls went to sleep on them. I’m not sure how I decided this — from Rod McKuen poems maybe, or romantic movies where the camera zooms in on a beautiful girl sleeping, then cuts to a boy who looks lovestruck and tucks a blanket to her chin, then watches her all night long.
I somehow decided boys found it irresistible when girls went to sleep on them.
And so I made a habit of resting my head on boys’ shoulders and pretending to sleep. I learned I could pretend-sleep anywhere. I zonked out on boys at school musicals, one Homecoming Dance and one Sadie Hawkins. I pretended to sleep on a boy at a basketball game once, which was difficult with the buzzer going off and all. I was shocked when boys I slept on didn’t call again.
I didn’t tell Ethel any of this because she seemed obsessed with talking about sex regardless and had been like that long before I knew her. For years, my mother, Ethel’s daughter, thought girls got pregnant if boys’ tongues went into their mouths.
My mother grew up to become a nurse. My mother believed in science. When I asked how she ever bought the idea of spit-sperm, she said, “Your grandmother is not someone to argue with.”
“They’re only out for one thing,” Ethel said about boys.
Ethel said, “That’s how you happened, probably.”
I never knew Ethel’s husband, my grandfather. He died the year before my parents adopted me. He was an orphan, too. I’ve seen pictures — a tall thin man with dark eyes. He looked sad, though he had style in his suspenders and newsboy cap. His orphan story was different than mine — his mother dropped him off at an orphanage when he was 10 because she couldn’t afford him anymore.
“No shame in that,” Ethel said.
Ethel had grown up poor, a product of the Depression. My grandfather had been born legitimate, with both a mother and father he knew.
There was no shame in being poor. The shame was sex.
“Some women don’t know how to keep their legs closed,” Ethel said.
The shame was in not knowing one’s place.
“You think you’re too good to get your hands dirty,” Ethel said, even though my hands always seemed coated in grease and flour.
In pictures, my grandfather looked plowed over by the world. I imagined all the years he spent with Ethel, that wall of sound.
“It’s a shame he died before you came,” Ethel said.
She said, “Maybe he would have known what to make of you.”
I wouldn’t read much into Ethel’s behavior toward me for a long time. I didn’t think how adoption was probably a complicated problem for her. I didn’t wonder what was underneath her insistence that, if he’d lived, maybe my grandfather would have loved me. I didn’t wonder why my reading and writing bothered her so much.
I wouldn’t read much into Ethel’s behavior toward me for a long time. I didn’t wonder why my reading and writing bothered her so much.
Later, when Ethel died, my mother would find boxes filled with photographs Ethel had taken, artful shots of amusement parks and strangers hanging out on porches, black-and-white shots of clouds and skeletal trees.
“These aren’t even people we know,” my mother will say. “Why would she take all these pictures of people she didn’t know?”
My grandmother, the photographer, the artist. She hid her work in boxes and a hope chest. She hid her work in boxes her daughter would throw away.
“A place for everyone and everyone in her place,” Ethel said.
Even a meteor of a woman like Ethel has a nemesis, or at least a foil. For Ethel, it was Fanny. Next to my grandmother, Fanny looked like a toy person, something made of pipe cleaners and worn-out felt.
“Old Piss and Moan,” Ethel named Fanny.
Every Wednesday, Fanny came to bingo and ordered her usual, fried fish sandwich, half a bun.
“And blot it good,” Fanny would say, meaning she wanted the grease from the fish sopped with a paper towel before I served it to her.
“That Fanny gets my goat,” Ethel said, her face turning red as the roses on her housedress. “She can go to hell.”
Why Ethel was so furious with Fanny, I didn’t know. Maybe there was history, maybe not. Maybe some friends hated each other. Maybe family did. Me, the orphan, the would-be writer, I was inside and outside of things. I was still sorting everything and nothing out.
Ethel and Fanny were neighbors. Ethel lived in a yellow house with two windows on the second floor and a white porch awning that made the house look like a duck. Fanny lived in a lopsided white box that seemed about to collapse down the ragged hill it was built on. The houses, like the women themselves, seemed like something from cartoons. Ethel — the spastic quacking duck. Fanny — some sad thing a wolf started to blow down.
Ethel used her capacity for joy as a weapon.
Fanny complained. About everything. Ethel used her capacity for joy as a weapon. She’d crank up Frankie Yankovic’s “Beer Barrel Polka” in the kitchen and do a little two-step from the stove to the fryer and back.
“That’s noise pollution,” Fanny said about Ethel’s music. “I can’t hear them call the numbers over that racket.”
“Drop dead already,” Ethel said, and turned the music up more.
I didn’t mind Fanny. Of all the characters at the bingo, she was my favorite. I thought I knew something about sadness. I was drawn to it like a mirror. If Ethel believed in blood, I believed in the bonds between strangers.
“I want to narrow the gap of strangeness and alienation,” Rod McKuen said about his purpose in the world.
“Here, let me help,” I’d say and step to Fanny with my order pad in hand.
“I don’t know how you can stand her,” Ethel said. She said it like a challenge, like she was testing something, my loyalty maybe.
“You people are trying to kill me,” Fanny said, and she meant Ethel and me and everyone else.
I didn’t know how old Fanny was, but unhappiness carved her face and hands into canyons, things that take centuries to form.
“Give me one good thing to smile about,” she said.
I tried. To make Fanny happy would be a triumph. It would mean I was a good person worthy of love. I liked to tell stories and create joy in other people, and I liked the power of that, the proof that I had something to offer the world. I wanted the world to say it was true.
“Who do you think you are?” Ethel said.
I told Fanny funny stories from the news, some neighborhood gossip. I shared the latest good-luck bingo trick I’d overheard. It usually involved a troll doll or a prayer to some obscure saint who specialized in gamblers and other lost souls.
To make Fanny happy would be a triumph. It would mean I was a good person worthy of love.
Lately I saw a lot of St. Expeditus on glass candles and necklaces. Sometimes he was brunette, sometimes blonde, sometimes bald with an empty bowl balanced on his head. No one was sure he’d been a real martyr. His backstory was fishy — Roman soldier martyred in Turkey, beheaded, set on fire, fed to lions, tossed in the sea. One story went, the devil came to Expeditus disguised as a crow and tried to delay the would-be saint’s conversion to Christianity. The crow cawed “tomorrow tomorrow” over and over. Expeditus, in a hurry to save his soul, shouted “no, today today” and stomped the crow to death.
I told Fanny that story.
I said, “Expeditus. Expedite. Clever.”
I said, “He’s the go-to guy if you’re desperate.”
I said, “You have to run something in the newspaper for it to work.”
Fanny looked like she needed to spit.
She said, “Everybody has a gimmick.”
About me, she said, “They see you coming.”
“Leave it be,” my grandmother said. “Misery is as misery does.”
“That Fanny,” my grandmother said. “She loves to hang on her cross.”
Every Wednesday, Ethel pretended Fanny wasn’t standing in the Polish Club kitchen, ragged wallet out, demanding Ethel serve her. Every Wednesday, Fanny inched closer to Ethel, two planets bent on collision, until I put myself between them and took Fanny as my responsibility. I wrote down her order, every word, even though her order was always the same. Fanny watched me write. She made sure I got it right.
“And blot it good,” Fanny said. “Write that.”
“All yours,” Ethel said when she saw Fanny coming.
My grandmother would bow a little and say, “Be my guest.”
One Wednesday, Fanny came in. Her dyed black hair curled like a raccoon on her head. Every week she seemed a little shorter and this day the top of her head hit where my boobs would have been if I had them, if boys really had been doing the job Ethel believed they were born to do.
Her eyes, as usual, were red and runny, like she was allergic to the world, like she spent most of her downtime weeping.
I had to stoop to look at Fanny. Her eyes, as usual, were red and runny, like she was allergic to the world, like she spent most of her downtime weeping. But today there was something charged about her, too. She looked alive. She shifted from side to side, like she was revving up. She ordered her fish, half a bun. Then she added. “And you stop pussyfooting around.”
She said, “You know I can’t have the grease.”
She said, “You two are in cahoots. I’m onto you.”
I must have somehow botched the grease-blotting and Fanny thought I’d screwed her over. I was therefore responsible for a week’s worth of burping and indigestion and all the unhappiness in Fanny’s world.
Or it was more than that.
It was probably more than that.
I didn’t know anything about Fanny’s life, not really. I didn’t know if she’d ever been married, if she had kids, if she did have kids where they were and so on. I didn’t know what music she may have liked beyond polka noise pollution or what the inside of her sad little house looked like or if she had cereal in her cupboard or what toothpaste she used or if her teeth were mostly her own.
She may have had doilies on her tables.
Her house may have smelled like lemons.
I didn’t know and I didn’t care, not really.
Empathy, like writing, can be about kindness or it can be an aggressive act, both. To assume to know things about strangers without really knowing them is a kind of violence, I think. It’s using other people as stand-ins. It comes across as something selfless, when it can be just the opposite. I’ve done it both ways. I might be doing it both ways now.
Empathy, like writing, can be about kindness or it can be an aggressive act, both.
“The light in me recognizes the light in you,” the Buddhists say. “Namaste.”
I don’t think the Buddhists have a word for shared darkness.
“When you assume you make an ass out of you and not me,” Ethel, who liked to mix metaphors, said.
I knew I was sad. I didn’t know if I was sad because I’d been born that way or because I’d been dropped into Ethel’s family and didn’t fit there. I didn’t know if I could fix myself with words or if I could bend to match the world that had taken me in. I didn’t know how much it might hurt to do that.
Better to practice on Fanny, her sadness.
If Fanny fell, I would still be standing.
St. Expeditus, help us.
St. Expeditus, get us the hell out of here.
“I’m on it,” I said about Fanny’s fish, and turned back to the fryer.
I spent the night lying on my pink-shag rug, my head wedged between two stereo speakers. I played “Seasons in the Sun” over and over and pondered how to get out of Trafford, this rusted mill town with its rigged bingo jackpots and a creek so polluted it turned everything it touched — rocks, tree roots, skin — orange.
Trafford — home to churches and funeral homes and dive bars with clever names like Warden’s Bar and The Fiddle Inn.
“Get it?” Ethel said. “You fiddle in and stumble out.”
Trafford — home to my grandmother and Fanny and me.
“Anyone lived in a pretty how town,” e.e. wrote.
“I’m nobody,” Emily wrote. “Who are you?”
Sometimes I still think about my Uncle Milton, the retired banker, who died alone in his house in Braddock. I was young when he died, maybe 10 or so. He was my dad’s brother. I saw him at funerals, the occasional Christmas. He wore nice suits and smelled clean.
Uncle Milton was a bachelor. He loved money and the stocks and had a subscription to The Wall Street Journal, which my father said was expensive and something only a jackass like Milton would spend good money on.
Uncle Milton was dead for over a week before anyone noticed. The Wall Street Journals piled up on his porch. The mailman called the police to check it out.
Uncle Milton was dead for over a week before anyone noticed.
I’d been in Uncle Milton’s house a few times. It was dark, the furniture heavy and expensive looking, the curtains heavy and expensive looking. A gold-framed picture of Jesus’s sacred heart hung on the wall. In the picture, Jesus’s chest was split open. He held his heart in one hand. The heart was on fire. The heart was crowned with thorns. His other hand made the sign of peace, two fingers together, pointing up.
“All that money and he dies alone like that,” my father said about his brother. “Who did he think he was?”
“Do you know who you have in this world?” my father would ask.
Most times he’d let the question hang like that, a blank to fill in.
If you want St. Expeditus’ help, you must present him with an offering.
Pound cake, for instance.
Back at the fryer, I worked Fanny’s fish as she stood by.
I made a big deal out of lifting it from the hot grease and letting it drip. I put it on a paper plate and let it rest. I took paper towels, a wad of them. I blotted. I blotted again. I blotted again.
There is so little we can do for one another in this world.
Fanny watched. I could feel her watching. Over on the stove, a pot of hot dogs boiled down. I tried not to think of Fanny like that, withered and curling into herself, the smell of hot-dog water on her breath.
In the background, I could feel Ethel watching too. I knew if I turned she would look disgusted. I knew she’d have her hands on her hips.
I tried not to think of Fanny like that, withered and curling into herself, the smell of hot-dog water on her breath.
“Pain in my ass,” she said under her breath, and then, louder, “That Fanny is a pain in mine.”
I looked at her to say, Fanny likes to hang on her cross so let her hang.
My grandmother’s laugh ricocheted around the room like a bullet.
“Get it Fanny?” she said. “You’re a pain in my ass.”
She said, “Fanny is a pain in my fanny.”
Then my grandmother slapped her own huge ass. She held a pose, an index finger to her lips like “oops.” The flesh underneath Ethel’s housedress quaked.
Fanny looked like she might cry.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s done.”
I hurried things up. I tucked the fish onto its bun and handed it over. Fanny inspected it. She pulled it close, then held it at arm’s length, then close again.
“All right then,” she said. She tipped me a quarter.
This was 1982. A quarter could buy a phone call or some gum and Fanny could pretend she didn’t know but she did. I could tell by the way she gave it to me, like she was pinching my palm, like she hoped maybe the quarter would turn into a razor and make me bleed a little, like she knew all this time I was taking things from her and so I couldn’t have her money too.
This made my grandmother laugh louder.
“Cheap is as cheap does,” Ethel said as Fanny waddled off, holding the fish on the paper plate in front of her with both hands, like it was something holy, an offering on fire.
I’m not sure why I felt betrayed, but I did.
“Sometimes I think people were meant to be strangers,” Rod McKuen said.
I put Fanny’s quarter into Ethel’s found money jar.
Where I fit in the world, I didn’t know.
Saint Expedite, help me. Do this for me. Be quick.
As Fanny made her way out to the hall, I could hear her talking to everyone and no one. She said no one knew how she suffered. She said she couldn’t bear it. She said if she wasn’t careful, the grease would keep her up all night.
She said it was about her heart, which of course it was.