A tisket, a tasket, a passion for the basket

It was a beautiful day in the mountains, bright and sunny after a monstrous cold snap. Old Sol sat in his heavens smiling down on the crowd, assembled in the West End Fire Hall to compete for prizes not normally thought to drive people to gamble: Longaberger baskets. Dozens of them, packed with food and music and culinary equipment, wrapped and tied with bows, some 3 feet high. Collectors’ baskets, retired baskets, even one signed by CEO Tami Longaberger herself.

Longaberger basketThe occasion was the West End Rotary Club’s Longaberger Basket Bingo, an annual event to raise money for local firefighters, and shortly after the doors opened at noon the hall filled with people who had prizes in their eyes. With Valentine’s Day only two weeks away, row upon row of people sat at long tables decorated with red and white cloths, flowered centerpieces, stacks of Bingo cards, plastic chips, self-inking stampers and stuffed animals the players would use as good-luck charms. Most of the people who attend these events are women but this year a few men and several children came out for the competition.

The activities room in the fire hall is long affair with wood-paneled walls and a kitchen off the back. The caller sat in front of a giant lighted board that displayed the numbers. There were two sets of 10 games, with four specials interspersed among the regular ones. In honor of Valentine’s Day, one of the specials was the letter “V,” where in order to win players had to match the numbers that matched the shape of the letter.

Bingo at this level isn’t cheap. Tickets were $20 in advance. That provided each player with two cards. Many bought more. Two women on the end nearest the kitchen were playing with 18 cards a piece. How they kept track of all of those numbers is anyone’s guess. Maybe they had great spatial perception. They’d plunk their plastic chips onto the cards and when the game ended, the hall filled with the click click of mating crickets. Yet the allure of winning a basket kept them going. A plain picnic basket with a wooden lid sells for $140 on the Longaberger website and a retired classic hostess file basket was going for nearly $290 on eBay. All of the baskets at the Rotary event were retired or collectors’ editions.

Longaberger Basket Bingo preview 2010Play started slowly, with the women at a table near the front racking up an impressive two-basket lead. Suddenly a man, one of six in a field of 94, raised his hand and yelled “Bingo!” The runner looked at his card and yelled out the digits. Once the caller verified the numbers, another runner brought one of the baskets to him.

After 10 games and 2 specials the MC broke for food, and the crowd came streaming past the kitchen. With hotdogs at a dollar and homemade barbecue going for a buck and a half, it was the bargain of the day. Last year the macaroni and cheese was the biggest hit. This year it was—are you ready?—filling and gravy (stuffing and gravy to world outside the West End). We served that with pierogis, shoofly cupcakes and diet cola. Mmmm. All the carbs you can carry.

After the break the crowd was fairly quite but the competitive spirit wasn’t far from the surface. The table nearest the caller racked up another basket. Then the lone male in the back won his second basket, then a third. A low murmur like a subway slowing for a stop passed through the crowd as they weighed the odds of this phenomenon in a game of luck, but to their credit they remained civil. After all, the raffle was coming up for the biggest baskets, priced on the open market in the hundreds of dollars. And these were filled, one packed beyond the rim with wine and other spirits. Plus the 50-50 had already shot past the $300 mark. Time to win back some of the day’s investment.

Longaberger Basket Bingo Crowd 2008In a last-minute sprint, the women in the front pulled past the men, besting them two-to-one. The MC queued up the final game, called a coverall, where players had to fill the entire card. When the smoke had cleared, they packed up their talismans and chips and grabbed a dessert for dinner, warrior wives lugging their trophies home after the big hunt.

It remains one of the great mysteries of life why we collect the objects we do. Some of us pile up figurines, dollhouses, beer cans, books, video games and, in the virtual world, batting averages and MP3 files, until we can’t possibly comprehend or move all of our stuff. Dust-catchers, one wag said. Valuable collector’s items, another countered. To display our wealth, we buy cases for the family room, shelves for the basement and plastic tubs for the garage, the family car relegated to the driveway because there is no more room at the inn. It’s a habit, an obsession and a questionable expense, an effort to show off, an attempt to organize the chaos of life.

And, for the most part, fun. Especially when the effort is for a good cause.