I’m an hour early, as the competitive spelling kicks off around 10:00. The place is packed, especially for a weeknight, though that is a testament to the quality and renown of the cuisine more than to the popularity of the bee. There’s no sign of the two friends who are supposed to join me, and there is no room at the bar. I’m not sure what to do with myself. I confirm with the hostess that what I’ve come for is indeed happening and she asks me if I’d like to sign up. I am the first name on the list. My friends appear, we get drinks and put our name in for a table, and we wait. We are all far more nervous than the situation warrants, and the group’s anxiety begins to feed on itself. I sip my can of PBR and try to think of some more words.
This whole thing began a little over two years ago as a potential means of boosting business on what was at the time a slow night. Highland Kitchen owner, Mark Romano, had heard of a place in Brooklyn which was running a regular and successful spelling night and asked his friend Nicole if she’d put something similar together for him. Nicole runs a dance-theater company called Ego Art, and in her words is, “no stranger to public speaking and running a show.” She agreed to do it and enlisted her partner, Victor, to round out the team. At first, it ran every Tuesday, but they eventually settled on once-a-month as it became a bit much to commit to weekly. Nicole also admits it tends to “wreak a bit of havoc in terms of the dinner business,” what with tables not turning over as they would on a normal night. The number of those participating can range anywhere from around 15 to a maximum of 30, any more than that would create time issues.
My two friends and I will be up against at least around 20 others. We’ve gotten our table, a cozy spot in the far corner, opposite the emcees. I opt for a small serving of chili, a deliciously economical choice. My compadres order lamb tacos and gnocchi. Everything is attractively put-together and flavorful, interesting without being too far out of left field. Even the bread is fantastic. The food temporarily distracts us from the impending competition.
It suddenly dawns on me that having signed up first, I’m almost assured to be the first to have to step up to the microphone. This brings on a whole new wave of anxiety. The only thing worse than going out in the opening round, is going out before anyone else. What if I choke on an easy word? Hey everybody, look at the moron who probably can’t even spell his own name! Ugh. I order another beer.
The time has finally come, and I try to mentally prepare myself. My name is called. I make my way over to the other corner amidst a smattering of polite applause. I’m braced for the unknown. I’m ready for whatever obscure and almost-never-used word they want to throw at me. “Would you please spell the word ‘rancid.’” Wait, seriously? Rancid, like the band? I double check it in my head, so as not to make some lazy and stupid mistake, and easily put down this first offering. All that anxiety for nothing! Both of my friends, as well as everyone else competing, make it past the first round.
The emcees have a small keyboard they use for short musical interludes. The familiar opening to Beethoven’s Für Elise makes many brief appearances. It is also used to imitate the game show-like “waah – waaaaaaaah,” for wrong answers. This adds further ignominy as you skulk back to your seat, finished for the night. I head up to begin round two. This time my word is ‘osmosis.’ Easy peasy. A bell sounds to signify a correct answer, and mostly everyone gets to hear it throughout the second round.
At this point I’m feeling pretty confident, perhaps overly so. My third round word is, ‘gauche,’ and I don’t even have to think twice about it. Unfortunately, one of my friends mixes up the vowels in ‘ostracize,’ and slumps down to sip his beer in shame. The words are getting harder, but for the most part the field is still fairly large. I finish off a rogue piece of bread and order another beer. I am ready for round four.
I am not ready for round four. They give me my word, and I have never in my life heard someone say it before now. I have to ask them to repeat it, and to use it in a sentence, and to repeat it again. I am that guy. The word is ‘crescive.’ I think okay, maybe it’s related to ‘crescent,’ and so I’m thinking along those lines. But then I second-guess myself, therefore sealing my doom. I picture it with double esses. I’m still not certain which way to go as I begin spelling. I say, “C-R-E-S, [pause] S-I-V-E.” I am sent back to the table shrouded in defeat.
The fourth round is full of words you couldn’t begin to guess the meanings of, and it is the end of the line for nearly everyone. There are but two survivors, who then go head-to-head for the championship. There is a $25 gift certificate at stake, as well as a certain amount of nerd pride. A winner is soon crowned. We pay our bill. I check my phone and realize that a bus is due in less than two minutes. I race to catch it, wishing desperately to have that moment back. I vow to go with my gut next time. I’m still thinking about coelacanths for some reason.