THE YOUNG LADY STEPS UP TO THE MIC. Her word is “embarcadero” (a landing place for ships). She spells it out carefully, pronouncing the last letter as if it were followed by a question mark. The judge indicates approval, and the young lady lets out an excited “Yes!” For a brief moment, it could be a scene from a grade-school spelling bee. That is, until you notice the safety pins holding the contestant’s black-and-white shirt together, or until you remember she is a professional porn photographer.
Welcome to the bi-weekly spelling bee at Pete’s Candy Store, a hip yet homely bar on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border. The porn photographer is competing against 14 other adults, all wearing numbered paper plates around their necks and reveling in the camaraderie that comes with risking humiliation onstage.
I sit at a small candlelit table in the back room, glad to be out of the fray. Once upon a time, I took spelling very seriously. I used to rise before dawn to study roots and word lists. In 1997, when I was 13, I won the National Spelling Bee championship. Now, I sit back and watch.
At Pete’s, the contestants come to the stage and, one after another, tackle words borrowed from the National Spelling Bee. The prizes are a small bar tab and an invitation to compete in the finals in October. It’s not the $22,000 in cash and $5,000 in scholarship money won by this year’s Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee champion, or the $5,000 I received, but it’s apparently incentive enough.
Spelling bees, once the province of preteens, are all the rage among adults. One need only recall the wild popularity of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Even ESPN has gotten in on the act, adding the National Spelling Bee to its broadcast schedule alongside big-league baseball and auto racing. And why not? Spelling bees have all the elements of a spectator sport: competition, drama, suspense, and performance.
Yes, performance. All spelling bees can be viewed as performance acts, offering a stage for contestants to showcase their unique personalities. Each contestant walks to the microphone in a different way, spells words at a different pace and in a different intonation, asks different questions, and reacts differently to losing or winning. Confronted with a difficult word, one of the top finishers at a recent National Spelling Bee asked, “Can I buy a vowel?” But in the end, you have to spell the word to continue on. And there’s only one way to spell a word.
At Pete’s, it’s three strikes and you’re out, a rule that allows everyone to remain in the contest for at least a while. It’s only later that the ranks start to thin, with words like “pharisaical” (hypocritically self-righteous) and “mucilaginous” (sticky). A defending champion makes his third slip on “oscillatory” (going back and forth) and walks slowly offstage. But it’s all in good fun. “I have to remember, we’re a bunch of adults having a spelling bee in a bar,” says co-host Jen Dziura, a comedian who emcees the event with mariachi singer Bobby Blue. “We have to keep the love going.”
In the National Spelling Bee the vanquished are escorted, one by one, to a room where they can drown their sorrows in cookies and lemonade. By the end of the second day, only a few are left. The year I won, the National Spelling Bee ran far longer than anyone had predicted because Prem Murthy Trivedi, a speller from the Jersey shore, and I held on, spelling words such as “phylactery” (small Jewish prayer boxes) and “niello” (a black metallic alloy). Then Prem slipped on “cortile” (an internal courtyard) and there came a moment of ecstatic disbelief as I spelled my winning word, “euonym” (an apt name). I was handed the champion’s trophy, surrounded by more microphones than I could count, and invited to a whirlwind of interviews, television appearances, charity benefits, and awards ceremonies with local politicians.
Back at the bar there are no TV cameras, just a small group of spectators nursing beers and awaiting a victor. Finally Jonathan, an art librarian, wins on “cochleariform” (spoon-shaped). It’s not his first time winning at Pete’s. But when he was a child, things didn’t go quite as well. In sixth grade, he confides to me, he “got out on ‘earth.’” Now, things are different. “I read a lot, I do the crossword puzzle every week,” he says. ”I have a burning desire to win, avenge my youth.”
Rebecca Sealfon is a recent graduate of Princeton University. She was the 1997 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee champion.