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1997nov12. Cheap Date.

The article below was originally commissioned by an online concern; writers in various cities were asked to go out on a date, mix it up, and keep the tab under twenty bucks.

The Windy City. The Big Apple. The Twin Cities. Detroit is known by many names, and is my home. Well, not really. I’ve lived in different outlying suburbs all of my life; while I’m cooped up in my apartment, weeks can go by between visits to the city. This assignment seemed like the perfect time for Detroit and myself to come to terms with each other. The city is now in its formative rebuilding period; in a bizarre example, Detroit was recently host to the world’s largest moving project. The Gem Theatre, weighing in at 2,700 tons, was moved five blocks in a couple of weeks to make room for a new behemoth sports complex. Immediately to the South, Windsor seduces tourists with its completely different monetary system and casinos to relieve you of this very same money. Between this and Detroit’s brand-new slogan (“It’s a great time in Detroit”), other lesser U.S. cities don’t stand a chance. Let’s wait here while they fight.

Okay! Detroit wins! My partner in this city tour is a lovely lass who doesn’t go by the name “Samantha,” but let’s call her that anyway. Sam’s got a spunky sense of humor that warms my heart. A good thing, because on the day of our cheap date, southeast Michigan is slowly being buried under a blanket of that big, fluffy type of snow you see only in movies.

If you want to get anywhere in Detroit, you’re going to support your local economy by taking a car or two. Mine’s got a pair of dead windshield wipers, so we’re off to Murray’s, the huge auto-parts shop where all the “hep” teens hang out hoping to score. Sam voices a serious concern.

“Are they going to have any food there?”
On our arrival, we are pleasantly shocked to discover that Murray’s stocks, among the more common snacks, an officially-licensed food product of the Ford Motor Company called “Car Cookies.” At a dollar, Sam cannot resist. She also has trouble resisting other things, as I watch her stuffing a sign for motor-parts accessories (“HELP!® Is Here”) into her pocket.
“Is that free?"
“I sure hope so.”

The old wiper blades resist any sort of attempt at removal, and the movie snow is going into overdrive. The instructions included with the new blades are icon-based and are incomprehensible to both of us. Desperately hungry, we drive off without any improvement in wiper technology. While hurtling through the suburbs, Sam reads the box of Car Cookies.

If you find that any of our Car Cookies have been in an accident during shipping, just drive them into your mouth for a quick and satisfying repair, but be sure not to drive more than one Car Cookie into your mouth at the same time.
Our real food stop is the middle-Eastern Pita Cafe restaurant. The decor is subdued and almost looks more fitting for a smoking room, but the food is cheap and mighty filling. Unsure of how much more money we'll need for the night, we skip the delicious natural lemonade ($2 a glass), wolf down a sandwich apiece and split a garlic spread side between us totaling 7.80 with tip.

Onward! To Detroit! But first, let’s spend another five minutes failing to install the new wipers. Now onward! (To Detroit!)

“Omigod! This Car Cookie has been in an accident!”
Sam immediately drives it into her mouth as we pull up to the Heidelberg Project (313 537 8037). In 1986, Detroit artist Tyree Guyton became tired of drug dealers using an abandoned house on his street for drops, so he painted it. In polka dots. Then another house. Then yards. The street. More houses. Found art items, anything and everything including traffic lights, shopping carts, boats and a bus, were either painted, nailed to the houses or trees, or both. The city of Detroit gave Tyree the “Spirit of Detroit” award in 1991 and then, in a stunning lack of inter-departmental communication, demolished four of the art buildings [update: the city is about to tear the whole thing down again]. A large number of people have since volunteered their time to build Heidelberg back up, and it keeps on growing. An entire city block of living art.

If I had been a kid when I first saw this, my head would have exploded. Right now, however, a light blanket of snow is hiding some of the art, like the field of painted shoes. Sam likes the stuffed animal tree. Most of the animals have faded to gray and the whole thing sort of scares me. I’m a lot more excited about the numbers house – an abandoned house festooned with all sorts of big number signs. Our block tour ends next to a human figure made entirely of plumbing pipes. We'll have to come back in the summer.

While I’m giving Sam an informal tour of the city (“There’s the big, big fist”), she spots the “Tunnel to Canada” sign and suggests we go. I’m a pushover for foreign countries. Sam informs me that she doesn’t have any identification on her. Earlier in the decade, during some skirmish between the Ambassador Bridge customs agents and unknown aggressors, they became complete hard-asses, asking every single person to show identification. I’ve been taking the tunnel ever since, even though the bridge people have lightened up considerably. However, if you do try to sneak in or out of Canada without I.D., you’re looking at an Immigration Office wait of anywhere between ten minutes to four hours (but it’s FREE!). We’re not even across the border, and we’re already gambling. We cross without incident, less two American dollars.

I notice that there’s Waterford crystal available at the duty-free shop, and it occurs to me that I have no idea where we’re going. The big cheap Zen date. Sam spots a Value Village in a strip mall, and we’re immediately sliding across a few parking lots to attack it. Yes, Canadian trinkets! No, they've just closed! Sam then whirls around and locks onto Big “D” Bingo (519 969 2443). Sam informs me that she used to be a bingo caller in a St. Louis VFW Hall, but we’re both scratching our heads when we enter. How does one ... bingo? Asking the working teenage girls roaming the aisles with bingo cards seems sensible, but their answers, most along the lines of “I don’t know,” do not. The hall is packed with mostly older cigarette-wielding females. A sedate male reads off bingo numbers in a bizarre sleepy sine wave cadence that Sam and I have perfected after two minutes, even though we don’t understand half of it.

“Okay, single line is closed, double line is now open, the prize is eighty dollars. Let’s go ... O-73 ... N-33 ... G-51 ... ”
Luckily, there are two distinct visual aids in the form of a large bingo board named “Autotronic 6000,” and a television showing an extreme close-up of the next ball to be read. A number of companion bingo boards (“Autotronic 7000/5000”) are strategically placed throughout the hall. A young male scoops up used bingo cards off the tables and throws them into his rolling garbage can. Eventually, Sam gives four strong US dollars to a man wheeling around what can only be termed a bingo cart, and gets ten sheets of paper with three bingo boards on each of them. After more queries, we discover we’ve bought into the 7:30pm round, a half-hour away. Looks like it’s time for a bingo break.

Our strip mall wandering finds us outside a closed drug store named “The Bi-Way,” and then into a supermarket looking for products with odd French translations. After seeing me taking a picture of a drink named “Gassosa,” a clerk asks me if there is “something you didn’t like?” I assure him that I am not a Canadian shelf-stocking inspector while Sam wisely beats feet for the next aisle. Among our scientific findings, the raisin-flavored soda and “Captaine Crounche” cereal are easily trumped by “Passion Flakies,” a cream/apple/raspberry snack cake. The half-hour melts away and we’re back in the hall, ready to bingo.

For our session, the caller is a woman. She has the same cadence to her voice, but we can make out most of what she’s saying. Sam buys a Marqueur De Bingo for $1.50 (USD). We’re playing for AMERICA. The caller blows through ten “zip” games at double-speed before getting to our card; this is what we should have bought into, at half the price and half the time. Without much fanfare, we’ve moved into our ten-round set. Sam gets to mark the cards; my job is to double-check Sam’s work, fold the bingo sheets, and hide them from the roving eyes of Garbage Lad. Applying some of our new-found bingo knowledge, I secure a copy of the official House Rules from the bingo matron. Sam makes an observation.

“People in St. Louis had small shrines set up, trolls and such for good luck, nobody seems to have anything here ... “
“Maybe they’re cracking down ... “

The games go by quickly, and include several different variants; forming two lines, an “X,” a “T,” etc. The “cover the entire board” variant is a fascinating exercise in tediousness, but we’re both laughing through the whole thing. It’s my turn to make an observation.
“You know, we could have probably just used a pen to mark the card.”
“I don’t want to hear about it ... you obviously didn’t read House Rule number seven.”

7.) A bingo dabber must be used, and all numbers called must be marked and clearly visible on all card faces.

I quickly apologize to Sam for doubting her. She’s probably not hot for me anymore, dammit to hell.

The bingo round has entered the “Super Jackpot” round, a buy-in event that’s too rich for our blood. They’re in the middle of the cover-all-squares portion, when, suddenly ... tragedy. The Autotronic 6000 is no longer functioning. During Super Jackpot! The tension level in the room mounts. The caller misreads a ball and several people immediately shout back “G-53!!!” A bingo representative makes a half-hearted attempt to fix the board. The bingo matron approaches the microphone to make an announcement:

“We’ve got someone coming in, the machine is locked, but we want to keep the bingo going, so we’re going to do it manually.”

That’s when I notice on the House Rules sheet that this bingo parlour is open “24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Keep that bingo coming! Sam wants to know if we can use any winnings to continue the cheap date, but twenty losing minutes later, the question is moot.

As we’re leaving, the bingo caller is switched again. This time, it’s the Ontario-wide televised bingo game “Superstar Bingo,” with a grand prize of $25,000 (Canadian). I snap a quick picture of a Autotronic 5000/3000 board and the bingo matron shoots a quizzical/perturbed look at me.

10.) Obscenities or any other disturbances will not be tolerated in the hall. That person will be asked to leave.

“Run, Sam! The bingo lady saw me taking a picture!”

With gas and the return tunnel fare already figured into our total, we end up spending the remainder of the twenty bucks on donuts and a game of Fish Tales pinball (75 cents Canadian) at Tilt, a small Canadian arcade/pool hall. A very special episode of Le Jenny McCarthy Show blares at us from a nearby TV.

Like most of the dates I’ve been on, this one possessed romantical complications that are beyond the scope of this article.