After nine years of living in New Orleans, we moved to Auburndale, Florida, (population 11,000) and immediately suffered culture shock. The most famous restaurant in the small town of Auburndale was Allen’s Restaurant, also known as the Roadkill Café for its main dishes featuring snake, armadillo, alligator and various rodents. The most popular local sports consisted of hog hunting, fishing, auto racing and watching high school football games.
I was regretting the move until a neighbor boy knocked on the door to raise money for the Auburndale High School Band. Forget about wrapping paper, cookies, or a magazine subscription. This boy wanted to sell a Cow Bingo Deed. Reciting his sales pitch, he explained that a deed would entitle me to stake a claim by placing a small numbered stick on the football field. BBQ dinners were also for sale. Having survived nine Mardi Gras celebrations, I was game for something new.
“And why would I want to stake a claim on the football field?” Rumor was apparently circulating that the new family in the neighborhood would buy anything.
He smiled and patiently described how a cow is led onto the field while everyone sits in the stands until the cow deposits ‘chips.’ If this had been an adult, I would have laughed and shut the door, but this was the mayor’s son. It didn’t make sense that this child would risk his parent’s wrath for such a bizarre joke. He held out a sample deed. Printed under rule # 2 was “the claim closest to the largest chip will be awarded the grand prize.” The young man seemed amused to have to explain this social event.
“Let me guess, the grand prize is a hefty supply of fertilizer?”
“Oh, no ma’am.” the child said, “Last year someone won a thousand dollars.”
Hmmmm. A cow-chip lottery? It was too strange to be a lie. I bought two deeds and four BBQ dinners so I could drag an unsuspecting couple along. For my safety’s sake, let’s call them Anne and David. My friends were somewhat adventurous people and we owed them for recommending Allen’s Restaurant. Payback time.
The evening turned cold as we waited through the football game. After the game we collected our numbered sticks from a lady seated behind a folding table near the restrooms. When we returned to the stands a group of muscular, broad-shouldered men dashed onto the field and erected temporary fencing in the center of the field. We were then allowed to plant our sticks within the fenced area. A gentleman wearing a band booster polo shirt hollered instructions through a megaphone. Only the new folks like us paid him any attention.
“Please plant your markers with the numbers down so we can read the numbers later. Keep your markers a foot away from the other markers. Place your markers inside the fenced area.”
We strode onto the field. My husband handed me our stick and nudged his way back through the crowd against the flow of traffic. He was clearly not into the spirit of the evening.
“Remember, people, plant your markers so the numbers are in the dirt. Numbers down. Numbers down.” Mr. Band Booster blared.
Our guests shook their heads and jammed their marker in the turf near the 50-yard line. I followed suit, numbers down, near the 40-yard line. I picked up our boxed dinners and returned to the stands. The cow was coaxed into the fenced area and gated in.
“When you called I suspected you were kidding,” Anne said. She traditionally spent Friday nights at the Winter Haven Country Club enjoying real food in air-conditioned comfort. She hadn’t been to a high school football game in years, possibly decades. Ivy-league college games were more her style.
Anne and David had moved to a nearby town a year earlier, yet somehow they had not even heard of Cow Bingo. Imagine that. This couple preferred restaurants with tablecloths and had tried most of them in the county in their first year in town. They liked to tease us about living in a smaller town than they did, but the difference was marginal at best. Despite their serious exploration of the county’s social treasures, they had not found all the fun spots. Would you believe they had not yet discovered the monster truck rally, the local speedway or the paintball games? It became my civic duty to broaden their world of experiences one event at a time. So there we were to watch a cow fertilize a field.
I swatted at mosquitoes and handed Anne a boxed dinner. “White meat?”
“Thank you.” She said it, but I knew she didn’t mean it.
“So when do you plan to trade in your car?” David said. He opened his boxed dinner and pried his plastic silverware packet off a pile of baked beans. A grease stain formed on his perfectly creased chinos where the box rested on his thighs.
“Haven’t thought about it,” I said while tucking a napkin under my boxed dinner.
David smirked and spoke in a whisper, “To really fit in, you might consider purchasing a raised pickup truck with a gun rack.”
“Give her time, dear,” Anne said, “she’ll be using ‘y’all’ for the second person plural soon enough.”
“And,” David said, glancing around, “don’t admit you read for pleasure.”
The couple solemnly shook their heads then burst into laughter. I held up my plastic knife threateningly, but it only fueled their amusement. A group in front of us passed a lunch bag around, pouring brown liquid from the bag into their sodas. They were clearly here for the duration and planned to enjoy it. My husband stared at a bug in his drink and then gave me an accusing look. Yes, this evening was my idea. I just had to know about Cow Bingo.
After an hour of small talk and fending off insects, my guests begged to go to a movie, any movie. We abandoned the excitement of live three-dimensional cow watching for two-dimensional simulated car chases.
A few days later an envelope arrived from the Band Booster’s Club. Apparently, in the wee hours of the night, my claim stick was rescued from a poop pile to win me a chicken dinner at Hardees. Thank you. Thank you very much. I now feel part of the community. In New Orleans, we measured the success of a Mardi Gras by the tonnage of trash removed from the streets. In Auburndale, we measure the success of the annual community-wide event by the shovel load.
Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication within the high-IQ organization Mensa. For a while, I had a column in it. This humor essay depicts the culture shock of a big-city couple after they move to a rural town. This essay was nominated for the national Mensa Publications Recognition Program in the humor category. I didn’t win, but hey, competition gets fierce among geniuses. In this otherwise true story, I changed the names of two friends so they wouldn’t hurt me when this reached publication.
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