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Calling All Nerds – Williamsburg Spelling Bee @ Pete’s Candy Store

Written by John Proctor
Photos Courtesy of Pete’s Candy Store

Of all the hipster bars in Williamsburg (or Brooklyn, or NYC for that matter) Pete’s Candy Store has perhaps the most, well, refined set of regular programming. Scrabble night on Saturdays, Quizz-Off (sic) every other Wednesday, Bingo on Tuesdays, a reading series every other Thursday, and pretty much every other night filled with all the music you can fit into their subway car-shaped performance space.

But of all their programming, the night that I’ve most wanted to experience for the last few months is the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, held every other Monday. I was the Lawrence, Kansas School District Spelling Champion my third grade year, so I figure I’m qualified. And lord knows pretty much all of my friends are either avowed nerds or easily bored by anything too samey, so I knew I could gather a posse to accompany me.

The Bee starts at 7:00 which is also when Happy Hour ends, so I got there a half-hour early to throw back a couple of $2 Brooklyn Lagers on draught before the competition started. I went into the subway-car performance space to reserve a table, and immediately hoped my friends would get there quick. That little space fills up quickly, and there were quite a few other wordy-types in the rank-and-file.

While impatiently texting my friends, I took a gander at the competition. At the front was a Staten Island-looking couple immersed in first-date conversation who already had four drinks on their table; near the back the Pete’s Candy regulars were looking lustily at the empty tables I’d spread my belongings out at. I placed a copy of John Locke’s "Second Treatise of Government" conspicuously on top of my table to psyche out the competition.

HD Headline happened to be filming the night, so I was able to gather the following from eavesdropping on the interview while my friends shuffled in:

• The hosts, Jenisfamous and Bobbyblue, got the idea from Spellbound, the 2002 documentary that chronicled a handful of prodigious and adorable spelling bee kids as they made their ways through the Scripps National Spelling Bee circuit. They both thought the process would go much smoother with drinking involved.

• Bobbyblue is a musician who, with his sweater vest, brakeman’s cap, work boots, metallic silver belt, and black Hulk Hogan moustache, looks like a combination of David from the Village People and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick, while Jenisfamous is a comedian and sex toy tester (hey, that’s what her blog says) with a polka dotted blouse that kept making me think of a Gillian Welch album cover.

• This is the fourth “season” of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, with the Top Three of each Monday night coming back for the finals in May.

• The rules are basically Three Strikes and You’re Out, with three rounds and a final elimination round. Round One has one word and you also have to answer a random question about yourself, so no one can be eliminated that soon. Round Two involves two words, while Round Three has three words. Finally, for the Elimination Round all remaining contestants must spell words until they have missed three, including previous rounds. Scores are then tallied with words from previous rounds counted, and contestants are ranked accordingly.

• Prizes for each night are: First Place, $25 bar tab; Second Place, $15 bar tab; Third Place, free Pete’s sandwich (which are scrumptious, by the way).

Finally the show started, and the sixteen contestants were introduced and given paper plates with their contestant numbers on them to put around their necks. There was the male counterpart of the progressively drunker Staten Island couple, who was continually derided by the hosts and the audience after revealing he’s a motivational speaker and not even being able to form a cogent non-sexual answer when asked what he’d do with a million tennis balls; a woman with an English accent named Spice who, when asked what her favorite spice is, pointed both thumbs at herself; a nursing student who couldn’t spell paprika; a concert pianist from Park Slope; and lots of men in blazers and women with cool glasses.

The first round went smoothly – I spelled “exigent” with no problem and revealed Bret Michaels of Poison as the hair metal icon I’d most like to meet and watched the drinks pile up on the Staten Island Table, and the whole crowd got more comfortable with each other until by the end of the round everyone was toasting, congratulating, and cajoling with beaming faces.

The second round was when it got hairy. The words were getting longer and less familiar, and female at the Staten Island table was growing progressively more aggressive, yelling things like, “That’s not even a word!” and “See what I mean?” I screwed up on both my words this round, spelling “revocability” as “revocabalility” and “commissariat” with an e at the end.

As you can guess, I didn’t make it out of Round Three. In fact, I didn’t make it past the first word of Round Three, spelling “conchiform” with an o instead of an i. The Staten Island unmotivational speaker also made an exit in this round, and the whole crowd gave a collective sigh of relief when he and his date stumbled out of the room, but not before she tripped over her purse strap and almost tipped over their bulging table of drinks.

Throughout the contest, Bobbyblue and Jenisfamous showed both a love of words and a sweetly sardonic chemistry with each other and the audience, truly the perfect fit for a drinking spelling bee. Even if you don’t go out to compete in the spelling bee itself, it’s well worth it just to see these two bounce wits off each other.

In the end, the concert pianist won with authority, and it wasn’t a surprise when he revealed after the contest that he was a 1996 National Spelling Bee finalist. I got a serious comeuppance on my skills as a linguist, but have resolved to return in two weeks and at least make it out of Round Three.

If you care to try your luck (or just have some drinks and feel smart) in February, the next Monday Spelling Bees are on 2/5 and 2/19, at Pete’s Candy Store, 719 Lorimer Street. And if you need a bit more convincing, check out the Spelling Bee Blog or their MySpace page.

For more information, log onto: http://www.petescandystore.com



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