She had flame-red lisptick, a determined look and fingers that were stained blue from the ink she used to mark the table of bingo cards in front of her.
In four hours of nonstop bingo playing at the Alexandria Bingo Parlor, 3819 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, the woman spent more than $15 for bingo. Playing up to 10 cards at a time, she plunged after the Win It All Jackpot, the Jackpot Special, Patron Game, Lucky Seven, Winner-Take-All, regular bingo, and a Goodnight Special.
She didn't win a dime.
"That's the way it goes, honey," she said to a bingo novice sitting acorss from her. "Maybe I'll get lucky next time."
Those were the good old days for Alexandria's bingo fans, the salad days for hundreds of mainly middle-aged people who figured that for a minimum of the $4 admission fee, or an extra $10 spent on additional cards, they might strike it rich.
Since April, however, bingo players in Alexandria have seen their favorite entertainment spots closed amid allegations of unlicensed games, enormous and unreported cash flows, and the existence of local and federal grand juries probing and conduct of the games themselves and the officials in charge of regulating them.
In Alexandria alone, game operators reported they were taking in $1.2 million a year and investigators now suspect those figures were conservative.
Bingo, the game for quiet old women, had become a booming, but poorly regulated form of gambling.
At the same time, Alexandria, a city older than the United States itself, has seen police and FBI raids on more than a dozen massage parlors that investigators described as fronts for prostitution and traveling prostitutes who respond to telephone calls.
The investigations and the resulting publicity has troubled some city officials. "The whole matter needs to be thoroughly reviewed and conclusions reached by appropriate authorities," said Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman. "I hope it can all be resolved quickly."
Alexandria is a quiet city across the Potomac from Washington. It is viewed by recent arrivals as a pleasant place to live, but by some long-time residents as a place where an entrenched old-boy network of lawyers and civic leaders likes to run things and doesn't like to get challenged.
But the challenges and questions about why both bingo and the massage parlors became such big operations in Alexandria are not likely to dissipate in the summer heat.
The federal grand jury investigating the matter has adjourned until the fall after having asked questions concerning the city's prosecutor. William L. Cowhig. Cowhig's reluctance to enforce Virginia's bingo law may explain why some of the largest bingo operations in Northern Virginia settled in the city.
There is unanimous agreement among law enforcement officers and legislators that the state's bingo law is poorly drawn. They say it is full of loopholes that open the way to major gambling operations and full of restrictions that require a steady stream of legal opinions defining the rights of charitable organizations to receive and spend bingo revenues.
"A 12-year-old with an IQ of 80 could get around the law," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), an advocate of tighter bingo restrictions. "It is very ambiguous on how the proceeds of the games can be spent."
State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman compares the bingo law to Virginia's old Sunday closing statute. "It's legal quicksand," he said. "The Sunday closing law required constant efforts by the courts and the General Assembly to define 'necessities' that could be sold on Sunday. This law is requiring constant opinions on what is a charitable use of money. Each opinion begets a question that requires another opinion."
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. called the present law "a prosecutor's nightmare" and added, "It is a classic problem of criminal law. The assembly has to balance the noble legislative purpose of preventing open gambling agains the noble legislative purpose of allowing traditional fund raising by churches and volunteer fire companies to continue."
Horan had one of the region's first encounters with big-time bingo operators when he complained that bingo games being run in the name of the Annandale Boys Club were returning only a tiny fraction of their gross receipts to the club. The operators had been professionals, and used paid employes who were not club members, Horan charged. His complaints prompted revisions in the state's regulating law.
Later, some of those same bingo operators opened up in Alexandria, ostensibly in the name of charitable organizations, and we currently being investigated there.
"At the same time that bingo was getting popular in the city, we began hearing all sorts of rumours about the massage parlors," said City Councilman Donald C. Casey.
There has never been a state law against massage parlors. Local jurisdictions elsewhere have moved against them through local ordinances, police enforcement, and vigorous prosecution, Casey said.
In Alexandria when the city tried last year to regulate the parlors, the parlors simply began to declare that they were no longer massage parlors, an action that effectively thwarted the city's efforts at regulation.
Casey said as a private citizen he had stood in the back of the City Council chamber in 1975 when an attorney for massage parlor operators had waved a "fistful of subpoenas" around. The attorney had threatened to subpeona any council member to testify in Richmond before a court if the council member voted against the parlors, Casey said.
"The council caved in. Ever since then, this council and the last one have been getting a great deal of heat about the presence of both the massage parlors and the bingo games in the city," he said.