Chicken Shit Bingo
This is how you play Chicken Shit Bingo in Austin,
Texas, on a hot summer Sunday.
You have to show up early if you want to get
a table. Early will be about 3:30 p.m. or so. It will be hot on
that stretch of Burnet (rhymes with “Durn It”), the
ugliest stretch of unreconstructed Eisenhower romanesque proto-suburban
landscape. To the south, they’ve repainted the strip malls
and made them ironic, and buried the power lines under brick. Farther
north, it is lowest bidder capitalism. Pawn shops. Liquor stores.
Tile warehouses. Where you are right now is one of the preserved
places between, tucked beside the gas station, in the parking lot
of a honky tonk called Ginny’s Little Longhorn. On either
side of the front door, the saloon advertises its amusements in
bold red letters: “BEER WINE SET-UPS” and “POOL
DOMINOES GAMES.” You are here for the games. You showed up
early, so there are still legal places to park.
It’s cool in Ginny’s. And dark. You
don’t even see the pool table that’s covered with a
plywood numbered grid to your left as your eyes adjust to the neon
glow. Walk up to the bar, get a Lone Star long-neck ($1.50), wait
for your friends.
Check out the crowd. Man, wife, two children,
smiles on all their faces. Divorcees chat idly, clustered around
a rickety table, hair stacked up high like it ought to be, their
long-necks zippered up in high-tech thermal beer parkas. A smattering
of hipster rednecks pose at the bar, sporting elaborate facial hair
and starched work shirts purchased from the more fashionable second
hand stores. The neighborhood joes start to arrive, all pressed
western shirts and Sunday Wranglers.
Then your friends show up, and you grab a table.
You blink for a couple seconds as the door at
the end of the bar opens, and the blast of concrete-and-tar-flavored
Texas sun tunnels in. You squint at the man dressed in black leather
vest, guitar and amp in hand, silhouetted against the fire exit.
How can a man dress like that in this heat and stay cool? He can
if he is Dale Watson.
The band — hotshot steel guitar man, red
headed guitar slinger in bib overalls, and the roughneck drummer
— sets up. Dale takes his chair and the show starts. Purest,
distilled honky-tonk music. Dale Watson confesses that he’s
“too country for country — just like Johnny Cash.”
Dale has been manhandled by the cruelest instruments of fate: death,
drugs, attempted suicide, divorce and Nashville record executives.
But Dale still has the Texas baritone, smooth as anejo tequila,
rich as Croesus. His voice charms the tar out of the sidewalk, squeezes
a tear out of the rattlesnake.
Dale gives a quick nod to Ginny behind the bar,
and sings a brief song about the two bowls of chili and the free
hot dogs they set up behind you when you weren’t looking.
Ginny smiles. She owns the place and she made the chili.
Help yourself to a hot dog or three: they’re
You hear the opening bars of “Green Acres.”
Follow Dale’s simple yet accurate instructions if you want
to play the game.
Get in line, have your two dollars ready, and
when Dale asks, raise your hand so people can tell where the end
of the line is, which may be out the back door. When your turn comes,
get your ticket with the number on it from the man in the Cat Diesel
Power hat by the pool table: the pool table with the green plywood
with the grid of numbers on it.
The number on your ticket is seventeen.
Don’t blink — turn around —
you missed it.
From nowhere, like some poultry ex machina, Dewey
appears and gives you the chicken eye. He is a brown chicken and
he is checking out the plywood grid. You must root for him to poop
on the the number on board that matches the number on your ticket.
This great gaming tradition emerged from the miasma of poultry farmer
legend and home-brewed intoxicants. Variations of the sport are
played in deep swampy Louisiana gin joints, biker rallies and tropical
honeymoon tourist traps. Some call it the “chicken drop.”
Like the games of chess and love, Chicken Shit Bingo takes only
a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master.
Dale keeps playing. Whoops and hollers crescendo,
and Dewey strides across the board, cool as a Monte Carlo croupier.
He tilts his little chicken head, waiting for the spirit of fortune
and the forces of nature to move him. Then, only then, does he shit,
clean and square on a numbered square.
“Number 39!” shouts the man in the
Check your number … damn. Check the numbers
of your friends … damn. Buy another round of longnecks for
your friends, for you are all chicken shit losers.
If you were a Chicken Shit Winner, you’d
go up front. Dale would ask you what you’re going to do with
all that money, and you’d tell him:
“Aw, shit, Dale, save some, of course,
for the boat. And buy some beer for my friends!”
“Dale, my gal only wanted one thing today.
To win at Chicken Shit Bingo! And we did!”
But no, you are a Chicken Shit Loser, so Dale
dedicates his next song to you. Because this one is for the Chicken
Shit Losers. It’s a heartbreak song.
Riding the longneck buzz, you become one with
the suddenly dense crowd. The opening notes of “Sleepwalk”
ring out across the bar, and everyone — the hipsters, the
mechanics and the hairdressers — drag the one that brung ’em
to the dance floor. It’s a Chicken Shit Bingo couple’s
Yes, it’s your turn to get another round.
And they are still only $1.50 a long-neck.
You play a couple more games. You lose them all;
Dewey the chicken lets you know it is not your day. Some of your
friends leave, others show up. And every Chicken Shit Loser song
is sung for you.
You get up to the front door. The moon glows
silver over the urban sky stained pink by street lamps. You realize
that some eternal truths can only be conjured through a honky-tonk
song and the caprice of a chicken.