When the game's going, the Baltimore residents playing bingo each week at the Harford Center for Senior Citizens are hard pressed to look up.
They are thoroughly engrossed in the contest -- a top prize of $25 is offered -- so you might not think that some of them a few minutes earlier had been knee-deep in another engaging pastime: discussing local politics.
Opinionated and inquisitive, the seniors had been expressing views etched from the accumulated experiences of 50, 60, 70 years of city living.
They live in Hamilton and Lauraville in Northeast Baltimore, and eagerly outline what they feel are the city's most pressing needs.
First, they want to be able to sit on their front porches in the evenings, as they once did, and have a beer with their neighbors without fear of crime. They also want to see houses with gardens and well-tended lawns, not trash-strewn alleys and boarded-up homes. And they wish their grandchildren and neighbors' children were not forced to leave the city in search of better schools.
They're not exactly sure which mayoral candidate can fix these woes. Some say City Councilman Martin O'Malley, and others say it's a toss-up between O'Malley and former school board member Carl Stokes. Few mention City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.
But they know they want someone new. They're deeply disappointed in what Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did -- and did not do -- for the city.
"I get so mad at seeing the things [city officials] don't do -- just go down one of these side streets and see all the trash," said Mary Cover, an artist who lives in Hamilton. "It's disgusting.
"The mayor was there for 12 years," she added. "Does he really ride around and see what this city looks like? Someone has got to do more."
Mary Wallace, a retired food services worker, straightens her green and white T-shirt when asked what she thinks about the mayor's race.
The shirt reads "Martin O'Malley for Mayor."
"I've never done volunteer work for a candidate before," Wallace says. "But I did this time. I've been stuffing envelopes and making calls. I just feel -- well, I don't have anything against Carl Stokes but I think O'Malley really wants to do what's right."
Her daughter Mary Adkins, a manager at a fast-food restaurant, also has taken an interest in this year's election. After not voting for six years, she registered this summer "because of all the back-stabbing."
Adkins mentions an incident in which heckling from Bell's campaign workers marred an O'Malley endorsement; other nearby bingo players murmur in agreement. One says, "What about that letter?" referring to an inflammatory letter purportedly written by the "Aryan Blood Brotherhood" that blamed the city's problems on African-Americans and Jews. The letter was copied and distributed -- but not written -- by other Bell campaign workers.
Adkins nods. "I started out thinking Bell was the best candidate," she says. "But now I'm for O'Malley. This is the worst politics I've seen."
At a neighboring table, Nelda Cochran, a retired nurse who lives in Arcadia, says, "I think the big issue is schools."
"I see my young neighbors move in and put their children in private schools or move by the time they have to go to school," she says. "The schools are forcing people out of the city who want to be here."
It's a shame, she says, because these are the young families the city desperately needs to remain vibrant.
As bingo preparations heat up, more senior center clients are down the hall taking an art class. They, too, believe the city's low-performing schools are a big part of what ails Baltimore.
"I have grandchildren in the schools -- they go to Woodhome [Elementary], which is one of the best," said Susanna Kirlin, a retired secretary who lives in Hamilton. "But they still don't have anything close to what the good county schools have."
It was not always this way, she says.
Evelyn McGreal, a retired nurse, adjusts her blue baseball cap and dips her paintbrush in a cup, adding, "We talk about what's happening to the inner city, but it's creeping up here. We didn't see five or 10 years ago houses where people have been evicted and boarded-up homes."
Her classmate, Jean Russell says, "I'm getting ready to move out of the area because of that. I'm going to Timonium."
Another person in the group of seven adds that she, too, will move before the end of the year.
Russell says, "It breaks my heart to leave. I've lived here 49 years, but it's the crime that's scaring me."
Asked whether any would move into the city today if they were young adults with children, none hesitates: Each shakes her head slowly.
"No way," says Margarette Talvacchia, a homemaker from Hamilton. "Because of the schools."