Friday, September 30, 2005

The Night Life of Bees


THERE are 18 precious days until the spelling bee final, and Josh Malamy will not waste a single one. He is boning up on Latin and Greek roots and studying the 794 pages of Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists on Among the obscure words he recently memorized were "chrysochlorous" (a greenish-gold color) and "choumoellier" (an Australian vegetable). He is reluctant to share another for fear of giving his competitors an edge.

If the spelling bee final on Oct. 17 is anything like the twice-monthly bees that have preceded it, the room will be packed. The air will be warm and thick with anticipation, not to mention the smell of beer. After all, Mr. Malamy is 23 and will not be showing off his spelling prowess beneath the blazing lights of an elementary school auditorium. Rather, he will be in a dim, terra-cotta-colored room with touches of brass and wood, at Pete's Candy Store, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. About 15 people who have won previous bees over the last several months - including a doctor whom Mr. Malamy considers his toughest competitor - will vie for cash, prizes and bragging rights at the Williamsburg Spelling Bee Finals.

Spellings bees, for generations the province of the under-12 set with braces, have acquired a cultural prominence in recent years that is winning them adult attention and the kind of participants who might otherwise be found at downtown art gallery openings or indie rock concerts. The new focus on bees began in 2000 with the publication of Myla Goldberg's widely read novel, "Bee Season." It continued with the release in 2002 of "Spellbound," the Academy Award-nominated documentary, and in April the acclaimed musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" transferred to Broadway. On Oct. 2 there will be a one-night-only "adult performance" with mature material and politically incorrect humor. Perhaps the last time that spelling bees received this much attention was in 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle added an "e" to "potato" during a bee at Luis Munoz-Rivera Elementary School in Trenton.

Adult-only spelling bees, born of nostalgia and spiked with alcohol, have become increasingly popular social activities for brainy hipsters in their 20's and 30's at bars and community centers from Brooklyn to Spokane, Wash. Gone are the days when the sole opportunity to demonstrate one's spelling aptitude was in school. A new kind of bee has emerged, one where participants tackle baffling words between flirty smiles and sips of Yuengling.

While challenging, the bees are decidedly less anxiety provoking than their school counterparts. Occurring well after sunset, adult bees are more like unscripted cabaret shows than cutthroat competitions. "Spelling bees for kids are kind of cruel," said Jennifer Dziura, 26, a comedian and an M.C. of the bee at Pete's Candy Store, which takes place every other Monday. "We have three strikes and you're out, and moral support applause." At a monthly bee at Freddy's Bar & Backroom in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, people occasionally receive cookies when they are eliminated because of an unusually difficult word.

Some spellers, haunted by mistakes made during childhood bees, participate to settle old scores. Others, former spelling champions, wish to relive their glory days. Yet most people go for the cold drinks and the inevitable laughs derived from watching a person who is tipsy try to spell trichotillomania. (The compulsion to tear or pluck out the hair on one's head and face.)

Karl Steel, 35, a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Columbia from the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, admitted to being a poor speller, yet he readily enters nearly all of the bees at Freddy's. "There's a lot of shared misery," Mr. Steel said. "I've never won, and I'm never going to win. It's taking claim of your inabilities."

His girlfriend, Alison Kinney, 30, has proven to be a better speller. An administrator at the New York University School of Law, she has won the bee at Freddy's more than once. "A lot of recovered high school geek behavior is coming out," she said. "It's appealing because it's a kind of structured way to be with your friends that isn't just sitting around a bar and talking."

Mr. Malamy, who grew up in Brooklyn and who said he returned to New York from Chicago in July after his partner dumped him, began attending bees at Pete's Candy Store this summer. He enjoyed himself so much that he decided to stay in Brooklyn instead of moving to Ithaca as he had planned. "You can drink and spell," he said. "The place is gorgeous. You feel like you're in the middle of a ship out on the ocean."

In April Maria Luisa Gambale, 32, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, won the first Williamsburg Spelling Bee, receiving a museum membership for two, $200 and other goodies.

Yet the fundamental attraction of adult bees has little to do with prizes, participants say. What it really comes down to is nostalgia. It is "kind of like going back to junior high with better clothes and hair," Ms. Dziura said.

Zac Kushner, 28, the coordinator of recreational programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center on the Upper West Side said: "You remember being in a spelling bee in fourth grade and how crazy it was and how scary it was. To do it as an adult with an open bar, it's a lot of fun."

Josh Reynolds, 31, who created the monthly spelling bee at Freddy's after seeing "Spellbound," remembers being eliminated from a childhood bee for spelling the world "climb" incorrectly. "I spelled it c-l-i-m-e," he said. "It resonates with people. Everyone has a spelling bee story."

But the new bees are labeled adult for a reason. This past summer, at Makor's first adult-only bee, there was an open beer and wine bar, and competitors spelled words from categories like "Things That Are Uncomfortable," which included phrases like "steel wool brassiere" and "poison ivy cravat." At the B-Side bar in Spokane, which had its first adult spelling bee a few months ago, contestants had to spell bar-related words like "Kahlúa." During an ice-breaker round of questions before a Williamsburg Spelling Bee, Tom Guiney of Fort Greene was asked, "If you could have sex with Courtney Love and no one had to know about it, would you?" (He said yes, but has since reconsidered.) "It's definitely for a grown up audience," said Mr. Guiney, 31.

For those in search of romance, the bees are a welcome alternative to happy hours and online dating. Mr. Guiney, a former citywide spelling bee champion in Boston, dated two young women he met at the Williamsburg bee, one of whom is Ms. Dziura. "The whole place is really dark," he said. "It's mood lighting. It's dim and warm, and having just gone through a spelling bee with someone, you have something to talk about. It provides people with an in."

Ms. Dziura said, "He was a winner of the spelling bee, so I took notice." They dated for seven months, but it was not meant to, er, be.

Whether people compete or simply observe, spelling bees are bringing the places new business. "We're always trying to reach different demographics and reintroduce the bar to different people," said Ben Carter, 30, the owner of B-Side, which plans to hold bees every couple of months. "It engages a different part of ourselves which is kind of fun." Mr. Kushner of Makor said that "after the event people lingered and just hung out, and to me that's a successful evening."

At many adult bees, participants may ask for a definition of the word they must spell. Competitors drink, though rarely do so to the point of being out of control. After all, people play to win. For Mr. Malamy, the summer was tinged with heartache after the breakup of his relationship. Attending the spelling bees was, as he put it, an outlet for his passions. "It definitely made me a happier guy this summer," he said. And as the season changed, so did his luck.

On Sept. 19 Mr. Malamy brought his mother and his aunt to a Monday night bee at Pete's Candy Store and won first place. He took home a chit worth $25 at the bar, which he used at a later date to purchase Ginger Sours. (The second-place finisher received a $15 chit; the person who placed third was awarded a panini.)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Malamy and his ex decided to begin seeing each other again, and next week Mr. Malamy will move back to Chicago. But that will not keep him from the spelling bee final; he has made arrangements to return to New York next month to compete. He is hoping his ex will also come and will watch him triumph. "If not," said Mr. Malamy, who plans to start up a bee in his new hometown, "I know somebody will be cheering for me in Chicago."


  1. so this is or is not based on the jack in the box ad for ciabatta? 'cee eye aye bee aya double tee aye. ciabbata. peace out'

    My first reaction to this article was: 'oh, my god.' Then I realized how vapid and limited 'bar-fare' is, and how nerdy, obnoxious and voluble I and other nerdsters are when drunk. Suddenly, my reaction was 'gootness! what a grate idea!'...........

    My spelling bee story is sad, something involving the classic i/e inversion (was there a 'c' involved? give me no flashbacks)..... I didn't even attend the school final.

    Giv'n that I cunsidder myse'f a pretee gud spellar, it wuz kwite the letdoune, but thatz wy god kreeatid hyoomiliteee (er jumbalya, eye'm not shere witch.......)

  2. I haven't seen that commercial. They have JITB in Charlotte, but that's two TV markets away.

    It make sense to have spelling in bars. I can't believe I just typed that :-) But really it does make sense for the reasons you said and more. I know one of the more fun parts of going to Buffalo Wild Wings, by default my favorite bar, is playing the trivia game. Why not spelling?

    I'll bet you are an excellent speller and probably would have been queen of the bee were it not for that god-awful vowel placement that English-speakers are stuck with. In French and other Romantic languages, you have a verb or noun that handles most uses of a term, but not in English.

    Mais, je suis mal a la tete

    That's a French brain fart, folks. Four years of study and that's mostly what I'm left with :-)

    Anyway, I feel your pain. I was an exceptional speller, but a horrible studier. I'd like to think that I could have gone all the way to State Finals if I had actually studied those words they gave me in the book. "Three's Company" seemed more interesting at the time. Instead, I was second-runner-up in the elementary school, losing to Travis Thorp, our school's other braniac.

    On the heels of this comes the news that my 30-something friend Ken is participating in a charity spelling bee, representing his company to get money for Literacy Volunteers. The spelling thing has literaly come back from pre-teen O-B-S-C-U-R-I-T-Y.

  3. I think I should have double b'd when I double t'd.....see how unworthy I am for the finals and your empathy?

    I really hope you eventually catch this ad. You'll love little stevie's stall tactic.......

    I think of je suis mal a la tete as meaning: 'crazy,' 'having headache' or the ever popular 'I must get to the mall, for it is on my mind.'

    Okay: 'Three's Company?' The insane amount of respect for you I harbored up until this moment just went down the see are aya pee pee eee are..........

  4. je suis mal a la tete: that's crazy of course. More like a "you so crazy" than "certified mental case" though the line is very thin at times.

    'Three's Company?' Yes, 'Three's Company!' It was on at 7:30 and it was funny. Looking back, that's all I could give it, but when you're 10 at the time, that's all it needs to be.