The story is narrated by a young woman named Violet.
Violet tells how a young man named Jackson had taken a loan from Punjab, a loan shark with a reputation for ruthlessness. She explains that taking a loan from Punjab is a bad idea, because he's "got no sense of humor" (69).
Jackson tried to collect the money to repay Punjab by renting an apartment to a Puerto Rican man, but the apartment burnt down the morning the renter was to move in. Jackson attempted to escape Punjab’s vengeance by leaving town and joining the army, but Punjab eventually found and murdered him. Jackson's mother had to pawn everything she owned in order to pay Punjab.
Violet currently works in a diner. However, she is studying to be a secretary with the help of Miss Ruby, a white social worker from Brooklyn. Punjab has a crush on Miss Ruby. This attraction brings out his softer side – he even chooses not to pursue one of Miss Ruby’s “star pupils” who breaks the bail Punjab had paid for him (73). Punjab is such a reliable fixture in the neighborhood that Miss Ruby begins to think he would make a good choice for local representative on the city poverty council.
An election for this position is held, and everyone wants and expects Punjab to win. Because they are confident that he will, they do not go out to vote, and the delegate positions instead go to “a cornball preacher ... and Ann Silver’s grandmother” (73). When people begin to “act up” and complain that Punjab would make a much better representative than the ones who were elected, Miss Ruby furiously reprimands them for not voting (74).
Later, Punjab vandalizes Miss Ruby’s office. She never returns to the neighborhood after that. A bureaucrat arrives to investigate the incident, but no one admits to him that Punjab was responsible. A man named Sneaker complains about Miss Ruby to the bureaucrat, and then the narrator accompanies Sneaker to talk about a potential job with Punjab, who has resumed giving loans from the street corner.
In “Playin with Punjab,” Bambara uses a social worker to provide a unique perspective on urban life. Presenting Harlem through the eyes of a social worker from elsewhere allows her to explore aspects of the culture that a native might not notice. For example, Miss Ruby criticizes the neighborhood residents for not voting in the election. Because Miss Ruby is new to Harlem, she can identify a problem like this, whereas someone like Violet or Punjab might take such apathy for granted. Bambara uses similar conceits in “Talkin Bout Sonny” – also narrated by a social worker – and “Mississippi Ham Rider,” which is narrated by a Northerner visiting the South.
In this story, the characters’ relationship with Miss Ruby contributes to their own characterizations. For example, Punjab’s crush on her reveals a softer side to his personality, and a sense of personal responsibility that he does not otherwise show. The promise of improvement suggests he on some level seeks redemption. In an insular community like Harlem in the 1960s and early 1970s, speaking with a social worker might provide a person’s only interaction with the world outside his or her neighborhood. Because of this, characters like Miss Ruby function as a kind of Rorschach test; a person's reactions to her bring out personal qualities that would not otherwise manifest in daily life.
Although all of the stories in this collection have some political subtext, Bambara’s political meditations in “Playin with Punjab” are especially overt. She offers solid reasons why Punjab would make a good delegate, and seems to deplore Reverend Smothers and Mrs. Silver, who are elected simply from voter apathy. Therefore, Punjab’s loss in the election might seem just as frustrating for the reader as it is for Violet and her friends. This depiction of dashed hopes makes it obvious that Miss Ruby’s criticisms of the voters has some validity. Nevertheless, Bambara is sympathetic to the reasons that people do not vote, and makes it clear that it was out of genuine ignorance rather than out of laziness or apathy. This fictional neighborhood election, then, suggests some reasons why people in poor neighborhoods like Harlem were not always successful at advocating for themselves. The possibility of change was out of their realm of expectations.
Bambara also develops a complex portrait of the different kinds of advocacy that exist in the neighborhood. Miss Ruby takes a very organized approach, constantly urging Violet to “crank the mimeo” so she can distribute pamphlets (73). However, Bambara also showcases the strong political consciousness of characters like Ms. Taylor, who articulately explains why Punjab would make a good representative on the poverty council. She is best able to advocate in person, outside of a formal bureaucratic system. Through these characters, Bambara suggests that people in neighborhoods like Harlem have trouble advocating for themselves not because of ignorance or disinterest, but because they have operated outside of the formal political system for their entire lives, and do not understand how to exploit it to their advantage.
“Playin with Punjab” ends on a dark note: Miss Ruby leaves Harlem after her office is vandalized, and Punjab returns to his money-lending business. This ending suggests a number of dark perspectives. The first is that someone like Miss Ruby, despite her good intentions, does not truly understand the neighborhood she is aiming to represent. She is a perpetual outsider, and her promises do not necessarily conform to everyday life. As a result, the characters fail in their ambitions, and return to their old ways.
The only glimmer of hope comes from Violet; Bambara never reveals whether she achieves her goal of becoming a secretary. Things certainly look bleak for Violet – she is still in Harlem as she is narrating the story, and she no longer has Miss Ruby to help her pursue her goals. However, Bambara emphasizes that although the obstacles of life in Harlem are insurmountable for many people, there is hope that comes from ambition, which has the potential to break someone like Violet from poverty’s vicious cycle.