Riordan Belle leaned forward, as tense as any gambler who has ever bet the rent on a turn of the roulette wheel or a roll of the dice.
"C'mon 50, c'mon 50," said the 36-year-old Baltimore man, his leg jiggling under the table. But 50 didn't come, and Mr. Belle had to watch as his mother, Lillian, beat him for the bingo jackpot -- a McDonald's sundae.
The other players sighed in disappointment, then turned their attention back to their bingo cards. The next game was 7-11 -- blocking out either shape on the card to win -- and pastry was on the line.
For almost two years now, a small number of Baltimore-area McDonald's restaurants have held bingo games during the morning lull, that quiet time when the demand for Egg McMuffins lags and it's too early for milkshakes. For the price of a cup of coffee -- 27 cents for senior citizens, 66 cents for everyone else -- anyone 18 or older can get two bingo cards and an automatic group of friends.
As a marketing technique, it's so-so, said Chuck Vittek, manager of the Govans McDonald's in the 5100 block of York Road where the games are played 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Tuesday. "Most of these customers were already coming in, 80 to 90 percent," he said.
Nor do the customers spend more money while playing. Once the game gets under way, the pace is so fast and furious no one dares a trip to the counter. At game's end, those who want to eat often have green prize certificates -- "bingo bucks" -- to cash in.
But as a neighborhood-based activity, bingo at McDonald's is hard to beat. The crowd at the Govans franchise is diverse -- white, black, senior citizens, college students, young parents, singles, workers, retirees. They come from Guilford and Winston, Hampden and Homeland, just for the chance to yell "Bingo!" and pick up a free Mc-something.
But McBingo may feed a deeper hunger, says Tom Parsons, a retired professor of social psychology who for 20 years was director of the Center for Community Development at Humboldt State University in California.
"It reminds you of the British pub, doesn't it?," he said from his home in Atlanta. "People crave association and like to have that feeling of relatedness, and if that's the easiest place to get it, that's where it's going to happen.
"De Tocqueville said a long time ago that American democracy was rooted along the back fences. We've lost that. Now it's here."
Alexis de Tocqueville and his 19th-century observations on democracy exemplified by bingo at McDonald's and at gathering spots such as the late, lamented White Coffee Pot Jr. in Brooklyn Park? Yes, said Mr. Parsons, and, to a lesser extent, at malls as well. No matter how fragmented a city becomes, people find common ground.
The bingo crowd at the Govans McDonald's says the same thing, in somewhat less academic terms.
"It's like a social club," said Phyllis Gianotti, the vivacious McDonald's employee who announces the bingo numbers. "If someone is missing for a week or two, we notice and we miss them."
Mary Kaye Kohlhepp stops by on her way to work at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center.
She has missed the Tuesday games exactly twice since they started in October at the Govans franchise -- once for a work meeting, once because of surgery.
"You know, when I started I said I wanted to see how the retired people live because of my job," said Mrs. Kohlhepp. "But it's really been kind of a meeting place for me.
"It seems like we can't go out without ending up here," Mrs. Kohlhepp said. "If I retire, I'd try to make it to another one of the locations. But I can't do that right now, and keep my job."
Jean Stagnoli and Chuck Haynes, neighbors from Hampden, had been daily diners before bingo started so it seemed natural to stay and play on Tuesdays.
And Riordan Belle had been coming for months before he persuaded his mother to try it.
"It's cash-free gambling," Mrs. Belle said as she got up to collect her third prize of the morning. The Belle family would take home eight certificates in all, making them the day's big winners.