Sampiro would tell this story much better, but I’m afraid I’m stuck with it. Oh, and a quick thanks to the folks in this thread who gave me advice on what to see and do in 'Frisco! (Does anyone call it that anymore?)
Last weekend, I attended my brother’s college graduation in Palo Alto. I decided to stay in a hostel in San Francisco on Monday and have my brother join me Tuesday so I could take him out on the town.
Monday was my “neighborhood day.” I walked through Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf to buy Alcatraz tour tickets, took a streetcar, and walked through the Castro to Haight-Ashbury. I finally took a break in a rum bar in Haight-Ashbury that had $2 happy-hour specials. I got a bite to eat and a few drinks while I watched the Phillies beat the Yankees. A fellow sitting nearby made a comment sympathetic to the Yanks. “Actually,” I replied, “I live in Boston - I’m a Red Sox fan.” We nearly got in a fight before we realized that we could both agree to hate Johnny Damon; some things are universal.
I decided it was time to move on, maybe head back to the hostel. Naturally, as soon as I left, I realized that I should’ve used the bathroom first. I figured I’d stop in someplace else, get another drink and use their bathroom. The first place I stopped was dead - just three regulars talking with the bartender. The next place I passed was festooned with rainbows inside and out. Walking in, I noticed that the bartenders and almost all the clientele were male, but the atmosphere and the bartender were friendly, so I ordered a drink. I noticed a small sign behind the bar - in conjunction with the San Francisco production of the musical The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee, the bar was hosting a spelling bee of its own on Monday, June 19, grand prize: tickets to the show. I got the bartender’s attention.
“The spelling bee,” I said, “that’s tonight, yeah?”
I wouldn’t be able to use the tickets even if I won, because I was leaving dead early Wednesday morning, but it would be fun, so I decided to stick around.
A little while later, a tall, blond drag queen at the front of the bar turned on her microphone and announced that the bee was about to begin. Who wanted to be a contestant? I held back. After all, I was a mostly-straight woman in a gay men’s bar. It made me a bit shy.
“A female!” cried the M.C. “I’d like a female volunteer. Anyone?” I raised my hand.
“Yes, you! Come on up here! What’s your name?” I stood in line with the other four contestants, introduced myself and tried to gauge if I was really sober enough to spell. I figured I was at least sober enough for a spelling bee in a bar. A sixth volunteer was chosen, and the bee began.
The difficulty and nationality of the words belied the bee’s location. I think the first round had three obscure English words, two Spanish words and one word of Russian. Everyone got their word right, though, except for the sixth contestant. On round two, three more contestants were disqualified. That meant it was down to two of us. My word was something that sounded like “kumaluqua” and meant (IIRC) “an Eskimo word for a waterproof sheath made of seal gut.” Not knowing any Eskimo, I got it wrong. Fortunately, the other fellow got it wrong, too, so I wasn’t disqualified. After a little consultation with the rules, it was determined that if I spelled the next word right, I would win. That word was “crèche.” Asking for a definition, I confirmed that they did, in fact, mean “crèche” as in the little nativity sets that my mom collects.
“C-R-E-C-H-E,” I said.
“We have a winner!” cried the M.C.
A woman from the musical who was handing out prizes gave me a cast CD soundtrack, a t-shirt, and her card.
She said, "You can get tickets for any day this week. Call me tomorrow and let me know . . . "
“Two tickets?” I asked.
“Actually, my brother’s coming in to town tomorrow, and I’d like to take him.”
“Oh, that’s great! In that case, here’s the address, be sure to pick up your tickets before 7:30.”
The next evening, I met my brother at the CalTrain station. We picked up the tickets and walked down the street to ogle wares at the Union Square Williams-Sonoma until seating opened. As we walked in, a young woman with a clipboard asked if either of us would like to volunteer to be a spelling bee contestant. A little encouragement from my brother convinced me. The woman took down a few pieces of information about me and sent me over to a screening table. All the volunteer contestants waited in line; we were interviewed in groups of three or four, and then told that only four volunteers would be selected to participate, and we should wait nearby to hear if our names were called. To my surprise, I was one of the four selected. Apparently, they were screening for people who answered honestly and wouldn’t try to steal the show once they were onstage. So telling the screener that I wouldn’t’ve come to the show if I hadn’t won the tickets was the right answer. So I guess honesty is, occasionally, rewarded.
Being an audience contestant meant that I got to see a surprising amount of the show - maybe 1/4? - from onstage. I sat amongst the cast-member spellers, who did a very good job of whispering or just taking me by the arm to direct me to sit, stand, walk over here, jump up and down, etc. The play was excellent, and eventually I was the last audience member left onstage. I was called up and given the word “catterjunes.” When I asked for a definition, I was told that it was a made-up Nantucket fisherman’s word. Sentence: “The Leviathan rages towards us- catterjunes!” Nonetheless, it’s completely phonetic, so I spelled it right and sat back down amongst the cast. They all turned and stared at me quite disconcertingly. One of them said quietly, “How did you know that?” I wanted to answer, “I’m from Boston,” but I wasn’t sure if his mike would pick that up and it was, after all, the Putnam County spelling bee, so I just said, “It’s a secret.” He gave me a really dirty look. I was called back up right away to spell lysergic acid diethylamide (i.e. LSD). I concentrated really hard, but only got as far as spelling lysergic with a u instead of an e before they rang the bell and I was disqualified. Oh well, I got a nice song sung to me. And a juice box.