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Tucson Salvage 

‘Six-packs,’ ‘blackouts,’ a gentle giant and some killer old ladies

click to enlarge Michael Rothblatt in the bingo-caller chair.

Brian Smith

Michael Rothblatt in the bingo-caller chair.

Maybe the very first thing you notice is the voice. It's a velvety, sometimes hypnotic talk-swoon that gently lifts, and then, as if guided by some Mort Shuman melody, dips into the nether regions of the human larynx, where its bass notes resonate throughout the cavernous room, before quickly lifting again.

"Ah ... ah, B12," that voice croons. "That's, uh, B12. ... This is a six-pack. ... No, we ain't building rockets here."

Soon the voice banters with at least one gent here, about his date for later that night. The comments are randy enough to get several of the blue-haired ladies going, and their hushed giggles sound like what results after a blush-inducing comment is uttered in a women's church group.

But this is no church group; this is bingo, man. And among the 35 or so folks of various genders, ethnicities and ages, it's mostly old ladies playing. It's a warm weekday afternoon in February, and we're in the Pima Alano Club in central Tucson.

Those at this bingo session are hardly dead-eyed or resigned, as I imagined they'd be at a bingo affair in a room that—with it's long tables and wood-framed platitudes—doubles as a kind of museum to Alcoholics Anonymous. That's my own damn prejudice.

The lady seated directly in front of me, Sarah Rodriguez, plays bingo with mind-boggling studiousness, efficacy and calm, even while eating a chicken potpie. She creates with lightening speed deceptively simple bingo pattern variations like "six-pack" and "blackout," and her effortless movements with a rose-colored dauber make me feel slow, untrained and brain dead.

With cropped gray hair and gray sweatshirt—whose front depicts groups of happy Native American children—Rodriguez tells me she's widowed with two grown children, and that she lives "pretty far" from the Alano. She returns a few times each week for the bingo, a habit that has lasted five years. She grins fabulously when recalling how she won a thousand bucks here a few years back.

Sitting next to Rodriguez is her smoky-voiced friend Eva, and this pair, who alternate between English and Spanish when they converse with each other, look to be in their late 60s or early 70s. They kill me at this game. Doesn't change the fact I have old-lady reverence.

Because I've never played bingo, I interrupt them to show me how to play. But it's their steadfast readiness and patience that teaches. Once I get past my lazy and cynical first impressions, I feel absolutely inauthentic around these women, just some self-loathing conduit of shitty thoughts. What I really want is for them show me how to play life, but I don't say that.

And not to sentimentalize, but the women are admirably dedicated and innately gentle, and they're recognizably comfortable in their respective ages too, like they've figured out how not to lament the past or dread the future. I don't have to strain to pull memories of my own grandmother, a graceful and beautifully put-together woman who was instinctively matriarchal and motherly and brilliant.

* * * *

Michael Rothblatt is the bingo-caller with that voice.

After leading the two-plus hour game, he moves back through the club bumping knuckles with a few regulars. He wears a black sleeveless t-shirt under blue overalls and a neck lanyard that dangles a handful of keys. His grizzled features, striking iron-gray locks, arm tats, fucked-up teeth, stature and girth all give him a striking presence, like he's some faded arena-rock star, or a Sons of Anarchy cast member. He's one of those guys who makes you want to fold your fingers into devil horns and unironically hoist them in his direction.

My favorite kinds of people are fuckups and survivors, those who stumble off the playing field to engage in a gnarly battle with life-imperiling addictions, which they ostensibly used for both survival and an excuse, only to emerge battle-scarred on the other side of said war in various degrees of intactness, but with some sense of solidified selfhood, and the wisdom of giants.

Rothblatt is a giant, literally. He looms in at 6' 8."

"I go years without meeting anybody taller than I am," he says. "When you're as big as I am, you're a celebrity because everywhere you go people remember you. And, yeah, I'm kinda self-conscious about it."

The guy has all the astuteness of one who made it to the other side. Since overcoming booze and coke addictions (he got sober for good in 1995), a motorcycle accident, and after working more than three decades driving trains between Tucson and El Paso, Texas for Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad, his existence now seems hard-won. And when he's away from the bingo mic, his voice sounds more like a busted muffler on a rusted-out Ford Ranger.

His right shoulder bears an odd tattoo of a Celtic cross, inside of which is a small Star of David, and inside of that is an Irish clover. The Star of David is a tribute to his Jewish dad and the clover a nod to his Irish-Catholic mom.

This son of a military pop was born in North Carolina and raised in El Paso. He enlisted in the Army after getting caught with weed, just before Saigon fell in 1975. Discharged with a good conduct medal, he soon began working for the railroad. "My aspirations were to get the G.I. Bill and play in a rock band."

The 59-year-old is a bit hard of hearing now, one reason why he retired with disability from the railroad. When asked how his hearing got damaged, his thick, dark eyebrows lift, and he says, "My shift for years was 12 hours straight driving a notch-8 throttle locomotive. It's fuckin' loud!"

He can talk for days about the science of railway locomotion ("There's so little friction that it's the closest thing to flying without ever leaving the ground"), as well recite all the railroad crossings from here to El Paso, which he does. And he peppers conversations with euphemistic references to his own sober life, and references to rock 'n' roller deaths, more obscure ones like Peter Steele from Type O' Negative, or Jani Lane, who drank himself to death. He talks of the rowdy cover bands that he played bass in through the decades, like the Bleeding Deacons, a A.A. band that entertained A.A. dances, or the Rush tribute combo called Steel Caress that soared in the '80s, or somewhere in there, back in El Paso, where he lived before the railroad transferred him Tucson in the late '90s.

He rattles off names of famous El Pasosans, "Sharon Tate, Debbie Reynolds and granny from The Beverly Hillbillies."

Rothblatt could've been one of the famous, and he almost was, sort of. He was studying martial arts with his stepson, "in an effort to get closer to him," when low-budget exploitation specialist César Alejandro cast him for a kung fu scene in his '99 trash-epic Border Wars. They'd shoot the scene in Spanish, and then again in English.

Rothblatt had no dialog but he did get to use his nunchucks. "It took 12 hours to shoot the scene I was in," he says, "and showed just a couple of seconds of me with the nunchucks."

His character name was "Cholo Number 4," but his last name was misspelled in the credits. He laughs, "My shot at the big-time."

In 2011, Rothblatt, under the moniker Ghingus Chingus, wrote and recorded an album called Red Leaf. The heady chunk of thumping classic rock was mostly recorded in Florida with backing musicians and help from his daughter Sarah, who works in the music biz.

Talk of music leads to talk of his cousin, Martine Rothblatt, who he discovered was transgender after seeing her years ago on The Phil Donahue Show. She's now a billionaire attorney, author and social activist who, among other things, created Sirius Radio. She's the highest paid female CEO in America, and a leader in the often-ridiculed sciences of transhumanism and technological immortality, where mind uploading isn't considered far-fetched.

"She's one of the people who's trying to put a soul in a computer; they say they're about 30 years away." Rothblatt laughs. "To fundamentalist Christians she's the anti-Christ."

Rothblatt heads off road sometimes during conversation, detailed little side yarns involving his early desire to become a Catholic priest, or how he married the same woman twice, or the one time he was asked to join Ronnie James Dio's security team. He talks of the booze, the cocaine, and drivin' that train. He talks of his spiritual quests, too, and how he's mostly grateful that he really had to sober up to raise his step kids and his own biological daughter.

And when he needs it, this gentle giant has that bingo-caller voice, that spellbinding swoon-talk that can guide a whole universe inside this dusty, freestanding edifice down on East Pima Street, over near Columbus Boulevard.

More by Brian Smith

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