All aboard the bingo bus

As a light drizzle fell, Al Patterson began his run in the Dodge van known as the "bingo bus" from his home on Dundalk's Jaydee Avenue, a street of comfortable red brick rowhouses just off the neon strip of Merritt Boulevard.

In two hours, with all the players aboard the bus, they headed south as an orange sun was dropping over the Harbor Tunnel's gray landscape and out over West Baltimore, where Mary Edwards spent most of her life raising her family.


Six nights a week, the bus carries Edwards and her friends from their Baltimore County homes to a South Baltimore bingo emporium where the air is smoky, the friendships tight and winning a couple hundred bucks can be just one tantalizing number away.

With them on each trip go the ghosts of bingos past, a game that stands as a Baltimore tradition and, as some bingo historians claim, is also one of the leading participation "sports" in the nation.


"After this rain, I hope the sun coming out is a good sign. I hope it brings me luck playing bingo tonight," said Edwards, 75, who lives in Center Place Apartments in Dundalk.

"I remember people using corn kernels to play bingo long ago, I've been playing this game so long," she said. "We're like a family on this little bus; we just laugh and enjoy the night out."

This crew is all about bingo, carrying their superstitions, bingo bags, seat cushions and other accessories. But they are also part of a close-knit family that gathers as often as five or six nights a week on the bingo bus, wringing out the best in life, telling naughty jokes while bouncing along the Harbor Tunnel Thruway toward Patapsco Avenue and their hall of fun.

"These people would call me up in a blizzard for a game. Bingo is life," said Patterson, keeping his eyes on the road but glancing back in the rearview mirror to make certain he doesn't miss a wisecrack. He is a retired city printer who had part of a lung surgically removed and carries a small tank of oxygen over his shoulder. When he plays bingo with his riders, he opts for the nonsmoking section of the hall, separated by a glass wall from the omnipresent gray haze.

He drives this night because his wife, Jane, the owner of the business, has had two major heart surgeries and is feeling a little under the weather. In addition to the 17-passenger Dodge the Pattersons use as the bingo bus, they also have a seven-passenger vehicle for the route.

Jane Patterson has run this bingo bus, something she calls Jane's Transportation, for 22 years, offering door-to-door service free to the riders, most in their 70s and 80s. Her profit comes from the owners of bingo halls - $11 a head. The Pattersons register their carrier service with the state Public Service Commission.

Most riders, like Rosemary Berkeridge of Dundalk, count the hours until the bingo bus pulls up in the late afternoons to ferry them to a game.

At 74, Berkeridge is a veteran of the bingo halls from Highlandtown to Dundalk, able to work 30 cards with a touch as deft as a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.


"I go maybe six nights a week, unless I babysit my grandchildren," said Berkeridge, who remembers her first bingo games "years ago" at the crowded parish hall of Our Lady of Pompeii in East Baltimore.

A former waitress at Haussner's restaurant, now closed, she is an energetic woman with an easy smile and is usually the first passenger on the bus that this night will carry 11 players to Patapsco Bingo in South Baltimore.

In a sad detour of the bingo bus last month, Al Patterson drove most of his riders to a Baltimore County funeral home to pay their last respects to one of their own, Bill Korycki, 91, who was a regular with his wife, Fran, 90, for many years.

On a Friday night, Bill and Fran went to Patapsco Bingo as usual. He won $300.

The next morning Bill died.

"It was awful; everyone was just devastated," Jane Patterson said. "We took a lot of the bingo players to the funeral home because they wanted to support Fran, to say our goodbyes to Bill."


To the couple's daughter, Debbie Veystrk, her parents' pals "were part of a network that enabled Bill to continue to live a full life despite his dementia. ... They truly are a second family to Mom and Bill."

Lively trips

The bus carries a rich blend of character and characters.

One is Bessie Barker, 86, a quick-witted woman who lives in Hopkins Village in Middle River.

Hardly in her seat and without much prompting, up pipes the group jester, who, in her distinctive gravelly voice, introduces herself as "Ma" Barker.

On the way to the bingo hall, carrying on a running commentary on topics ranging from politics to sex, Barker spots a young man driving past the van in a pickup truck.


"Hey, sweetie," she yells, waving at him. The van's windows are up, but that doesn't stop her. "Meet me down at the bingo hall; I'll show you a thing or two," she promises. Al Patterson just smiles and shakes his head.

Bingo, a game traced to 16th-century Italy, is a longtime Baltimore cultural favorite and has helped raise funds for churches, fire departments and fraternal organizations. The game is available for cash play on the Internet and via satellite for cable television gamers.

Patterson's customers can spend as little as $10 to play on discount nights. And, of course, they can spend more, from renting $20 computer screen bingo games to little pull-tab cards that offer cash prizes or kitschy gifts. Their ultimate aim is to hit one of the cash pots that range from $100 to $1,000 a game.

Toward the end of each month, the bingo bus has fewer passengers because the regulars must watch their spending more carefully.

"You can't go to a movie now for $10," - money spent by a senior on fixed income, said Joseph "Bingo Joe" Brzuchalski, owner of the Patapsco bingo hall and an adjacent arena in South Baltimore. He said he has been working the bingo business since he was 15.

"Sure, it's soft-core gambling, but this game offers people, many of them elderly, a brand of fun they enjoy," he said.


Jane Patterson said her transportation business offers seniors a crucial service. In turn, she can usually turn a profit up to $900 a week.

At Bingo World in Brooklyn Park, Maryland's largest commercial bingo business with seats for 2,000 players, employee Dale Willey said a similar transportation service is offered there, with as many as 100 large buses or smaller vans, like the Pattersons', dropping off players from a tristate area.

Hoping for a win

But at the Patapsco hall, Al Patterson estimates that up to 300 play nightly. There, players arrive early, meet their friends, talk, dine on specials from the kitchen like pork chops or baked chicken with stuffing, and carry the confidence of a prospective winner.

Going into each night, the players on the bingo bus realize they will win, break even or lose. But they all agree that the journey, not the destination, is the critical element in their jaunts to and from the bingo halls.

"We're with friends, so there's hopefully always tomorrow," Berkeridge said.